[We made the trek from Chicago to NYC for a major birthday. My wife, the Lovely Dining Companion, managed to set us up with dinner at Kajitsu and here. We loved both dinners and I thought I'd post our take on Eleven Madison Park. Kajitsu to be added later.]
How did our dinner at Daniel Humm’s establishment go? In a word, swimmingly. A great dinner. Not the best I've ever had but probably in the top five.
Where we were going was kept a secret from me right up until the end. The cab dropped us off at 23rd and Madison Avenue. We start to walk up Madison Avenue by Madison Square Park (the street was closed for some private event that had just ended) and I still have no idea where we’re going (largely because my New York IQ is limited to broad geographic notions). Then, the LDC stops after a block and says, “We’re here.” I look up and see nothing in front of us save a massive edifice with multiple Credit Suisse plaques. A bank? We’re eating dinner at a bank? This is the big surprise? Oy. I won’t tell you what kind of visions are racing through my head at this point. Of course, I am standing in the exact, perfect, wrong spot because, from where I am, it is impossible to see anything but signs for Credit Suisse. So I walk another step and, behold: the clouds part, the single shaft of light shines forth and the sign appears: a front door with a none-too-subtle large gold (okay, extremely highly polished brass) sign above the door: “ELEVEN MADISON PARK.”
We walk in (it’s a trifle before 5:30 which is a good thing since we’ll be spending four hours there) and are met by Ramsey who, it turns out, dealt with LDC over the telephone. There are already about half a dozen tables hard at it, not to mention the children’s birthday party in the private room upstairs with a glass wall so we can spy on each other. We chat with Ramsey for about five minutes covering everything from Chef Achatz’s imminent arrival in NYC for the 21st Century Limited collaboration to our experiences at Alinea to what’s in store this evening. He’s warm and friendly and puts us in a welcoming mode for our experience.
We’re seated by a young woman who turns out to be the only robot of the evening: precise, correct, exact, and with all the warmth and friendliness of an ice bath. Oh well.
Still, we’re seated by the Madison Avenue wall under thirty-foot high windows and, as the sun hasn’t quite set, the light is spectacular. (Nice help for the pics, too; sadly, the sun did eventually set and the very subdued lighting began to take its toll….)
Tucked discreetly under the napkin is the introduction: a large square card with four lines of four items each. Each line represents a course and you choose from four items. The intention, which I find pleasing, is that over the course of the tasting menu, they think you ought to have some input into what you’ll receive. Needless to say, dinner is much more than four courses. Between the amuse(s) and other selections made by the kitchen, we end up with fourteen courses. But your choices are entirely yours and set the parameters, in some ways, for what follows.
As it happens, we were extremely fortunate to have a special choice for the entrée (the third line): Muscovy duck. Much as we were tempted by the other choices, the LDC had read—and it made eminent sense—that if duck was offered, you get the duck. So we did.
The theme for this iteration of the menu is New York City and, as you will see, many of the courses tie directly to culinary classics identified with the city. (The change, which some have said isn’t all that significant, was part of a larger series of changes that took effect after Labor Day.)
The amuse comes boxed and wrapped in string like the gift that it is: two tiny black and white cookies. So how could it hurt that we had started the morning at Russ & Daughters and bought, among other goodies, an oversized black and white cookie? But this version is savory: black truffles and parmesan cheese. Now that is an appetizer! Not much to say or need be said. The conceit is clever and succeeds easily. A positively wonderful introduction, whimsy and humor being a part of much of what will follow.
Tomato gelee with tarragon and gooseberries
Aspic/gelee far too often is a setting. Literally. But this gelee had an intensity of flavor that zapped your palate and awakened any taste buds drowsed into submission by the opener. It maintained a powerful tomato-ey flavor without compromising on the acid. The tarragon complemented as expected and the gooseberries added both a terrific snap, a burst of sweetness, and a great match for the rest of the dish. I loved this dish and while I completely understand placing where it came in the order, it would have been possibly even more welcome later on. A gem of a dish.
