If you've been following the thread on EMP's new format, you may remember that I was extremely skeptical about the new changes. My worries were based mostly on the fact that they chose to remove the 11-course Gourmand menu and only offer a 4-course option (although there's now a 5-course option). This weekend, I had the opportunity to try out the new format. I had actually made this reservation before learning of the changes, so I had expected this dinner to be yet another Gourmand menu feast.
Despite my skepticism, I vowed to go into the restaurant with an open mind and fairly evaluate the experience. I was not interested in basing my evaluation on how different the food/service/menu/format differed from my previous experiences, but simply on whether it was better, worse, or the same compared to before. Although I did not go in with a cynical or negative mindset, my expectations were rightfully set at the level of all my prior EMP meals: the Gourmand. Since they had already set the bar so high with the Gourmand, they would have to exceed this seemingly untouchable level of overall quality in order for me to see this as an improvement.
I’m thrilled to say that I was wrong. Dead wrong. This was one of the best meals I’ve ever had, and it blew my prior 11-course Gourmand menu experiences out of the water. I think I was justified in my skepticism—as long as I didn’t allow it to dictate my evaluation—but they proved me wrong. And this was one time I absolutely relished in being shown just how wrong I was.
Once we were seated, we discovered the menu folded in with the napkins. One of the first things I noticed was how much more spacious the dining room was due to the removal of so many seats. Our captain briefly explained the new concept, telling us that we would choose one core ingredient from each row for a 4-course menu, and for a 5-course menu we could select an additional ingredient from any row and they would bring it out where they thought it would fit in best. We ordered cocktails, were brought gougères, and decided on the 5-course menu. I chose langoustine, snapper, squab, beef, and chocolate; my dining companion chose foie gras, lobster, chicken, pork, and apple.
After ordering, Megan, the service director, came to our table to chat about the new menu format. She explained that they had noticed people were increasingly ordering tasting menus, and they had originally planned on switching to an all-tasting menu format. Long story short: they decided on the current format in order to please as many people as possible. For those who like total control, they can select their main ingredients, learn what will be in the dish, and remove any components they don’t like. For those who want some control, they can choose the main ingredients and not hear about the dish, or, if they’d like, hear more about how the dish will be prepared. For those who want no control, they can say they want either 4 or 5 courses and let the kitchen choose.
She also explained that this format allows them to have relationships with small farms and bring in small amounts of ingredients. With the prix fixe menu, the kitchen had to buy of Ingredient X for all possible orders of that dish, limiting the choices for what the ingredient could be. Now they can bring in small amounts of several ingredients, which are often hard-to-find or grown in small amounts, and use those throughout the night. When they run out of one of those ingredients, the dish will change and be made from a different ingredient.
Megan then offered to show us the kitchen and gave us an overview of all the changes. They removed almost 30% of the seats, moving from about 114 seats to 80 seats. The service stations on the floor have been removed and such work is now done in the new pantry area, which also houses the coffee station. I had no idea EMP takes coffee seriously! She told us about the new coffee program, and the equipment they have is outstanding. After seeing how much thought and effort goes into it, having coffee at EMP is a must! Finally, we moved on to the kitchen, which was also renovated and reorganized. We were led to a demo station where a chef began preparing a liquid nitrogen “cocktail,” which was a Concord grape whiskey sour. Chef Humm came over and chatted with us and helped prepare the cocktail. It was basically diluted whisky frozen with liquid nitrogen, which was then crushed into a powder. Concord grape foam was put into a ladle and also frozen. Pop rocks and white grape juice were also involved. This was a wonderful treat and a great experience!
When we returned to the table, we were brought fresh cocktails because ours “had gotten too diluted” while we were in the kitchen. I’m certainly not going to complain! Now for the meal. The new hors d'oeuvres make the old ones look like an amateur effort. Gone is the long plate of little bites and in is a progression of much more sophisticated, delicious, and substantial preparations. These are all brought out and explained by cooks, who obviously take delight in answering any questions about the preparations and ingredients. I really enjoy this interaction, and it’s great to talk to them about the dishes they were involved in creating and see their passion and excitement.
Hors d’oeuvres (most brought in duos):
1. (a) Tomato tea infused with lemon thyme. (b) Parmesan lavash, topped with piment d’espelette. Lovely way to start the meal. The tea was comforting, full of flavor, and aromatic, and the lavash added some nice crunch.
2. (a) Celery lollipops made with celery root ice cream, dipped in cocoa butter, and sprinkled with celery seeds. (b) Truffle marshmallows topped with porcini powder. Both were very good, but the celery lollipops were delicious! The texture was outstanding and the flavor was so clean and refreshing. The marshmallows were also quite good, and I liked these better than some of the previous savory marshmallows I’ve had here.
