On Monday I returned to Eleven Madison Park for the second time. My first experience there back in February was a celebratory dinner for me and a few of my buddies. We had just gotten our first jobs and were ready to dole out some cash in a big way. It was actually one of my first "high-end" NYC dining experiences and we were completely stoked. Of course, EMP did not disappoint and I labeled that meal one of the best experiences in my life.After perusing the online menu I had a bit of a conundrum.. I wanted the suckling pig as a supplement for my first course and the duck for "two" for just myself. Lon story short, I had called the restaurant ahead of time with my request for a customized menu and they granted my request immediately. Well, not only did they grant my request, however they sent me home with a little extra present =). There is actually a pretty hilarious story that goes along with my first encounter at EMP (the infamous duck story). If you would like to read the full details from my initial encounter with EMP it has been posted and here is the link... http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/596536. To sum it up, I left EMP that night completely and utterly awe-stricken. Everything from start to finish was perfect. Ever since that day I vowed that I would return again when the chance presented itself.
Well lucky for me the chance finally came this Monday. However, this time I was extremely lucky, as I had the opportunity to share the meal with my great friends and regular EMP patrons RGR and her husband. It had been 6 long months since my first visit to Eleven Madison Park, yet I still remembered that glorious day as if it were yesterday. I did mention that at that time it was my first real experience with "haute" cuisine of that level. Going in I really didn't have anything else to compare with EMP. I didn't really have any expectations... because well I didn't know what to expect. So I wondered "was it really THAT good?" Or was it just that I was blown out of the water simply because it was my first experience with something foreign to me? Since then I have had the opportunity to eat my way through the city and dine at some other fine higher end establishments. So now, with my palette a bit more seasoned a true measurement of EMP was in order.
One one side I was so incredibly excited for my return trip, however I was also quite unsure of how it would turn out. Mainly because this time my expectation level was through the roof based on my initital visit, leaving me afraid any little slip up would leave me feeling disappointed. Nevertheless, I was really looking forward to it! RGR who has been to many of the better restaurants in the city and goes out on a fairly regular basis. Still, she seems to find herself constantly returning to EMP. If anyone reads her posts they know how much love she has for EMP and claims it never ever gets old. Now would be my time to see if I agreed.
Let me preface this by saying that I once again was a huge pain in the rear. In the days leading up to our dinner, RGR and I were discussing our gameplan for ordering. While RGR and her husband decided on the summer tasting menu, steakrules was undecided as usual. For me, it was either the suckling pig tasting or the five course summer tasting menu (with of course a few twists). After days of deliberation, I decided to "combine" the menus. I wanted to supplement a few courses from the summer tasting with a few from the suckling pig. Specifically, the tete de cochon to supplement for the first course of the summer tasting, and I also wanted to add in the rack of pork from the suckling as well. In addition, I decided being the beef lover I am that I had to have the beef tenderloin somewhere in the program. So, I wanted to have that supplement for the organic rabbit on the summer tasting. Yes yes I know very very confusing indeed. So actually, I would up doing the following- taking 2 from the suckling, adding one from the main menu, and leaving 2 from the summer tasting (will go in detail later on the actual dishes). In essence, I basically was getting a taste of all menus lol! Not knowing if this would be possible, I of course reached out to Megan yet again to inform her of my customized request. And yet again, Megan delivered, informing me that my preference to create my own tasting would be no problem! This is one of the many reasons why EMP is so terrific- they allow you to enjoy your dining experience the way YOU truly want to. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. They accomodated my request without flinching. So now I was even more excited than before!
Upon making my way toward the entrance I started getting butterflies in my stomach. You all know the feeling... if you watch Paula Deen she has a funny saying.." Like a fat girl writing her first love letter". RGR and her husband were not there yet so I waited in the lobby. Entering the restaurant was just how I had remembered it. It is kind of difficult to describe, but you feel like you are being transported to a "special" almost supernatural place (heaven perhaps?). The whole room is magnificent with its palatial ceilings and floral arrangements. It is illuminated by the beams of sunlight shining through its enormous windows coming from the "outside" normal world. Really, that sunlight is the only "normal" thing that makes its way inside EMP. Yes, I am referring to EMP as another world. Because, well within its confines it truly is.