Cucumber snow with lapsang souchang-infused broth and grape
Truth be told, I did not eagerly anticipate this; not a great cucumber fan, was unhappy with the cucumber at Paris 1906, and the notion of cucumber snow just didn’t do anything for me. All that said, this was truly lovely. The smokiness of the lapsang souchang came through and complemented the cucumber far better than I might have expected. The sweetness of the grape, too, worked surprisingly (to me) well and the whole dish had a depth of flavor that any less-than-perfectly-created “snow” can have. Unless there’s enough intensity in the flavor, you risk having a mouthful of snow melt and water everything down, diminishing the flavor and weakening the dish. Not so here: the freshness, the crispness, the flavor of cucumber came through and a course I figured I’d just have to suffer through turned out to be positively energizing.
Swiss chard “cracker” with eel and foie gras
Fine in its way but there simply wasn’t so much there. The eel was surprisingly subtle (almost said “bland” there for a sec). The foie and dehydrated Swiss chard just didn’t add much to the bite and so, all in all, a disappointment, at least for us.
Smoked sturgeon sabayon with chive oil
Ethereal…impossibly rich…no, unctuous…with perfect brunoise of sturgeon on the bottom. Just how rich and heavy (in the best possible way) this was is evidenced by the fact that the chive oil sank to the bottom, along with the fish. Superb.
Reeling from this dish and wondering what could possibly top it we came to what might just have been the hit of the evening. The server comes to the table and sets down a bell jar so filled with smoke it’s impossible to see a thing inside. He walks away, cautioning only: “Don’t touch a thing.” Minutes pass. Whole universes are born and die. The smoke very slowly condenses revealing a grill topped with four slices of sturgeon atop smoking applewood chips. Hmmm…a little reminiscent of, oh, never mind. But the course is another homage to New York City, so you get
a crumbled sand of all the seeds and things you’d find on an “everything” bagel strewn over a tiny head of lettuce accompanied by a halved quail egg. The tin of caviar has been emptied and refilled with cream cheese and a thin layer of caviar laid carefully atop it. Spread the cream cheese and caviar, top with the smoked sturgeon and accompaniments of your choice (though pickles do seem odd to my way of thinking). Divine.
One of the best breads we can recall having in a very long while. Our joint recollection is that it was a multigrain bread made like a croissant…buttery, rich, flaky, and warm. Cow’s milk and goat’s milk butters; sea salt. Our only regret: no other fresh breads were on offer and the restaurant seemed ever so slightly reluctant to refill our plates after we inhaled the first offering. Eventually, we were asked if we’d like more bread. Note to Eleven Madison Park: if anyone ever says “no,” you call me. I’ll fly back to have your bread.
Langoustine with fennel, sour cherries, and clam
This course exemplified one of our final thoughts on Eleven Madison Park. And the difference between the LDC and me. Beautiful presentation, superb execution, but—in the end—not as…challenging (it’s the best word we can find) as, say, Alinea. For those who aren’t entirely comfortable with some of the challenges that a course at Alinea might present, Eleven Madison Park is exactly what you’re looking for. For that reason, I think LDC loves it a trifle more and I love Alinea a trifle more. To the course: absolutely nothing to complain about. Beautifully cooked, wonderful accompaniments, lovingly plated and delicious to eat.
Seared foie gras with water chestnuts, dates, and sunchokes
I was somewhat taken aback, having chosen the foie, to be asked whether I preferred it to be served cold (as a torchon) or seared. But I happily chose the latter and loved what came. As noted in the immediately preceding paragraph, I didn’t find it as…challenging…as I might have liked, but would probably also concede that it may be the single best foie course I’ve ever had.
