I had the occasion to eat at Eleven Madison Park last night. Having benefited from the generosity of those who regularly write up their restaurant narratives, I will ‘pay it forward’ and share my experience as well.
Eleven Madison Park was my first mind-blowing restaurant experience. My stomach will always have a soft spot for the restaurant. I can still taste a tomato gazpacho from a year and a half ago and I have only the fondest memories for a front-of-house team which treated my then-22-year-old self like I was a Managing Director, an Executive Vice-President or a Deputy Mayor.
Our group of four presented some dietary considerations. Two of us, myself included, are vegetarians and a third diner prefers not to eat cheese (a serious character flaw) or red meat. We were all eager to try the tasting menu, and I had confirmed our dietary preferences with the restaurant several days before by phone and with an e-mail the day before our reservation. Something must have been lost in translation between the reservationists and the wait staff, however, as our captain had not been notified in advance of our various peccadilloes. And prior to taking our order, a server had (without explanation), left us a box of black and white ‘cookies’ with foie gras and truffle that we all enjoyed. I was a little disturbed to find out what these contained after eating them (I’ve been a vegetarian for a decade—although, I will note, the ‘cookies’ were delicious). Surely Eleven Madison Park would not have served us this amuse if they had noted our dietary preferences.
Regardless, as they did a year and a half ago, Eleven Madison Park excels at tailoring their menus to the fancy of the customers, and they certainly lived up to their reputation last night. The vegetarian menu is listed below:
Tea with quail egg
YOGURT AND CHICKPEAS
Lollipops with curry, panisse with yogurt
Beet gelee with egg, rye
Snow with apple gelee
Tabbouleh salad with olives and orange
Roasted with black eyed peas, ham and coriander
Roasted with watercress, horseradish and lemon
Variations with quinoa and meyer lemon
Braised with apple and garlic
Vacherin with marble potatoes, pearl onions and mustard greens
Orange, cocoa nib and seltzer
Goat cheese, blood orange and vanilla
Sorbet with caramelized cocoa pastry, bergamot and olive oil
A couple of highlights—the bread service is, as noted by many, incredible. Warm butter rolls and elegant dishes of goat and cow butter are quickly refreshed, and they arrive perfectly warm and flaky. Eleven Madison Park is at its best when offering complementary preparations of a single ingredient. No course better illustrated that then LEEK, which contrasted a tender, braised leek with a charred, visually stunning whole leek (with root attached) and a leek puree, which tasted like pure leek butter. The whole plate was brought together by a bright Meyer lemon vinaigrette. PLANTAIN was a play on classic Central American flavors—sweet, roasted plantain, salty beans, bright cilantro. All of the components were elevated and the resulting flavor was a pure distillation of something at once familiar and new. The cheese course featured a Vacherin Mont D’Or. As usual, Eleven Madison Park’s cheese course leaned toward a composed plate rather than the traditional slices/fruit/nut presentation. Easily the heaviest course I was served, the Vacherin was warm and runny atop gently cooked potatoes. The course approached ‘too much’, although a few bright peppercress leaves and mustard brought down the heaviness. Our captain kindly brought us the Vacherin in its handsome spruce box to inspect. The EGG CREAM was a delight, and was accompanied by a spirited thesis statement of the restaurant—being “of New York,” and all that. (Perhaps this would’ve been better suited to the beginning of the meal, accompanying the black and white ‘cookies,’ but, alas.)
There were a few nit-picky let-downs, particularly regarding the service. As noted, we ran into some vegetarian complications at the beginning, and reading through our take-home menu, I’m reminded that there was definitely ham-tasting product on the PLANTAIN plate. I’m not sure how the kitchen overlooked this. One of my dining compatriots, who had requested no red meat, was served the 55-day aged beef and had to send it back. Apologies all around from the staff, but it was a bit awkward to dip into our contemporaneous CABBAGE course while the kitchen prepared a chicken alternative.
Veering into whining, here: the restaurant missed a few opportunities to end on a high note—we were not served any mignardises or chocolates to accompany our coffee (and cognac, which is a lovely touch, particularly for a table of 24-year-olds). The sweet, traditional black and white cookies, which I noticed landed on many other tables, were absent. This would have put a nice bookend on the meal.
Our party, which happened to be two males and two females (romantically uninvolved, although perhaps with a little more time to nurse that cognac…), was presented with two jars of take-home granola for the females. I politely requested a jar of granola for the men, who would otherwise be granola-less on this Wednesday morning, and was aggressively rejected—“it’s restaurant policy.” An hour later, when we retrieved our coats, the hostess presented us with our granola—our captain was kidding with us earlier—but it was a bit of a bizarre moment. The granola was wonderful.
And the most nit-picky: the printed menu we received is littered with errors (the lollipop was yogurt and lentils, not chickpeas, ‘Gelée’ is spelled both with the accent and without, inconsistent use of the Oxford comma, “vacherain” spelled wrong…). I know this is the most persnickety (please take note, law schools to which I am applying), but they’re such careless errors that are easily fixed.
As many have pointed out, Eleven Madison Park customers may be let down from unreasonably high expectations. The proliferation of food forums, Flickr accounts and blogging have given many (myself included) the opportunity to meticulously research what a meal at the restaurant is like, eliminating nearly all of the elements of surprise which can make a visit to Eleven Madison Park particularly special. Still, for a product which costs as much as Eleven Madison Park’s does, diners should expect a near-flawless service. Our meal came about as close as one can reasonably expect from a restaurant, and, with a few months of eating nothing but chickpeas, I would definitely return.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010