Shortly thereafter my wonderful dining companions arrive... RGR and her husband! After speaking for nearly 2 weeks in anticipation of the meal, the day was finally here. We were warmly welcomed by the beaming smiles of several gracious members of the staff. But mind you this is not out of the ordinary at EMP. Even though RGR is a regular customer, it bears noting that they treated me the same exact way on my first visit. It was still rather early, so we stuck around the bar for a few minutes chatting with Eamon (our captain), Leo (head bartender), and of course Megan (Maitre D). We recounted my famous duck story and shared a nice laugh about it (which actually was quite the recurring theme as RGR had to make a point of mentioning it when anyone came over to the table lol!). After the initial exchanging on pleasantries, we were whisked away to our table on the main dining floor. We got to christen the dinner service as we were the first diners seated since we were there at 5:30. The mighty well-oiled machine that is EMP was revving up its engine for what would promise to be another busy night. I must say at this point I was like a kid in a candy store. And yeah those butterflies started to pop up again in anticipation of what was yet to come. The pregame festivities had culminated and the "stage" had been set. As boxing ref Mills Lane says....Lets get it on!
Already knowing my ordering intentions, Eamon checked to see what RGR and her husband had decided. RGR's husband stuck with the summer tasting menu as is and got a wine pairing. RGR decided to do the same, however already having the organic rabbit rilletes a few days earlier, she decided to supplement that course. Eamon said that the chef would "surprise" her for this course. Since I added the beef course, RGR and her husband also added a course so we were even, and they chose the frog legs in an egg. Before leaving the table, Eamon needed to be sure on a final detail - "Are there any allergies or other special requests that we should be aware of Sir
?". I shook my head no on the allergies, but did say the only remaining request I had was that my beef and lamb be cooked extra rare, and the pork pink. To which he responded "Certainly Sir". That's EMP for you. No stone unturned, no detail overlooked, no accomodation ungranted.
After the food was taken care of, they took RGR's drink order which was some sort of delicious combination of almond, coconut, and citrus with a lime. After tasting it I had to have one. So refreshing, so light, so amazing. The nuttiness of the almond, sweetness of coconut, and the tartness from the citrus was a symphony of flavors. i actually requested to have mine heavier on the nutty flavors, less so on the citrus. Eamon assured me that the bartender would love to do this for me. Once again, the service was completely flawless. To a point where it was almost... laughable.
Then the "marathon" as I like to call it officially begins. A parade of hor douerves and "gifts" from the chef bombard us even before a piece of bread hits the table. We are given I believe 4 different kind of hor douveres (which RGR can label in much better detail than myself). My favorite being the sweetbread cornet- so awesome. After this custom, comes a few gifts from the chef. The first being a sea urchin cappuccino with crab, cauliflower, and a sea urchin broth. Never having anything to do with sea urchin, I was excited to try it. I had heard it was a powerful and to some off putting flavor. However, upon first bite I loved this. There was nothing off putting about it at all, honestly I wouldn't really know it was sea urchin at all. The only thing I know is that it was all kinds of delicious. Crab and cauliflower are two of my favorite things and the orange foamy broth (which I guess is where the sea urchin comes in) was creamy. We all enjoyed it very much, assuring not to leave one iota of broth in the bowl (RGR's husband had his eyes rolling in the back of his head haha!). Next up was a very creative concoction. It was two spoons- one with a burrata mozzarella ball and the other with a green tomato ball incased in some type of gel. When you pop each into your mouth they burst open and your tastebuds are met with an explosion of flavor. A great palate cleanser. So mind you, in most restaurants your bread comes out first. Um yeah, we haven't had the bread yet but now here it comes. The best part of the bread (which you really should try to resist to save room for what lies ahead) is the butter. Goat's milk butter and sheep's milk butter with sea salt. As a lover of butter, I am in complete bliss with these. Both are awesome, and that goat's milk is so intense. No this is not breakstone or land-o-lakes folks- Unlike any butter you'll ever had (from California if I'm not mistaken). So that caps off the "appetizers".