Carrot tartare with rye bread and condiments
First, the presentation. Years ago, a restaurant reviewer in Chicago (James Ward) rated restaurants according to “bread” (how was the food?) and “circuses” (everything else). Well, this course began with what Mr. Ward would have described as “circuses.” As presentations go, it was a lot of fun and informative. A white-coated sous chef came to the table, clamped on an old-fashioned meat grinder and walked away. Shortly thereafter, a server brought two large wooden boards topped with two small squeeze bottles and nine tiny saucers each containing a different condiment of some sort and a toast caddy with two slices of very thinly sliced rye bread melba toasts.
Five minutes later the sous chef returned grasping some large poached carrots by the scruff of the neck. She talked to us about heirloom carrots, the provenance of our course, and what was about to happen to the soon-to-be ex-carrots. Fascinating and inventive; maybe the most flavorful carrot we’ve ever eaten. But, in the end, we both found it just didn’t work for either of us. It seemed a little bit too contrived and nine condiments and two little squeeze bottles to “dress” the concoction are simply too much. You lose your way when there are that many things. And there isn’t enough carrot—or, perhaps, more accurately, enough time and inclination to sit there and play with all the various combinations that might work. I can easily see spending a good little while experimenting with the various items but there aren’t enough of any of them, unless you mix each little saucer with the relatively tiny amount of carrot not to overwhelm the condiment. So, I did what I suspect some (many?) diners do: I divided my carrot tartare in half, dressed one half with the carrot emulsion and one half with mustard oil and then divided each condiment in half and dumped half of all of them in each carrot pile. And so didn’t end up with much. Flavorful as the carrots themselves were, the course just didn’t do much for us. We enjoyed the theater more than the dish itself. There’s potential here, but as it stands the presentation demands too much of a diner who’s already six courses in and well past the shallow end. At that point, I can’t decide which combination of two sauces and nine condiments will work best with the carrots….
Poached lobster with escarole and almond
As I noted about the langoustine, there is nothing to quibble with about this course: top quality, beautifully cooked, wonderful accompaniments, lovingly plated and delicious to eat. Our question—and it’s intentionally phrased as a question, not a criticism—is, how is this in any way groundbreaking? There are certainly other, possibly a number of other, places to get lobster poached in butter. As superb as it is, why?
Poached tilefish with turnip, radish, and dill
For better or worse, my reaction to this was pretty much the same as the LDC’s reaction to the langoustine and the lobster: top quality, beautifully cooked, wonderful accompaniments, lovingly plated and delicious to eat. And yet, nothing about this course was unusual—not unusually creative or groundbreaking or unexpected.
Muscovy duck roasted with lavender and honey, apple, and quinoa
Adam Smith wheeled a cart over to our table and introduced himself as a dining room manager. Then he introduced us to our duck, sporting a large spray of lavender. Again, warm and friendly and chatty, and he gave us a careful yet thorough explanation of what, how, and why; though Pete Wells (who apparently ate one lunch there) whined in the New York Times about the restaurant overdoing such explanations, to our minds, this was well worth it. We appreciated the full explanation and the chance to ask questions of someone who was with us for a while and clearly passionate about what he was doing. Our only dismay with this course was at the relative amount of “waste” represented by the carcass that gets carted away. (He explained that they tried using the rather substantial leftovers for stock, etc., and why that didn’t work out.)
With that as prelude, what remained is close to ducky perfection. (I reserve absolute ducky perfection for "Paris 1906" at Next (in Chicago) which, to my mind is virtually impossible to conceive ever being bested.) Cracklingly crisp skin, just enough fat to ensure very moist duck and plenty of flavor, and meat cooked to precisely the right point.
Greensward (picnic) with pretzel, mustard, craft beer, and cheese
As noted above, this iteration of the menu focuses on New York City and now a picnic in the park comes to the table, complete with a bottle of Picnic Basket Ale a pale wheat ale created for Eleven Madison Park by the Ithaca Beer Company. The picnic basket has a little checked cloth, cutlery, the wonderful bottle of ale, some lovely cheese (a locally made washed-rind cheese—washed with this same ale, of course—whose name escapes me but is reminiscent of brie), a killer soft pretzel, very tangy plum mustard, and crisp, cool, sweet red grapes. Lovely idea lovingly executed.
