My old boss and good friend Drew Nieporent owns the wonderful restaurant Corton in Tribeca (Drew also owns Nobu & Tribeca Grill and other great establishments). Gourmands in the know remember Corton as the famed restaurant Montrachet. Drew operated Montrachet for some 21 years on a quiet stretch of West Broadway in New York City. Stories abound about Montrachet and more NYC Chefs got their starts and scars right here than any other New York establishment. Visiting Drew at Corton made me remember my own favorite Montrachet experience… eating Ortolan.
One late Thursday night Drew called regarding lunch at Monrachet. Mario Batali had a hernia operation and couldn’t make it and Bobby Flay was out of town. Being number three on the list, Drew contacted me and said to be at Montrachet at 1pm the next day to partake in the eating of Ortolan - Small Sparrows or buntings that migrate from Europe and Scandinavia to Tropical Africa. My dining companions would be Drew and Ruth Reichl (Former NY Times food Critic and former Editor in Chief of Gourmet Magazine).
Eating Ortolan is illegal. The small birds are captured in nets, fattened on millet, figs and foie gras and then soaked in Armagnac. The Ortolan is then roasted whole (sans feathers) with truffles and salt and you eat everything else…head, bones, innards, ass and feet.
Traditionally you cover your head with a napkin as you eat the tiny bird. Some say this captures the true aroma and allows for sensory overload as you slurp and chew. Another claims that you’re covering your face in shame for partaking in something so taboo. I felt a little bad and nervous about eating this whole creature, but with my head covered and a pang in my stomach we proceeded to feast.
The bird explodes with flavor as you take the first bite and hear the first crunch. Warm juices flow over your tongue as you ooh and ahh and hear your neighbors do the same. You can’t really see anything, and this certainly heightens the experience as your able to hear your inner chewing, take in the olfactory vapors and steam/slurp up all the inner gelatinous bits of this poultricious squab, quail and roast chicken-like thing. The hood truly makes for a wonderful dining experience and I wonder why we don’t eat like this more often. My suggestion—call a few friends, roast something fun and dangerous, cover your head with a serviette and go to town. Trust me, you’ll have a blast.
We loved the ortolan, its like we sinned and it felt great – to sin again.
And we drank some fantastic wines - 1999 Roulot “Meix Cahvaux” Meursault and 1989 Chateau Lynch-Bages, Pauillac Bordeaux. It was great speaking with Ruth as this was the first time I met her. We spoke of politics, the ethics and nature of cooking honestly and earnestly, Peter Kaminsky’s relevant book “Pig Perfect” and the importance of agriculture and social responsibility. I hope to have lunch with her again someday as I admire her tremendously and feel these topics are even more important at present.
One other note, as we were eating Drew’s phone rang and it was Jeffrey Steingarten calling:
Drew — “I can’t talk right now Jeffery, I have an Ortolan in my mouth”.
Coincidentally, his cell phone ring was the sound of a bird chirping.
(double click the ortolan above for video link)