After these fine little treats, we are given a few minutes to allow our stomachs and palettes to refuel. The wine is flowing (at least for RGR's husband) and the conversation is wonderful. RGR and her husband are truly entertaining and great company. We discussed their many culinary adventures over the span of the entire meal. I swear, they could write a book based upon these ventures. Occasionally, a member of the staff would come over and start chatting with us. Knowing RGR personally, they were all on a first name basis. And thanks to her I had the pleasure of meeting each and every one of them. They were all so happy about the 4 star-rating and we all made sure to inform them how well-deserved and long overdue it was. I was so glad that EMP finally got the much warranted credit for their outstanding institution. Each one was so giddy, personable, bright, attentive, and utterfly professional. It amazed me how each had a smile from ear to ear, not a frown or even a straight face in the house. Among those I was introduced to was the GM Will Guidara, who seemed to be so proud of his restaurant and rightfully so. I also got to meet Michael the sommelier, as well as countless others. But I think the greatest honor was when the sous chef (who's name regretfully escapes me) came to our table towards the end of the meal (which I will touch on more later). I was truly impressed at how RGR knew everyone in the house. Her loyal following was definitely evident, and you can tell how much they appreciate it.
And you know what? I am no fool. It is truly genuine and not an act. You know when someone is bsing you and going through the motions just to pass the time, get a larger tip, do their "job". It may be their job, but they really want to give you the best experience possible and are offended if they are not. They will bend over backwards to assure that you are satisfied in each and every way. These people truly love what they are doing. And if they didn't they would be in the wrong business. Whatever Danny Meyer does to scout his staff, he is doing it right. In a way I kind of feel bad for the rest of the restaurant community. It seems like he has stolen all the great talent out there and somehow trapped them in EMP!
So here were the way the menus ended up panning out for us:
Me- 1st course- Tete de Cochon (supplement), 2nd- Lemon Verbena Poached Lobster with ratatouille, 3rd- Rack of Pork (addition), 4th- Lamb Chop with Bacon and Garbanzo beans, 5th- Beef tenderloin encrusted with bone marrow, green beans, bordelaise (supplement).
RGR- 1st course- Heirloom tomatoes with fino verde basil, 2nd- Hawaiian Prawn Roulade (chef's surprise supplement for the rabbit), 3rd- Frog Legs in Egg (addition), 4th- Lobster, 5th- Lamb Chop
Her husband- Same as above, however he had the organic rabbit rilletes for his 2nd.
The courses started to arrive and the main event was under way! Tete for me, tomatoes for them. Let me just say before I start getting in depth that RGR and her husband were so incredibly gracious in letting me sample EACH AND EVERY dish they had! So not only did I have the pleasure of eating mine, but I got to try theirs as well. Of course, I loved this and couldn't thank them enough. But they were truly more than happy to let me induge. And any time I would offer them a taste of mine they would refuse, saying they had already had it and wanted me to enjoy every morsel. Great great people or what? OK back to the food. I have to admit I have never had tete before, which is a fancy way of saying pig's head. But being a meat lover and avid foodie, I wanted to give it a shot. Really I had no idea what the heck to expect. After allowing RGR to take her picture of my plate (yes we had to wait to eat before she got all of her pictures in hehe), I dug in. Honestly, it was just.. okay for me. Very tough to describe. I kept saying that it tasted like something I had before but couldn't put my finger on it. Maybe like corned beef or something. The texture just wasn't the most appealing to me, a bit dry, but nonetheless it was tasty and very rich. The horseradish, pommery mustard, and radishes were nice accompaniments. This was the only plate of the night that I didn't finish completely and the only dish that was somewhat of a letdown. On the other hand, RGR's tomatoes were very very good and artfully preseneted. The tomatoes were covered by a cloud of some type of foam and were accompanied by tomato sorbet and a roasted tomato. I have to admit at this point that edgy feeling of being inevitably disappointing started to creep into the back of my mind. But cmon this couldn't be possible. Could it?
