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Where we could have gone instead of Balthazar. They seem to be having fun, and foot rubs!
Thursday though Sunday. Between meals there was about 10 miles of walking/day. Lack of sleep and exhaustion did not become a factor until the plane ride home, so mark that as a win.
We arrived Thursday afternoon and we were out of our hotel near Union Square by around 2:30 and stopped in for a quick beer pretzel and cheese board at Milk and Hops. No complaints. Pre-dinner we grabbed a booth at The Ship with no problem around 5:45 and each enjoyed a couple of excellent cocktails over an hour and a half with a kind invitation to linger as long as we liked. I had a Cervantes Ramirez favorite of mine, the El Guapo, and a sublime Beehive. Highest recommendation. After our dinner there was a wait outside.
Le Coucou. About 2 and a half hours. Excellent food and service. Leeks were nice, appetizers were heavy heavy creamy mushy (quenelle and sweetbreads), but entrées were right up my wife’s (black bass bourride) and my (rabbit) respective alleys. I went from back-to-front with the rabbit and each preparation was better than the last. The front legs in a broth which I liberally spread on the saddle meat was the pinnacle of what was in effect an 8 course tasting menu, as the bread course with lard was stratospheric. I did not appreciate the appeal of the quenelle, as to me it was one-note (though it was a nice note of lobster) with no textural interest, and the pike was swamped literally though quite flavorfully by the sauce Américaine. The sweetbreads were beautifully creamy in and of themselves, and I feel the rich creamy sauce on top of them did not provide the necessary contrast. I removed mine from the sauce and ate them with just a thin residual coat and to my taste they improved but were naked, leaving the rest of the sauce for the excellent bread. We did not have desert, and for the life of me I cannot remember what we drank. We worked with the sommelier and were happy with the two or three glasses each that we were served. My issues with the food here come down to preference and not to preparation, all in all a positive experience. We saw the chef’s back several times as he lavished attention on a solo repeat customer at the table next to us.
For breakfast we hit: Barney Greengrass, Sadelle’s, Russ and Daughter’s, and (unfortunately) Balthazar.
The sturgeon king is the king of this bunch in my book. At Barney Greengrass had the sturgeon, Nova, and whitefish salad platter with poppy seed bagels. The whitefish salad was ideal and the Nova was sublime, but they paled next to the sturgeon (my wife says the same about the salmon), which is akin to eating sushi in its mild complexity. Little seemed covered up and the fresh flavor came through. I want this right now! After all the food we had, this is what I’ve been thinking about all day. Bagels were lightly toasted as they are made off site but were very good, but then again I love Murray’s bagels which many people seem not to enjoy. Without a doubt I will return the next time I am in NY.
Sadelle’s also fired on all cylinders, but here I had the sable (excellent) instead of the sturgeon, shared some salmon eggs and oatmeal, and was up sold on a full order of 3 sticky buns after asking if I could try just one (“You’ll eat them all” And we did). The bagels were excellent and could be ordered hot, even very hot if you want them that way. Much different than Greengrass’ style, but great nonetheless. So many sesame seeds were on mine that you could hardly see the bread underneath! Service was top-notch. The sticky buns are mandatory for anyone in the area, and I have come to realize I understand little about the world when someone can walk right in and get these anytime they want, but people have stood in line for hours to eat horrible cronuts.
Russ and Daughter’s: Holds no candles next to Barney Greengrass and Sadelle’s. Thick cut salmon with less flavor then the others’ and thin cut sturgeon with its flavor covered by smoke and spices. To my taste the bagel was a joke, OK crust but Lender’s on the inside. Obviously bagels are a passionate topic for debate, but come on. Do people like these? Coffee was also the only bad cup we had. Omelet was average. We did not regret coming here like we did at Balthazar, so it wasn’t that bad other than the coffee and maybe the bagel. How do these places get such delicious tomatoes in January?
Balthazar. My mistake in coming here, a little chaos ensued on Sunday morning and on the fly we picked this spot. We’d never been and thought Sunday brunch might be OK as I’ve had excellent baked good at Minetta (where we’ve had excellent brunch). Our visit is not one I would usually mention on this site, but I see it talked about here. It’s fine really, but the food is below a level one can find in pretty much any city these days, or towns even. Atmosphere and service were very good, but soooo many better places.