3. (a) Smoked Balik salmon with dill. (b) Hamachi crudo. I don’t remember all the details of what accompanied these, but both fishes were absolutely wonderful and full of flavor.
4. “Snow cone” made with snows of green apple, salted caramel, and foie gras. Very creative and very good. Each flavor was quite nice on its own, and all combinations were even better. The salted caramel had a wonderful bitterness that paired nicely with the foie gras.
5. Egg filled with smoked sturgeon sabayon with a pool of chive oil at the bottom. Baby gem lettuce topped with crème fraiche, smoked sturgeon, and caviar. Wow. That egg was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Ever. There are no words to describe how incredible those were.
These new hors d’oeuvres cannot even be compared to the old. These are much more substantial and felt like 5 tasting menu courses. Absolutely wonderful! The breads and butters came out next, and these were the same as usual, and were still very good.
Langoustine: Langoustine ceviche in a broth of celery root, apple, and lime. Beautiful dish. The sweetness and acidity of the broth really brought out the delicate flavor of the langoustine.
Foie gras: Foie gras mille feuille with shiso and umeboshi plums. Very balanced dish, and a new combination for me. The sourness and acidity of the garnishes went perfectly with the fattiness of the foie.
Snapper: Very, very gently poached (barely cooked) fish served in a delicious broth. This was absolutely perfect, an impeccable piece of fish.
Lobster: Butter-poached lobster with fennel puree and roasted fennel. Very nice, and the fennel was incredible on its own.
Squab: Squab breast with reduction sauce, squab pate, and red and green cabbage. The breast was perfectly cooked and wonderful. The pate was out of this world! It included liver, heart, and several other parts, and was creamy, savory, sweet, and earthy at the same time. Absolutely beautiful! The red cabbage was braised in port (among many other things) and was the best cabbage I’ve ever had.
Chicken: Chicken breast with oats, grapes, and reduction sauce. Probably the best chicken breast I’ve ever had, but this wasn’t my dish, and I don’t remember too many of the details.
Beef: Beef coated with a brioche-bone marrow crust, served with marrow-infused bordelaise and Swiss chard. Outstanding! A beautiful, beautiful dish. Everything on this plate was incredible.
Pork: Suckling pig belly and loin with squash puree and fruit. Perfectly cooked and the pork belly had the crispiest skin I have ever encountered everywhere. It was like breaking through a crème brulee!
Pre-Dessert: Milk and honey. Orange blossom honey encapsulated in milk snow and sprinkled with bee pollen. Very nice palate cleanser, and the honey was the most flavorful I’ve ever had. It just exploded with flavor!
Chocolate: Chocolate and mint in various forms. Three quenelles of ice cream, two of which were different types of mint, and several preparations of chocolate. I don’t remember all the components, but a very successful dessert.
Apple: Apple ice cream and some other preparations of apple. Again, I don’t remember all the components, but what I tried was very good.
We also ordered espresso, and it was very good. They have an interesting coffee menu, and I’d recommend trying it out.
As before, they brought out a bottle of cognac to end the meal.
Ginger and pomegranate pate de fruit. The ginger had the most pure ginger flavor I’ve ever had in a dessert, including the wonderful spiciness. Pomegranate was okay, but it just tasted like sweet fruit, the flavor didn’t come through.
Caramel apple pop. A pop with a liquid center that exploded with flavor when I bit into it. Very, very strong apple and caramel flavors—this was outstanding!
Sunflower seed brittle. Meh, nothing special.
Peanut butter and jelly truffle. Good, but to too memorable.
Liquid shortbread truffle. Again, good, but not memorable.
The mignardises were the weakest part of the meal. Only two things were very good, the ginger pate de fruit and the caramel apple pop. I really wish they still served macarons, which I found to be infinitely better than the current mignardises. This was my only disappointment. And finally, we were brought jars of granola to take home (and yes, it's very good and very savory).
Overall this was an incredible meal and, in my opinion, even better than the “old” EMP. The service was as friendly and impeccable as ever. The food was even better than before, and I think this was driven largely by the improved hors d’oeuvres. If it weren’t for these, I think I would miss the Gourmand menu and wouldn’t be as happy as I was. But the procession of hors d’oeuvres is so much more substantial and composed that it’s like adding another 4 or 5 courses to a 4 or 5 course meal. I found that 5 courses was not too much and allowed us to try 10 courses because we shared.
Again, I happily admit I was wrong. My meal with this new format was my best meal at EMP yet, and I think they’ve addressed all my concerns. If you don’t want to know what’s coming, you don’t even have to choose ingredients, and if you do, you don’t have to know what will be on the dish. If you like tasting menus where you don't have control and like surprises, those elements are certainly still in play. On the other hand, if you don't like surprises or are concerned with what will be coming out, it may be a little tedious to hear all the details about all the courses you’re interested in, but that’s what you get when you want to fiddle with the chef’s creations! ;)