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Eleven Madison Park (review)


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Eleven Madison Park (review)

calf | Jan 3, 2013 09:35 PM

I've had a week to digest this meal. Mainly, it has grown on me. When I first walked out of those revolving doors, I was left wanting something more (I know, after an epic-format lunch, that sounds quite petulant). It wasn't my first time at a fancy restaurant, so it certainly was a worrying feeling to have. I've since concluded that in part I was feeling a little shy (I think it is a slightly overwhelming environment for a solo diner, compared to other restaurants), and that inhibited my full appreciation of the experience. It was a lot to take in, but looking back, a positive even if slightly challenging experience, and for the next while I can only dream of a future opportunity to go again, maybe even before the menu gets updated…

The food was very nice. Literally, as in, Very Nice™; I'm not sure how else to describe it. It is elegant, but natural with a studied casualness, which shows in the plating. It has the most accessible and essentially "American" food of all the high-end restaurants: not explicitly avant-garde (Corton), nor hyper-refined (Per Se), nor luxury-ingredient-overload (Chef's Table Brooklyn Fare), and so on. It seeks sophistication through lightness and simplicity. The impact is made through the procession of courses, with formidable consistency. Towards this, I've seen a Yelp comment complain that the food is derivative of kaiseki cuisine—and the same thought occurred to me while I was eating, except not as criticism but as a way of relating to their style.

A related point is the significant but discreetly conveyed emphasis on sourcing. They take pains to mention that their uni is east coast, amongst the local provenance of their ingredients. It is admirable and personally I am glad to see at least one high-end restaurant raising awareness of these issues of our time.

But my biggest take-home from this meal was the lesson (one that we all know on some level) that food can be great fun. Here this gives us refined cuisine that doesn't feel like temple food. For example the high-concept presentations—such as the sturgeon, or the carrot, or the cheese—worked by getting the diner involved in their food. Eating is made participatory, and the activity becomes a source of delight. I'm curious of their inspiration, but it would be entirely plausible if they had simply taken the idea of ishiyaki (a hot stone for the diner to grill something, sometimes seen in kaiseki) and ran with it*. The low-key theatrics of the pre-dessert and the chocolate candy are additional examples of fun and humor. These aspects of the experience make the restaurant a good occasion for bringing close family and friends to celebrate.

- The surrounding tables were a mixed demographic: a) an extroverted, older couple, b) a young couple from abroad, c) a quiet older couple, one with a notepad, c) a family of four with teens, from abroad. It was a happy environment.
- They took the special butter that I hadn't yet used. :/ I guess I was eating too slowly for them…
- More generally, it was a *lot* of food, especially when compressed into under 3 hours. I think it is reasonable to say that pacing has an impact on diners' perceptions of the meal.
- I think my biggest wish with fancy restaurants is more interaction opportunities to learn about the dishes and the restaurant. I think people are naturally curious about what they are being fed, it's just that we often don't know what to ask about it. For many of us these experiences are special and rare occasions; the better we understand the food, the more we can appreciate and treasure (and enthusiastically recommend) it for what it is. Of course, more waiters would cost more, and I'm not about to impose on busy-looking waiters.
- I neither received nor made a confirmation phone call—not sure what this means, was this an oversight?
- No kitchen tour, for the record. Fine by me.
- Coat check was awkward. I didn't tip because it was too physically awkward to tip.

Compared to other fine dining—
2+ hours:
Kajitsu (80) - A meditation on life. Come alone, or with a friend.
Corton (135/155) - Come with your culinary mind wide open. Leave with it altered forever.
Atera (165) - Exquisite ideas about food.
Bouley (175) - Utterly delicious cuisine.
The Modern (95/155) - If food could express the love of cooking.
3+ hours:
Per Se (295) - Perfection through meticulous, laborious finesse.
Eleven Madison Park (195) - Modern American kaiseki experience.
Momofuku Ko (175) - A culinary adventure.

*On second thought, there must be countless examples of elaborate, interactive setups in fine dining. I just haven't experienced any first-hand.

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