Of the snacks I tried, the one that made me most happy was a pork steamed bun at Golden Steamer in Chinatown. We had a great experience in Chinatown, especially around the New York Mart on Mott Street. We talked to several women shopping who all seemed eager to show us what was good and how to prepare various fish and fruit. We loved Chinatown, and next visit we will hit Flushing for sure. The least happy snack award goes to a cronut. One bite and into the garbage it went. Is the world crazy or am I? It was pointless. I think I would have loved it if I had gotten it at a local carnival along with an elephant ear. Also was not impressed with the bomboloni and a pizza-like thing at Sullivan St Bakery, although the walnut cookie (not sweet, a plus for me, and had excellent cookie texture) and biscotti were excellent. The pork belly bun at Ivan Ramen at the Gotham Market was meh, and hand pulled lamb noodles extra spicy at Biang were interesting in their elasticity and tasty in a takeout sort of way, but not something I would crave. Is it the Szechuan peppercorns that makes everyone gaga over their food? Exquisite cheese chosen from an outrageous selection and bread directly from the oven at Eataly was of course over the top crazy dopamine-inducing happiness therapy. Pastrami from Harry and Ida’s was great, although the bread was soggy by the time I ate it on the plane. Fortunately I brought home a couple pounds.
Now, the tasting menus. I will start with the most difficult to talk about, EMP. Aska and ko I can just say: go! I'll try and post about them soon.
Fri: Aska, 4 hours, perfect
Sat: Ko, 2 ½ hours, satisfying
Sun: EMP, 4 ½ hours, hmmmm
EMP’s food hit the highest highs and the lowest lows, which unfortunately advanced in a steady downhill progression. By the time the baked Alaska arrived (baked Alaska!) we realized that the many attractions of EMP were not necessarily centered on the food. But oh what attractions the staff provided to distract from the lackluster duck, the unpalatable mushroom risotto, and the pedestrian (if beautifully presented) oxtail. Service was king here, and although the lingering impression is one of corporate efficiency probably due to the canned spiel you hear as it is given to each neighboring table before and after you hear it again directed towards you, each server individually is intelligent, welcoming, authentic, flexible and competent.
I expected the first amuse to be lackluster and it was. Is it time to retire the black and white cheezit? The beer list has some highlights, but has lots of room to grow. Anyway, it’s nice to see beer at least given lip service in the US, so I wanted to try a couple with the meal. Started with an Arthur Avenue Manhattan from the cart, and then tried to get an Ayenger Celebrator to accompany the caviar course, telling the sommelier how much I like the brewery. After a prolonged delay he returns to tell me they sold the last bottle that evening (it’s possible I suppose) and brought me a complimentary bottle of Ayenger Brau-Weisse, you know, since I liked the brewery and all. This is equivalent to asking for a Pinot Noir and getting a Chardonnay! Not good, and I had nothing to accompany the Caviar. Fortunately the Brau-Weisse went relatively well with the dehydrated cheese-butter and bread, so I drank a little of it.
Before the bread, we started to get rolling with a set of four vegetable bites, all outstanding, which planted in me the expectation that we were about to top the lofty heights of our two prior meals. Then the eggs Benedict caviar arrived and cemented that impression, and after a few bites I set it aside to wait for a new beer to arrive, a wonderful bottle of BFM Square Root 225 Saison. It paired well for the second half of my caviar, so my sanity was restored. It also went exceedingly well with the foie gras terrine with truffle, which may have been the highlight of the meal for me, as well as the seared foie, which is the first foie gras my wife has enjoyed, depriving me of what I thought would be a double course. I did taste hers and preferred the terrine version.
For the lobster and following vegetable, I was brought a glass of Grüner Veltliner, Pichler-Krutzler 2015, which worked very well and surprised me, showing our sommelier does know his wine pairings. The lobster was very well seasoned and herbaceous, but cooked though in the old style, as opposed to the “half-cooked” versions I’m used to and prefer these days. This was the point my wife and I looked at each other a little cautiously, wondering if the remaining courses were headed into “safe” territory. Indeed, the rest of the meal was completely inoffensive. Well, except for the one dish that offended both of us of all people, and went uneaten.