Egg cream with vanilla and seltzer
What is more quintessentially New York than an egg cream, especially one made at the table with an old-fashioned heavy glass seltzer bottle? Yummy and a nice break from the relentless march of food. Indeed, were sweetness not a (conceivable) issue, it would have been even better received a few courses earlier.
By now we’ve been here well over three hours and the experience, the excitement, the food, everything is starting to take its toll. So it was a surprise and a treat when a young man walked up, introduced himself as a maitre d’ and asked if we’d like to stretch our legs and see the kitchen. We considered and debated his kind proposition and, after an appropriate delay of three seconds, accepted his offer. Again, a warm, interesting guy and we had a very interesting talk about the restaurant, what they are doing and where they hope to be going.
No sooner do we arrive in the spotless, gleaming kitchen than the chef de cuisine greets us heartily and asks how we like the food. We allow as how we’re managing and looking forward to what is still to come. (On the fwiw front: we never saw Humm, either in the dining room or during our five-ten minute visit to the kitchen.) The kitchen puts me in mind of the kitchens at both Alinea and Moto for the age of the staff—not to mention the framed art and the mottos posted on the walls. Before we can even settle in, we hear a chef read a new order and the entire kitchen staff respond in unison—much like a football team in a huddle—“OUI!” This team shout occurs a few more times until I finally ask what it is and what it’s about. Every time a new order comes in, it’s called out and the team responds as one. It’s all about not only teamwork but enthusiasm, about “making it nice” (the phrase is emblazoned on a very large plaque and hangs prominently in the kitchen).
Then there’s the very large framed photo of a smiling (!) Miles Davis. More than mere art on the walls, it’s there for a special reason. It seems that in 2006, Moira Hodgson reviewed the restaurant for the New York Observer. She lauded the place highly but ended by repeating her companion’s suggestion that “the place needed a bit of Miles Davis.” (In fact, her very last sentence was downright prophetic: “But when word gets around about Daniel Humm, the only thing needed here is going to be hard to get: a reservation.”)
Thanks to the internet, we found this reaction from Will Guidara, the general manager: “’We had no idea what that meant,’” Guidara says, laughing, ‘but we started to listen to a lot of Miles and read about him.’ They made a list of words to define Davis’ music – “cool,” “collaborative,” “fresh,” “vibrant,” “spontaneous” – and hung them, along with a photograph of the musician, in the restaurant’s kitchen.” I had noticed the photograph and was taken with it simply as art, the more so since, as I commented, it’s one of the very few pictures ever taken of him where he’s unmistakably smiling—a lovely thing.
But we were here for a reason beyond the opportunity to see the kitchen and the staff at work. We were here for another little amuse, prepared in front of us with liquid nitrogen. Truthfully, I can’t report in much detail because we were a little distracted. We’re trying to look at and take in the entire kitchen (video link to come), listen to the maitre d’, watch and listen to the sous chef making the drink. I remember that it involved pomegranate syrup, alcohol (gin?), and, um, some other stuff. That the liquid nitrogen froze the alcohol solid (thanks, Das!), providing that little “scoop” of pomegranate-flavored "ice cream" on top, and that the drink was yummy. Don’t ask me any more.
Fig glazed with orange, sage, and tapioca
Pistachio ice cream with grape, golden raisin, and sauternes
Goat cheese cheesecake with huckleberry and lime
A general summary of the desserts would say something like we enjoyed them all quite a bit. The presentations, as is obvious, were attractive, the flavors intense and fresh, and the courses well-composed with careful thought as to complementary flavors and textures. By this point, truth to tell, there’s a little palate fatigue. Each truly was a lovely rendition though none were exceptional or something you couldn’t find at comparable place.
We also received a couple of large chocolate-covered pretzels. I’m not a big fan of chocolate-covered pretzels. But this put them on a whole other plane. These I could happily munch on until I explode. The perfect illustration of how/why salt can enhance sweet.
