I have been a fan of Eleven Madison Park since the arrival of Chef Daniel Humm. The food was always interesting, occasionally brilliant, the ambience is lovely, and service was always very accommodating and pleasant. When the price increase and menu changes were announced last year, I was skeptical. Would I really get more and/or better food for $125 than with the previous $98 menu? At this price I would expect it to be no less than spectacular. So, I waited to read of others’ experiences, and what I have seen, at least on CH, has been extremely positive (some of the other sites had more mixed reviews). This week my partner and I decided to take the plunge and see for ourselves. The result was a big disappointment.
I normally prefer to have a detailed description of each dish printed on a menu so I can decide which dishes (in their entirety, not just the main ingredient) appeal to me most, and in what combination. My impression from published reports was that the diner could choose to be surprised or have the server explain the dishes in detail. That is not how it turned out. Our server was pushing the “surprise” element that the chef “prefers”. When I said we would like to have detailed descriptions, she asked which dishes. We looked at each other in mild disbelief, and replied “All of them”. “All of them?” was her response, and she proceeded to rattle off about 2 to 3 words about each, in rapid-fire speech that reduced the narrative to 30 seconds and was nearly incomprehensible. You could see that the prim young lady was perturbed that we were not following the script. Our further inquiries about the dishes we thought would be the most likely candidates were met again with vague and attenuated descriptions. Perhaps I should have asked to speak to the manager, but I just wanted to avoid unpleasantness, and figured anything we order should be great anyway. We ended up choosing:
Foie gras, langoustine
There were the usual gougeres to start, which were very nice as always. Then, the canapés. They used to bring out one plate with at least 4 canapes per person. Now it’s divided into 3 “courses” but there are still 4 canapes. After the bread and before the appetizer, there used to be a more substantial amuse bouche. Now there is none. The foie gras torchon was as good as any foie gras torchon, but not outstanding. The rather soupy ceviche of langoustine was tasty but also not a wow, and was not a pretty dish. The skate was so blah as to make you wonder what the chef was thinking when he came up with this one. Lobster was delicious, but how could it not be? It doesn’t take much effort to make lobster taste good. It appears to me that the reason they no longer charge a supplement for lobster or foie, aside from the general price increase, is that the portions are minuscule. The pork loin with belly confit and the veal loin with crispy sweetbreads were the highlights of the meal, both very delicious, but the portions were, again, minuscule (maybe 6 small bites of veal and 3 teensy pieces of sweetbread). It was almost comical when the server brought out the 2 sauceboats and proceeded to dole out 1 ½ little spoonfuls of sauce to each plate (they really could have used more) before whisking the nearly full sauceboats off to the kitchen. The pre-dessert was nice but I’ve already forgotten what it was. The chocolate dessert was quite forgettable, the lemon one (a sort of deconstructed idea of lemon poppyseed cake) showed some originality and was very good. Afterwards, there were 4 mignardises per person. At Picholine we would have been presented with countless sweets. At SHO we would have chosen from an unlimited mignardises cart. Why is EMP so stingy?
It appears that even though they are charging more than most of the other high-end restaurants, they are taking every opportunity to cut costs, even when providing a bit more food would cost but pennies more.
On the whole, we felt that the excitement we had found in the past had been lost, portions were skimpy, and there was a lack of concern for diners' enjoyment. If the price were still $98, I would write this off as an off-night, and risk trying it another time. At $125, it is inexcusable. I've had so many really wonderful meals recently, and not just at top-tier restaurants, that I can live happily ever after with EMP off my list.