I finally got to go there last weekend with my wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law, for my dad's birthday this past Friday.
Beautiful, gracious service. And I am a sucker for the haute gimmick of amuses sprinkled between courses and the cute little orange-cherry brioches that we received ("a gift from Chef Humm to the ladies at the table"), and a double-sucker for the practice of having the chef himself circle the room and solicit comments from diners. I was definitely charmed.
But I wanted to love the food more.
Here's the thing. I think I am getting a handle on this particular thread in contemporary cooking. The meal reminded me a lot of my most extravagant meal during a recent trip to France, at a very lovely place called Stephane Derbord in Dijon (which received a few raves on the international board). There were foams, and dishes very elegantly composed of geometric shapes and artful smears of brightly colored sauces, and lots of trios of things, and quartets of things - lots of small things arranged together is what I mean. None of this is bad, at all. I am interested in cooking that addresses texture and visual elements as well as taste. At both restaurants I had the following two problems, though:
1) The flavors, though clearly very very carefully considered, were not STRONG enough for me. I felt like I had to cock my head and strain to fully taste what I was eating. At Eleven I had the big-eye tuna salad, the suckling pig dish and a pineapple-yogurt cheesecake. Everything was just slightly bland (except for the cheesecake which was quite salty), in the way that things I make myself sometimes are when I'm being timid with the salt - good ideas but too delicate to be delicious.
2) The portions. Now, as soon as someone complains about portions I tend to tune out, presuming that they're total Philistines if they think that a lot of food is somehow synonymous with great food. But - the dishes at Eleven are so carefully composed, and each tiny element is so small and precious, that it encourages (or forces) you to take very small bites, and I think that the end effect is to magnify the slight blandness of the food - not only is it very delicately flavored but you never get a real mouth-filling bite of a sort that would let you taste the food. If I had eaten my pork dish in full bites it would have been gone in two or three, so I tried to savor it by primly cleaving off postage-stamp sized bits of meat and then adding a single drop of the scarce (but lovely) marmalade, a sliver of the microscopic (but delicious) caramelized baby onion, etc. Accordingly, though I could appreciate the exquisite quality of each part of each bite, I never got an actual mouthful. And truly, suckling pig is a food that's meant to be eaten by mouthfuls, so that the sweet porkfat suffuses your taste buds with porky flavor.
So all in all I found the experience thought-provoking but unsatisfying. It reminded me again of why I'm such a big Anita Lo fan, as I find her food very thinky but also hearty enough to be both emotionally and intellectually exciting.
And I don't feel content to leave it at that. I read some rec's on the board for Eleven before we went, and they were very thoughtful and had me feeling certain that this would be a totally memorable meal. I feel like maybe I'm not approaching this food from the right angle, and I'm interested to hear from folks who love this place about what it is they love about it. Maybe I need a little re-education to really get it.