And now we came full circle because, in a penultimate bow to New York City, we received a box identical to the one that opened the dinner. This time the black and white cookies are the sweet version. I need only say that they can mail me cookies like this any day they wish. They were superb. Not quite “authentic” in that their version is a sandwich cookie with what appeared to be a very thin sheet of apricot paste in between. But oh so delicious.
Okay. The last item—which I will purposely not describe—was very small. It is also a nod to New York’s history, this time: three-card monte and card sharps. It (the food item) was my least favorite item of the evening, but who cares? Others have written at varying lengths about the card trick that precedes this last item. It’s clever, it’s fun, and I disagree with the naysayers: relax and enjoy it. If you like what follows, so much the better. But even if you don’t, you’ll have had so much fun with the prelude that it won’t matter.
Below is a list of a pairings. I appreciated the sommelier’s knowledge and willingness to chat but have two complaints. The first is not specific to him but a problem all sommeliers everywhere have, I guess. At the outset, the room is quiet and they can stand and chat. As the tables and room fill up, they spend less and less time until they’re there for ten seconds to fill the latest glass, describe it in ten words or less, and depart for the next table. Not sure what can be done, but I hate it every time. Second complaint is specific to him: even though we may know something about wine and appreciate good things, we’re not all wine geeks. Drop the jargon and speak to me in English, please. Otherwise, I enjoyed the service. For the first time in quite a while, I can honestly say there wasn’t a clinker in the group. I enjoyed most quite a bit, some more than others. Of special note for me were the
muscadet with the sturgeon, Clos Basté with the foie (I could have had d’Yquem for a $50 upcharge but was curious to see what he’d offer instead), the riesling with the carrots, and the Bordeaux (note the year).
Sturgeon: Domaine de l’Ecu, Granite, Muscadet Sevre et Maine, Loire Valley 2010
Foie Gras: Philippe Mur, Clos Basté, Pacherenc du Vic Bihl, Southwest 2010
Carrot: Hermann Wiemer Riesling, Magdalena, Seneca Lake NY 2010
Tilefish: Pichler-Krutzler Gruner Veltliner, Klostersatz, Wachau 2011
Duck: Chateau L’Avangile, Pomerol 1982
Picnic: Ithaca Beer Company, Picnic Basket Ale, Ithaca NY
Pistachio dessert: Kiralyudvar, Lapis, 6 Puttonyos, Tokaji 2003
As I alluded to at the outset, the LDC brought me to NYC and to Eleven Madison Park to celebrate a birthday. The house knew that. And unlike many places (who limit their enthusiasm to a printed wish on the “souvenir” menu), they went out of their way to acknowledge that. Not only was the sentiment enshrined on the menu, but there was a handwritten welcome and Happy Birthday” card waiting on the table. A number of staff wished me a happy birthday as well. But that was only a part of it. We walked away with hands filled with parting gifts—a deck of their own specially customized cards, a mason jar filled with granola, a stunner of a chocolate bar in its very own customized carrying case. Talk about leaving with a sweet taste in your mouth!
A comment on the staff. Absolutely terrific in their approachability, warmth, friendliness, and knowledge. In the course of our four hours and probably a dozen different staff people, I think there was one person who was a cold fish. Service was, by and large, absolutely impeccable.
A misstep: the LDC does not drink alcohol and the sommelier mentioned their non-alcoholic drink list. She ordered a ginger concoction that she loved. It was never refilled and no one ever bothered to ask whether she’d like another. It sat there, ice melting, over the course of multiple hours.
A complaint: I know what a turn is and have a reasonably good notion of the economics involved in running a restaurant. So I know why you need to turn a table. But don’t rush me, dammit! As long as dinner was, longer would have been enormously appreciated. Serving ware for the next course routinely appeared literally seconds after the previous course was cleared and the next course always followed immediately. The chance to digest—both literally and figuratively—was missing. Your economics are your problem and you can solve them however you wish, so long as the solution doesn’t affect our dinner experience. We don’t like being rushed and this ultimately detracted some from our enjoyment.
