From soup to nuts, or in this case, from before dinner drinks to after dinner drinks, here it is.
In case you didn't know, it was a scorcher in NYC yesterday. We were to meet the other half of our foursome at 6:15 at EMP for dinner. We wanted to head in early and relax with a drink before dinner so I called EMP to ask what time the bar opened. I was told they open at 5:30, but that the bar at Tabla next door was open all afternoon. So we found ourselves in the nicely cool bar at Tabla around 4:30 sipping a frozen watermelon mojito and a tamarind margarita.
The waitress apologetically informed us that the kitchen would be closed from 5 to 5:30 for a shift change, but we told her we were eating next door and just there to relax and beat the heat until EMP opened. We did ask for a menu, "just for some reading material" and to check the place out. A few minutes later we not only got a menu to read, but also a copy of Chef Floyd Cardoz' book. We thanked her very much and she said that she also had something else for us. She returned with a new copy of the 2010 Zagat guide and said it was ours to keep. We read and lingered over our drinks and then finished up right at 5:30 and asked for the check. Our waitress told us that our drinks were courtesy of Tabla and EMP and we should enjoy our dinner. One very nice tip later we were out the door and into the heat briefly as we walked from one end of the building to the other.
Hot as it was, we had to stop and smile as one of those old time NYC cabs pulled up and out popped a bride and groom. It turned out they were having their wedding party upstairs at EMP and we wished them well as we headed for the bar. I knew the other couple we were meeting did not want to order the full 11 course tasting menu, so I treated myself to an order of my favorite bar snack perhaps anywhere and got the hot dogs with our drinks. When the waitress brought them out she told us the dogs were on the house and that we should enjoy our meal.
Right at 6:15 our prompt friends arrived and we all moved to a comfortable table in the back. We let the girls sit at the banquette and I strategically positioned myself in the corner with the best view of the flatiron building. I have always loved this building and the life size statue recently put on top of the point made it that much more interesting. I loved watching the lighting change over the course of the evening too.
Our friends are serious oenophiles, or as I like to call them, winos, so they skipped cocktails and dove into the wine list. They suggested we have the summer menu with wine pairings, and I was up for anything they wanted so we ordered that for the four of us. Right away we were brought some gougeres and a group of six teeny amuses. All were at least good, and the foie was melt away delicious, but the star for me was the itty bitty morel tartlet. As I was joking that they should make a bigger version available on the menu, we were given wine glasses and as they gave us our first pour, my friend said that the wine was not the first one he saw listed in the pairings on the wine list. Of course he was correct. It turned out that this wine was an added extra to be consumed with an extra amuse of chilled corn soup. We toasted our meal and tucked into the soup. It was smooth and rich and sweet. Even though I had just made corn soup with some local Jersey corn the night before, I still wanted a big bowl of that one.
Next up was a tomato lollipop that, when desticked and popped into my mouth released a stream of intense liquid tomato flavor. With that came our next wine - a Greek white from Santorini that had us all back on that bright, white island reminiscing about past vacations as we ate our first course. It was a simple tomato salad with a scoop of buffalo mozzerella ice cream and teeny dots of balsalmic. My wife wanted more of that fine balsalmic on the plate, but I thought it would have overpowered the other flavors and offered to finish hers if she was unhappy. Alas, she got over it and left not even a speck.
Next wine was a nice french white that paired well with the delicate poached cod with peppers. I enjoyed this course very much, but my friend the carnivore thought it a bit bland. No problem as I offered to trade him my upcoming veal for the rest of his fish, although I did have to give his wife an extra bite as she also loved the understated pepper sauce and the perfectly cooked fish.
A full bodied German wine was next paired with my favorite savory of the night, the lobster lasagna. Nobody had any of this left to spare as we all not only finished all the lemony, lobster-y goodness, but used our bread to soak up that amazing sauce.
As they were prying the cleaned bowl from my hands (only a slight exaggeration) we were all given the largest wine glass of the night so far and presented with a lovely chianti that made my friend smile broadly as he joked, "Can you leave the bottle?" Well, the joke was on him because she did. And we were given a good ten minutes time to drink that wine and they poured us all a second glass, and then still left the bottle and told us to feel free to enjoy some more as our veal course arrived.
Our wait captain, Kevin Browne, saw me giving my veal to my friend and immediately asked if I would prefer something else instead. I assured him that I was just living up to my end of a bargain and that everything so far was wonderful. "Best meal I've had since Alex in Las Vegas when I met Chef Stratta," I assured him.
When we were done with our veal and more than a few glasses of wine, Kevin introduced us to Dining Room Manager, Daniel Green. I smiled. "Mr. Browne and Mr. Green, sounds like a scene from Reservoir Dogs." Daniel told us that he had a couple of surprises for us. First he asked if we would like a tour of the kitchen. I'm not sure, I was a little drunk at this point, but I think I may have hugged him. "Why, yes we would, tyvm."
I do remember the vin liquor from france that we enjoyed with our desserts, and the fact that they topped it off with s splash of demi-sec champagne, and that both women barely even had to ask if they could have some chocolate instead of the cherry/pistachio thing that we men had, so we ended up tasting a bunch of different desserts before being led into the kitchen.
A few things stand out. First, Chef Humm is indeed spending a week with family. Second, it was like a well-oiled machine in there, with things getting done cleanly, quickly, precisely, and surprisingly quietly. Third, the kitchen staff is fairly evenly split between men and women. Finally, everyone was smiling and extremely polite, even engaging us in conversation despite what I knew was an intrusion into their privacy.
I left the kitchen extremely impressed and walked into the lounge area for a final surprise. Our macarons were arranged around a round banquette with a bottle of liquor with a pear inside the bottle and four glasses. Mr. Green himself poured our glasses, and we talked for a long time before he left us to enjoy the end of our meal and told us we could finish the bottle if we wanted to.
As I look at this huge, glowing review, do I feel, as Anthony Bourdain says in his new book, Medium Raw, that I was compromised, and my good will bought? Maybe. But the thing that makes me question this is simply that I am a nobody. I am a schoolteacher who loves food and sometimes makes his opinions known online. I am not rich, powerful, influencial, nor on anybody's "list" of those who should be appeased. I am relatively sure that even folks I have corresponded with online for years could not pick me out of a lineup.
So there it is. My account of our almost six hour dining event. An ordinary guy and an extraordinary night presented here as much so one day I can look back and read this and remember as for the enjoyment and edification of my fellow hounds.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010