Recently, Racines NY in TriBeCa made a little headline when it announced that it was bringing in Paul Liebrandt, a chef known for his avant-garde style to French food who made his name at Corton and then The Elm in Brooklyn (both now shuttered), was taking over as an executive chef to replace disgraced chef Eric Korsh (fired for sexual misconduct allegations, sounds familiar?). I had visited both Corton and The Elm before; while Corton was a little bit too high-concept for my taste, I did enjoy my meal at The Elm for elevating modern French food to another level. Once I heard the news, I was very intrigued and asked a friend who is a chef and his wife to join me and my wife Jun to check out what chef Liebrandt was up to in the kitchen for the first time in several years. While there were some brilliant dishes, we all agreed that his comeback, however long it lasts (Racines noted that he is supposed to stay until the end of May), needs some work.
Chef Liebrandt’s kitchen offers a five-course tasting menu at $90, which if the food is great would’ve been an incredible bargain. I was certainly very optimistic after tasting the first course, an amazing combination of lightly touched kampachi wrapped in daikon and accompanied by caviar. It had the understated elegance that you often see in refined Japanese cuisines, and I thought the flavor and texture combination was quite impeccable, and there was no disagreement among the four of us that it was a stunning dish. Unfortunately, things started to go downhill in subsequent dishes. Jun and I thought the razor clam and peekytoe crab wrapped in a cabbage that came as a second course was nicely done, but our chef friend complained that neither the clam nor the crab was fresh.
All of us agreed, however, that the third course, turbot that sits on top of comte gnocchi and peas, was very disappointing, knowing that turbot is often associated with a high-quality, expensive fish. The temperature of the fish was quite off and its texture on the murky side that I had to wonder whether someone at the kitchen made a mistake in preparing this dish. The final savory course of aged duck with white asparagus was equally underwhelming. Jun, ever a duck aficionado, always prefers the meat done in medium rare, creating a juicy and chewy texture to give maximum pleasure to her palate. I don’t know what happened, but the duck breast that came (following an impressive presentation of the entire plate of whole duck) lacked the same textural robustness. At the end of the meal came what the menu called “pure chocolate”; it was a cold chunk of chocolate ganache that was simply too uninteresting and led us to wonder whether the kitchen was just storing these chunks hours before the dinner started.
Despite all the fanfare about chef Liebrandt’s comeback, the restaurant was not as fully packed as we had expected, although it got better over time during our meal. Racines had long been known as one of the go-to restaurants for a diverse selection of natural wines (which are not to my or Jun’s taste), so if you are interested in trying some funky varieties, by all means try a glass or two. I had visited Racines around three years ago, and the restaurant still maintains the same neighborhood feel of a typical TriBeCa bistro that I remembered. Lately, I have been trying to go to more of these pop-up style restaurants where well-known chefs are involved. While some events (read Chefs Club) have been quite memorable, others were mixed, proving my theory that it is not just the chef’s name that matters but what his or her kitchen actually does in sourcing ingredients, putting together a coherent theme and then finally executing with consistency and attention to detail. I don’t know what chef Liebrandt had been doing over time and how his culinary philosophy had developed during his absence from public restaurants, but I certainly expected better from his new gig.
KenScale: 7.5/10 (Jun’s Score: 7.25/10)
- Creativity: 8.0/10
- Execution: 7.0/10
- Ingredients: 7.5/10
- Flavor: 8.0/1
- Texture: 7.0/10
- Value: 7.0/10
Address: 94 Chambers Street, New York, NY 10007
Telephone: (212) 227-3400