Paul Liebrandt Revamps His Legendary Apple-Wasabi Palate Cleanser
“Almost everybody who ate that little morsel thought it was the best thing they ever tasted.”
– Former New York Times restaurant critic William Grimes, in the documentary A Matter of Taste: Paul Liebrandt
Anybody who’s followed Paul Liebrandt from his earliest days in New York will be familiar with the dish to which William Grimes refers in the above-quoted snippet from the recent HBO documentary.
During his brief tenure at Atlas restaurant, on Manhattan’s Central Park South, from late-summer 2000 until fall 2001, Paul introduced what might be the only “signature” palate cleanser in the annals of modern cuisine: his Apple-Wasabi Sorbet.
The genesis of the sorbet is described in detail in the book Paul and I are writing. (You can read a little about it at the top of this site’s book page.) Hailing as he did from the three-star dining temples of Europe, Paul found the notion of including a palate-cleansing sorbet on the menu appealing, but wanted to take it to the next level. For the sample chapter that was included in our book proposal, we penned a description of its genesis, in Paul’s voice, of course:
“It was a telling exercise in developing a dish instinctually that began with a combination that intrigued me: crisp, tart green apple and icy, hot wasabi. It was a satisfying sorbet, but I wanted it to have more of a presence in the meal, to linger on the palate. So I tuned to Moulin de Peneton olive oil from Provence (it actually has a slight hint of banana, what I think of as a greenness), and finished it off with a grain of Maldon sea salt, perched atop the sorbet like an ice flake. By the time the dish debuted on the menu, I had the idea of waiters finishing it at the table with a drizzle of the oil.”
For all of the attention it received at Atlas, once he left that restaurant, Paul never served the sorbet again. Not at Papillon, which made perfect sense. Not at Gilt, where it would have been right at home. And not at Corton. Until now.
Back in October, Paul debuted a new version of the sorbet, titled Apple-Wasabi 2012. That’s not a typo: He affixed the coming year to the dish as a sign of things to come.
“You need to be thinking of the future,” he told me.
“You mean like new car models?” I said.
“I like to think of it more as a fashion line.”
I kicked myself that Toqueland hadn’t re-launched yet, because I wanted to write about the sorbet and was sure somebody else would have picked up on it by the time I got this thing up and running.
But that never came to pass, so here’s the quick skinny on why this new version has re-appeared:
First of all, it’s worth noting why it disappeared. After Atlas, Paul retired the dish simply because he’d been there, done that. This is a running theme in his work and something I rather admire about him. There aren’t a lot of signature dishes on the menu at Corton because Paul—an astonishingly young 35 after all these years—is still finding himself in the kitchen and has no interest in standing still. The menu changes a lot at the restaurant, and Paul also prides himself on being able to improvise, something he reveres in his kitchen hero Pierre Gagnaire, whose picture is taped to a wall in the Corton kitchen. This caused some bumps early in the writing process because Paul doesn’t have a full inventory of all the dishes he’s ever served; he’s not terribly sentimental about them, so had to engage in some serious file-rummaging and brain-wracking to reconstruct many of them.
Back to the sorbet: Over the years, ideas came to Paul as to how he might update it, and in October, he finally decided to pull them all together in a new version. The current rendition, photographed above, is assembled to order as follows: Half a lime is positioned in a serving vessel on a bed of salt, topped with a piping of apple-wasabi sorbet, and the lime is frozen with an application of liquid nitrogen. (This is done à la minute during service, which makes for a dramatic moment whenever the time comes to plate a few of them. The smoke is also what caused the faint shadows over the dish in the picture above.) The sorbet is then adorned with smoked Maldon salt, frozen wasabi, bits of frozen sweet Palestinian lime, and—for a final, visual flourish—flecks of gold leaf …. more like fashion, indeed!
When I asked Paul to explain why he finally reinstated the sorbet in its new form, he refused to wax sentimental: “Why not?” came the answer.
He wasn’t being flip; that’s just the way things are with Paul. Dishes come and dishes go. There’s always another idea waiting to be tried out, honed, served, and then relegated to fond-memory status. As good as this sorbet is, don’t be surprised if it pulls another vanishing act.