After more than a decade at the top of New York's fine-dining scene, Eleven Madison Park has started all over. Chowhounds' best-loved four-star destination, the climactic stop on this summer's CHOW Tour, remade itself earlier this month. In place of à la carte and prix-fixe choices culminating in the 11-course "Gourmand" dinner is a simpler menu of three- to five-course meals. And in place of detailed descriptions of preparations and provenance is a minimal list of ingredients. Patrons are free to leave the details to the cooks or talk them over with the server; the idea is to avoid the monologue of a conventional tasting menu in favor of a dialogue between diner and kitchen.
The kitchen is getting little backtalk from hounds, who are warmly embracing the new format. ryansm, who went in with high expectations set by memorable Gourmand dinners, was skeptical of the overhaul. "I'm thrilled to say that I was wrong. Dead wrong," he writes. "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."
The changes were apparent from the start in the hors d'oeuvres. Replacing the once-customary long plate of little bites is "a progression of much more sophisticated and substantial preparations," ryan reports. The best of these five minicourses was a remarkable dish of egg filled with smoked-sturgeon sabayon with a pool of chive oil at the bottom, paired with baby gem lettuce topped with crème fraîche, smoked sturgeon, and caviar. "Wow," he muses. "That egg was one of the best things I have ever eaten. Ever." Other high points included flavorful, aromatic tomato "tea" infused with lemon thyme, paired with a crunchy Parmesan lavash topped with piment d’Espelette; and truffle marshmallows topped with porcini powder, paired with refreshing lollipops of celery root ice cream, dipped in cocoa butter and sprinkled with celery seed.
Succeeding courses are a more familiar experience for Eleven Madison Park regulars: well conceived and delicious. For ryan, the highlights included a perfectly poached piece of snapper; delicate langoustine ceviche, nicely set off by a sweet/acidic broth of celery root, apple, and lime; squab breast with port-braised cabbage and marvelous squab pâté ("creamy, savory, sweet, and earthy at the same time"); beef in brioche–bone marrow crust, served with marrow-infused bordelaise and Swiss chard; and suckling pig belly and loin with squash purée, the belly sheathed in shatteringly crisp skin ("like breaking through a crème brûlée!"). And Miss Needle's splendid sous-vide pork chop moved her to just pick up the bone and gnaw off every last bit of meat. "Normally, I probably wouldn't do that at an EMP-caliber restaurant. But I was kind of in the corner with nobody around me and the meat was that good," she confesses.
After all the savory courses, after dessert, after mignardises—look for the caramel-apple pop, its liquid center exploding with flavor—comes a jar of granola for the road, sweet and uncommonly savory, filled with oats, dried currants, and pumpkin seeds. "Can’t wait until breakfast!" sighs ellenost.
Eleven Madison Park [Flatiron]
11 Madison Avenue (at E. 24th Street), Manhattan