This brings us to the clientele of EMP, who I think are much different than those of Aska and Ko on the whole. I may be totally wrong but I guess that a significant proportion of EMP’s Sunday customers are well-off folks whose normal haunts for dinner are Hillstone, Peter Lugers, etc. and are looking for a place to celebrate, or business diners who need safe meals. By design, there is no way any plate at EMP would be sent back for being cooked improperly, no matter your taste. It may be left uneaten however, as I witnessed to my great amusement at the table directly in front of ours. A party of four, two in their thirties and two older teens, had gotten their foie gras course (all of them seared, god bless, as if that would help), and the youngest, a girl of about 17 took a bite and had trouble negotiating the pathway down to her stomach. The other’s in her party were very encouraging, quietly supporting her in her efforts to speed the bite of duck liver on it’s way, but the duck guts had hit an impasse and could not proceed. Well I’m not ashamed to admit I have used a napkin in such situations before, but this polite group of young people were not going to entertain that idea, so after a good 25 seconds of watching their companion in distress, the older sister(?) quickly and discretely accompanied her to the restroom, where I imagine the delicious morsel cut out the middle-man and went delicately into the toilet. One thing you can say about Eleven Madison Park, it sure inspires a formality in its patrons! I did not see it that way, and was very relaxed and somewhat informal with the staff. I was elbowed in the arm a few times for it too. The staff seems adept at meeting everyone’s expectations.
OK so where are we? Oh yes, the unfortunate vegetable course. The celery root in pigs bladder that I had been hearing about with delight was MIA, as was the other dish I was looking forward to, the venison, which were both victims of the new winter menu. We missed them by about a week. In their place we had two choices of vegetable and three entrees: sweet potato with apple and squash with bone marrow for the veggies, and the duck, oxtail with truffle, or mushroom risotto. I was consoled by the lack of venison with the possibilities of what Humm could do with oxtail. I also discovered from our server that the venison that had been on the menu was a farm raised venison and did not have the harsh characteristics of wild deer. Ooof, I guess I’m glad I missed it!
The squash with bone marrow was as rich and heavy as the worst of Le Coucou, if Le Coucou put out a dish that had no delicacy at all. Had I had this at Le Coucou, I would have judged it harshly, but here I suppose I’m glad Humm is looking to push the envelope. The sweet potato on the other hand, had good flavor, but had the texture of a home-brew sweet potato. 60 minutes, 400 degrees. At least throw the potato in a pigs’ bladder for me!
The mains: I was first delivered the duck, but right behind that with just a brief delay was the oxtail. “Our mistake is to your benefit,” and just like that I have both the duck and oxtail.
OK, the three entrees. The oxtail is great and presented in a wonderfully surprising way, but the truffles were lost on me amongst the strong beef flavor. There is a celery root puree that is wonderful, but overall the flavors remind me of good short rib and risotto I get whenever I can at various places in South Florida. This is a very good dish, but the flavors are old hat. Should I expect more? I really don’t know how to answer that, but I was hoping for more. The duck had wonderful texture and good flavor from the crust seasoning, but the duck itself had a fraction of the flavor of Ko’s version. Had I not been to Ko I would still have considered it accomplished technically but boring overall. The mushroom risotto; oops, not risotto as we were told twice but farro with hen of the woods (maybe others) and heavily over seasoned. Impossible to believe this was tasted before it left the kitchen, and it went uneaten (I tried it and it really was inedible). We told the maître d and he seemed stoic about it, and I guess felt that the mistaken duck was enough compensation so my wife went without an edible entrée. Hmmm. I am really wondering how this happened. The brussel sprouts and parsnip served with the entrees harkened back to the meal that could have been; they were perfect and spectacular – simple, flavorful, flawless. I let my wife eat most of these in place of her entrée.
Then the cheese course. Cato Corner Hooligan cheese sounds wonderful, and it was. Points for creatively, but as a preference I don’t prefer my delicious cheese coasted with potato flakes and deep fried served with salad greens. We squeezed the cheese out of the heavy potato crust and had some with a small bite of fried potato as there was no bread. A choice for the cheese course would be an improvement. But this is a preference and the cheese was well constructed and prepared.
Then: baked Alaska. . . I shall move on.
So, a series of contradictory impressions. Both great and uneaten food. Creative and old fashioned preparations. Impressive service with silly gaps. No toilet paper in the women’s restroom. Still, we left wonderfully happy and satisfied. Go figure. I’m still trying to figure out how that happened. Eleven Madison Park is a great restaurant save for some of the food, but after all is said and done, that may be a minor quibble at a place like this.