But not to worry because the rest of the meal was in a word.. "ethereal". For those who are not familiar with the term- here is a list of the definiton.
Characterized by lightness and insubstantiality; intangible.
Highly refined; delicate.
Heavenly or of the celestial spheres
Not of this world; spiritual.
There we go with that other-wordly thing again...hmm seems to be a recurring them here.
2nd course- Anyway, after the slight disappointment from the tete de cochon, the rest of the meal was flawless. With the first taste of my next course of lobster all fears were quickly put to rest. The lobster was impeccably cooked, so sweet, so succulent. The flavors of ratatouille (peppers for sure, zucchini, and something else) were amazing. The taste of the peppers was so fresh, it opened up my sinuses and just tasted like summer (now I know why its labeled the summer tasting menu!). One of the best dishes I have ever had. And when I finished my last piece of lobster I was quite sad. All that was left was broth, and if I wasn't in such a fine instituition I would have picked the bowl up and drank the rest. RGR gave me a taste of her prawn roulade, which of course was fantastic. The avocado and shrimp were so fresh. Her husband's rabbit rillete (like a terrine of sorts) was actually too intense for me. I don't know what it was- it wasn't bad at all, just different. The balsamic marinated cherries it came with were awesome!
3rd course- Rack of pork for me, Frog legs in egg for them. I..love..pork. And I can unequivocally say this was the best piece of pork I have ever had in my entire life. The only disappointment here was I was expecting the rack to be on the bone. Ahhhh my coveted bones! Having the suckling pig tasting before, RGR assured me that they were two double chops. However, when it came Eamon informed me they gave me the loin off the bone because it was a bigger portion. Eh, hey who was I to complain? Was it cooked pink like I requested? Why, of course! And it was incredibly tender, juicy, salty, buttery, freakin wonderful! The "other" white meat this was not. Those dry overcooked pork loins that I'm sure you have all had need not apply here. When prepared correctly, pork is a star. I was in complete bliss.... No Bones About it! (sorry I had to!). The frog leg in egg concoction that my gracious dining partners once again let me sample was outrageous. I had never had frogs legs before so this was a treat. Really loved the flavor of it dipped in the eggy sabayon. But I must say I felt very bad accepting this taste from RGR. The portion of this course is very small and I stole one of the few precious frog legs in it. Sorry RGR! Up to this point all of my courses were actually quite larger (being all meat, entree options). This is why I wanted RGR and her husband to take me up on my offer to taste my dishes. That was a hint to help me out a little bit. I mean hey I do have a very good appetitie, but by this time I started to get a little full. But who was I kidding I had no trouble polishing off this dish.
4th course- Lamb chop for me, Lobster for them. Once again I was floored. As the lamb hit the table I commented to RGR that the aroma of the lamb hit me immediately. For those of you who love lamb, you know the smell I am talking about. Slightly gamey, almost blue cheese like. The lamb chop was cooked perfectly rare and yes this time I had my bone! And gnawed every strand of meat off of it. They pour a lamb jus on top of it, and being the hog I am requested that they leave the jus on the table for me. I added some extra sauce on it after I had sopped up the original sauce. Along with the chop came a few wonderfully crispy lamb sweetbreads. Another first for me! I LOVED these little nuggets of crack. The dish all in all was truly a work of art. I had commented recently that the lamb chop at the Bar Room at the Modern was the best I had ever had. And that I was looking forward to seeing how Chef Humm's rendition would stand up. I was not disappointed. Two totally different preparations, however both were equally executed to utmost perfection. I'd say they tie for the best I lamb chop ever. Don't ask me to choose though, because I loved them both. Once again my only regret with this dish was that there were three more chops and 50 sweetbreads on the plate.