An observation: if the staff wants a drink, why don’t they take it in the kitchen? LDC saw a young man in a tie standing next to a serving station pull a glass from a drawer, pour himself some wine from an open bottle, and down it. In the dining room.
We have discussed our meal frequently and at some length. And needless to say, we’re agreed that we loved it. Comparing it with Alinea (inevitable for many reasons), we agreed that Alinea is more challenging and Eleven Madison Park is more straightforward, if those descriptors can be accepted at face value and without any suggestion that one is better than the other. It’s no wonder that they’re collaborating on the 21st Century Limited.
Sometimes, both the LDC and I have encountered a course at Alinea (or at an event where Chef Achatz is present) where our reaction has been, “I don’t get it.” “I don’t know what he’s trying to tell us, show us, accomplish.” And for that reason, we feel uninformed, left out. Which, of course, no one likes to feel. Let me be clear: we understand completely that that’s not what Chef Achatz is trying to do. We know that. But sometimes it happens. And that, in part, is what we mean by Alinea being more “challenging.” It’s a little easier to sit back and relax and enjoy Eleven Madison Park. You don’t have to “work” quite as hard, in a sense, as you do at Alinea.
Let me try this another way: my Dad is a meat-and-potatoes guy who, every once in a while, will surprise me. He’d be a little baffled at either Eleven Madison Park or Alinea, but at the end of the day, I think he’d find Eleven Madison Park more comprehensible, more recognizable, and more comfortable. Even though the courses are occasionally deconstructed, they are a bit more likely to be recognizable to him at Eleven Madison Park. The ingredients at Alinea also tend to be more off the beaten path; Humm’s genius, in part, is his ability to do marvelous things with more mainstream ingredients. Achatz is more experimental, more…curious? I suspect he has more toys in his office and his kitchen. This is not a knock on Humm. Merely a somewhat frustrating effort (because of my inarticulateness) to describe what we see as the differences.
Achatz is only two years older than Humm but he trained under Thomas Keller, a pretty inventive guy. I don’t know too much about Humm’s mentor, Gerard Rabaey. (He used to run a three-star restaurant in Montreux and, at least judging from a recent piece in the New Yorker had some, uh, quirks: he “rooted through the garbage to check for discard food” and had his chefs “standing on ladders to swab the corners of the ceilings with Q-tips” until three in the morning.). Maybe the difference is simply one of personality; maybe it’s a difference in approach and philosophy. I don’t know. Without knowing either of them personally, all we can do it guess. But the differences are undeniable.
THE SUMMATION, AT LAST
Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are enormously ambitious. They took over Eleven Madison Park (buying it from Danny Meyer after he refused to allow them to run a competing operation six minutes’ walk away) and raised it from #50 on the San Pellegrino “World’s 50 Best” list to #24 to, most recently, #10. There’s only one place to go. Meyer himself has said, “The ranking is very, very important to them.” They have cut costs ruthlessly (a necessary evil) while at the same time taking some pretty chutzpahdik (brash) moves, such as eliminating the $125 tasting and leaving diners a single option: the $195 tasting.
But in order to move up the list, a restaurant has to be more than just excellent and entertaining—it has to aim toward reinvention or groundbreaking cuisine (the current #1 is Noma; it displaced El Bulli). Was our dinner groundbreaking or thought-provoking? We don’t think so (carrot tartare notwithstanding). Did they take creative chances, put together flavors that worked in ways that you would never dream possible? Again, we don’t think so. But was it excellent and fun and worth the hassle of getting reservations and the expense? Absolutely.
New York has been getting a taste of Alinea this past week; those who have snagged places when Eleven Madison Park comes to Chicago are in for a treat, too. Humm is enormously talented. At 36, he’s still a youngster. It will be fascinating to see how he and Eleven Madison Park evolve. I only hope that our next trip to New York isn’t too far off and that when we return, we can manage to visit again.
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