5th course- Beef tenderloin encrusted with bone marrow for me, Lamb Chop for them. Now, we all know a meal without beef is not a meal for me. I have had my share of red meat and my love for it runs true. Having devoured nuremous pounds of cow, many steakhouses in this city can confirm that I am very familiar with Mr. Porterhouse, Mr. Ribeye, Mr. Prime Rib... you get it! That is my death meal, my last request. It is unequivocally my favorite food in the entire world. A great piece of steak can make my day, even on the worst of days (which this most certainly was not!). ALAS, I HAD to have this. I sampled my friend's beef last time we dined and I remember how incredibly delicious it was. However, I did not want just a taste. I wanted a whole plate. And besides, this preparation was completely different. Beef marrow encrusted? Yes, please and don't be shy with it either buddy. So we were nearing the end of our savory courses. This was it.. the last plate. Course number 5 (really like 10). It was placed in front of me, RGR took her now customary photos and it was time to eat.
At this time in the evening, the sun had gone down, and the dining room quite dark. It was one of the few moments of the meal where there was no conversation between myself, RGR, and her husband. There was no trace of sunlight- that last piece of "normality" was gone. We were now completely alone with the supernatural world. I didn't say anything at the time but at this time in the meal, I had a momentof enlightenment. It was around 9:30, the dining room now completely full, bustling, a buzz in the air, tables lit by candle. The entire production was in full operation. It was like everything stopped and we were in slow motion, and if I could be frozen in time that is exactly how I'd want it. This is how the entire meal can properly be summed up.
As I put my knife to the beef, it slipped through effortlessly, my first indication that this was going to be like everything else..something special. I took my first bite and yes my assumptions were all confirmed. I was catapulted out of my chair and into oblivion. The meat was so soft, tender, beautifully rare, and appropriately tasting of prime pure intense beef. The bone marrow eleveated it to epic proportions, and the sauce although just a meaningless sidekick was nonetheless exqusitite. I hate to use the old cliche "melts in your mouth" or "cuts like butter", which of course were both true. To be more original, it was as soft as a marshmallow. It almost disintegrated in your mouth. Your grandfather could leave his fake teeth at home for this one. Your gums could do the work. As fine a piece of steak as I have had anywhere (which is saying a lot coming from me). And once I had finished all of the steak and green beans I was left with that familiar feeling of utter sorrow. Sorry that there was not more. Hoping that maybe somehow I could hit the rewind button and enjoy it all over again.
So our savory courses were complete. Yet, there was still dessert ahead. This is where I will start to talk about the portion sizes at EMP. Many have slammed them for being too small. And I admit that before my first visit I was worried that would be the case for me. Back then I did the three course and last completely satisfied. Once again, with all the freebies it turns out to be more like 7 courses. This time, with the 5 courses, freebies, and all of the tastes that RGR was feeding me, it was more like 11-12 courses. I have a pretty healthy appetitie and am someone who on a good night can polish off a mammoth porterhouse all alone. And at this point in the meal I was very very full. I mean if I was just at some run of the mill place, I probably would have walked out and called it a night. But of course, being at EMP dessert is a must.
Before dessert, another surprise! Chef Humm was not in the kitchen on Monday, however his sous chef who prepared our meal was. And he came out to speak to us! Truly an awesome gesture. I was so honored to meet him and congratulated him one a stupendous performance. The fact that they were able to turn out such a meal without Chef Humm in the house yet again speaks volumes.
As much as I love great savory food, I have a surpreme weakness for all things sweet. A sweet tooth the size of the grand canyon. You name it and I most likely love it. Pies, cakes, cookies, ice cream of course. Whatever. So naturally, even though I was full and knew I was getting the dessert that came with the tasting menu, I adopted to add more. For my tasting, it came with the chocolate peanut butter palette and popcorn ice cream. For RGR and her husband, they had requested a new dessert as a supplement. Cornbread pudding with corn sabayon, blueberry sorbet, blueberries, and buttermilk icream. I added the chocolate symphony no. 2, and a selection of sorbets and they added a cheese cart. So we were set.
Luckily, for dessert they obliged to help me out and share everything. The chocolate peanut butter palette was awesome- I love all things chocolate and peanut butter. This was like a gourmet kit kat, and the popcorn ice cream was salty and creamy at the same time. At this time they had their cheese course, which Megan helped pick for them.
Next came the chocolate symphony and selection of sorbets. The cornbread pudding for them. The chocolate symphony was very good. Intense chocolate and caramel flavors paired with chocolate ice cream. After the first dessert, it was a bit of chocolate overload, but I was stil loving every minute of it. The sorbets refreshed the palette. We had buttermilk and espresso ice cream, bluberry and watermelon sorbet. One better than the next. The watermelon was so fresh and tasted just like the ripe juicy piece of fruit in its purest and natural form.
OK, so now the cornbread pudding. I love all things corn.. and blueberry. Two of my favorite flavors ever. I definitely would have ordered this if RGR and her husband did not get it. But, I knew they would let me have some as gracious as they are. As if this damn meal wasn't already off the charts, this was it. Kind of like the exclamation point. This cornbread pudding was maybe..maybe.. the best dessert I have EVER had. They pile on the corn sabayon table side. As soon as I took my first bite I was laughing! That really is all I could do. I'm really not even going to attempt to explain the flavors going on here. The textures were perfect. The corn was incredible as always and the sabayon was warm. Pair that with the blueberries and sorbet forget it. Case closed. Stick a fork in me I'm done. Did I mention that I was apprehensive of this meal being a failure? Haha, yeah.. um right. But it gets even better!!!!!!!! After seeing the huge enjoyment I was getting from eating this dessert, RGR goes "Don't worry- Let's get another!". I was like no no thats it not needed no way don't be ridiculous. She goes "No I'm getting you one". And that was that. She summoned Eamon and said " He had to have a corn dessert- so get him one". Haha, ah man. What a god damn meal. Honestly, I think this time probably OUTDID last time if thats possible. The food, the service, the atmosphere, the company.... unparalleled. If you could take bliss and bottle it up, this meal would do it for me.
Oh yeah and it still wasn't over- the complimentary assortment of macaroons and homemade jelly candies to end the "marathon". And what a marathon indeed it was.
At this point, I was ready to waddle out of there. Feeling 100 percent completely full and satisfied, but not that sick uncomfortable feeling. Once again, it as if the Chef knows exactly how much the diner wants and how much our precious stomachs can handle. Magic.
So to backtrack, it is completely impossible to describe the overall experience at EMP in just ONE word. Throughout the meal, the constant theme was the sound of "ooh", "ahh", "yum" while closing our eyes and savoring every morsel of food. I actually was quite embarassed for myself because whenever the staff would come to check on us and ask how everything tasted and my vocabulary seemed to be limited to the same bank of words- incredible, delicious, perfect, fantastic, ummm yeah. I was dumbfounded. I was in awe. I couldn't think of any better words to give this food justice, so I guess it didn't really matter anyway. And frankly, I really didn't want to waste any time thinking of any better words because I was too busy basking in the glory of this miraculous food. Basically, take every word related to greatness in the dictionary, compound them together, multiply that by gazillion and then you can explain the quality of Eleven Madison Park.
So going back to one of my original questions... is this heaven on earth? Yes, it quite possibly may be or at the very least the closest thing to it. When you push through the entrance, it is like leaving planet earth and being transcended to heaven. You almost go from being a mere mortal to superhuman. Everything from start to finish is executed unblemished and to the utmost quality. The amount of happiness you experience here is unexplainable. And even though I have written another "novella" as RGR puts it, my words still do not give it the proper justice. When I said goodbye to my great friends and walked out the door I became somewhat sad. I was leaving heaven and crashing back down to the normal world. But, then the sadness evaporated because I realized that there will always be plenty more times for me to return to EMP. Now I get it. Now I know why RGR and her husband who can eat anywhere in this great city, continue to come back to this dining mecca. So now after typing for many hours, my fingers are actually really hurting me. But then again a small price to pay.
And speaking of price, yes you will pay a pretty penny when dining here. And you know what? I'd paid the amount I did for JUST the service alone.I would pay triple for this experience. It is the best money I could ever spend.I tried to put as much effort and detail in this review, as EMP does every single night for their customers.
I know the fine people at EMP probably and most likely will never ever read this review. But frankly, I had no regrets writing this in the least. The ONLY disappointment with this meal was evident. That it had to come to an end.