Ah, Eleven Madison Park, the subject of much debate on this very board. I'd been a few times before, but only ever for lunch, and decided upon EMP as the spot to celebrate a special occasion with my fiance. I was eagerly anticipating a fantastic meal.
We walked into the restaurant's imposing space on a cold, windy night, and spotted Danny Meyer saying goodbye to guests as they left. A good sign. The room was filled with a warm lighting, and pretty yellow flowers everywhere. Not exactly romantic, but not exactly too cold or forbidding, at least to me.
We opted for the Winter Gourmand menu with one small change, swapping out the squab for the famous suckling pig instead. "Why, that's the first time I've heard that request!" joked the maître d' to us after we asked. He whisked away our menus, and we began our four and a half hour journey into Chef Humm's delectable cooking.
Hors d’œuvres were nothing short of exemplary. A tiny round of tuna tartare with fennel and fennel pollen was refreshing and woke the taste buds. A tiny, fried coronet of veal sweetbreads was perfectly crispy, not oily, and brimming with deliciousness. A round of fragrant mushrooms in puff pastry with a dollop of creme fraiche was delightful and flaky, the filling meaty and savory. Our favorite was the foie with a spiced cracker. I thought I tasted cardamom? Coriander? in the crisp. In any case, there was a moment of silence at our table as we both closed our eyes, savoring the bite of wonderfulness. And to say nothing of the warmed gougères! My lord. I would return if only for these intense, perfect, wonderful puffs. The bread and butter was fine, nothing outstanding, and it continually irks me that the butter isn't soft and spreadable, like it is in other Danny Meyer restaurants. The salt and pepper dish is always a nice touch, though. But, soon, I was to regret even having half a baguette.
Suddenly, the fantasy of egg appeared at our table. A beautifully presented duck's egg shell filled with layers: cauliflower puree, poached duck's egg yolk, Santa Barbara uni, Royal Sterling caviar, and uni form. I love eggs, so no surprise that I thought this was fantastic. Perfect. Gentle. Soothing. A little strange, I thought, to follow up some very assertive hors d’œuvres with such a subtle course, but I still loved it. Perhaps the best caviar I've ever eaten. I turned the egg upside down to slurp out every last drop.
The heirloom beets were next. A very interesting course in that it was presented as two spoons filled with a single taste. One with a round of beets. One with a round of goat cheese. Liquid spheres with delicate skins, floating in olive oil, that popped in your mouth! Very playful. I was expecting really intense or pungent flavors as that's how I've always eaten beets or goat cheese, but whatever Chef Humm did, it took the edge off of both. My boyfriend usually does not like beets, but he liked this dish.
At this point, there was an odd pause in the pacing of our meal. The Fantasy of Egg and heirloom beet dishes appeared in quick succession, and then there was a noticeable delay until the next course, which leads me to believe that the beets came too quickly? Or, rather, they know that you're hungry when you sit down, and want to give you a good amount of food immediately? I'm not sure but it was unexpected.
Maine Diver Scallops eventually arrived. The dish was presented as a "ceviche" with lobster, satsuma tangerine, and Frantoia extra virgin olive oil as well as Himalayan pink rock salt. The tangerine juice, a drizzle of olive oil, and grating of salt were added tableside. "The rock salt goes a long way," explained our server. How complicated! I loved how the scallops were thinly sliced, and separated by layers of thin, delectable lobster. But it's not what I think of when I think of ceviche, having visited Mexico a few months ago. The tangerine added a nice citrus tang. And bits of scallions on top contrasted wonderfully with the supple scallops. This dish reminded me a lot of a similar dish that Momofuku Ssam Bar of diver scallops, pineapple, and scallion oil. I have to confess that I wish the EMP dish had a more assertive flavor profile, but I still enjoyed it.
Foie gras terrine with golden pineapple, pickled pearl onions, and rum-raisin brioche was presented next. I was eagerly anticipating this dish. My boyfriend swooned over the foie gras. We were presented with a nice strip of foie accompanied by a delicate foie custard in a tiny bowl with pineapple foam. (I'm still surprised that Chef Humm uses foam in so many of his dishes given that it's considered passe by many foodies.) We began eating the custard first. Unfortunately, my first spoonful was all pineapple foam. Oops. I enjoyed the custard once I dug my spoon far enough down into the dish. Then: the foie terrine! So rich! The combination of pineapple, raisin, and foie was great. I'm a sucker for the fattiness of foie complimented by sweet fruit. And the brioche was basically the best raisin bread on the planet. The onions, I didn't really care for, as the sharpness seemed to throw things out of whack. The other thing I must note is that it was difficult at first to figure out how to eat the dish, given that the single piece of brioche was round, crustless, and toasted on one side. I think I much prefer having regular old bread slices (crust = easier to hold onto the pieces of bread) when eating foie. Although the form factor was not what I was used to, the taste was unmistakeably yummy.
Nova Scotia Lobster was next. Delicious! A warm, inviting foamy soup of Madras Curry, with tiny, tart cubes of Green Apple, and hints of Lemongrass on the bottom. All topped with a drizzle of kaffir lime oil. To die for! The lobster pieces, perfectly cooked, practically melted in my mouth. There were a good number of lobster nuggets inside, and the generosity of the serving surprised me. Although the soup looked like a small portion, the intensity of flavors were spot on, and made me want to savor each bite. Each mouthful was a revelation. Afterwards, I also savored the warm, slightly spicy feeling in my throat (perhaps from the lemongrass). Wonderful. I almost asked for another helping.
The Red Snapper was next. Since RGR raved about this dish, I had high hopes. Unfortunately, they were not met. I'm not sure anything could have stood up to the foie gras-lobster 1-2 punch, though. It was a nicely fork-tender, slow cooked piece of fish with more foam, and peppers on top on top. I think the endive was what sitting on the bottom? Although I could have sworn someone said the word ginger as it was presented. Although I really like red snapper in sushi form, in cooked form, it really didn't have a lot of flavor. The execution was fine, I just didn't think the dish was all that delicious. Sadly, a letdown and bland in comparison to the lobster and the foie gras terrine.
At this point I was afraid of the food to come, as I was starting to feel very full. The Everglades Frog’s Legs dish was next. I was a little apprehensive, having never tried frog's legs before, but our server tried to soothe my fears. "It's my favorite dish! Please try it! I think you'll really enjoy the frog's legs," she said. It was presented as a lasagna "Forestière" with Vin Jaune and Nasturtium. By lasagna, it was really a nice piece of pasta, on top of the succulent meat, with mushrooms. The pasta covering was gorgeous, and I could see individual leaves of herbs, embedded inside. Absolutely gorgeous, and accompanied by tableside drizzlings of a heavy cream sauce and trumpet mushroom jus. I said to my boyfriend, "I'm not so sure about this. You go first." He took his first bite, closed his eyes, slowly chewed, and swallowed. When he opened them, he didn't say a word. He just pointed at my plate. And pointed urgently, again. "Well, OK!" I said. And tried the lasagna. It was an umami explosion in my mouth. Good lord. Savory, tender, meaty, delicious, succulent, creamy, toothsome. I thought I might explode with each bite. Try as I might, I could NOT finish this dish, leaving about a third upon my plate. Our server rushed over, thinking something was wrong. I assured her that I loved the lasagna, but my stomach was rebelling. "It happens!" she sighed. Luckily, my dining companion had already finished his portion, and was ready for the challenge of eating my remainder. Bite by bite, eyes closed, savoring every morsel. (Boy, did I regret eating those rolls at the start, now.) Instead, I got up for a stroll, and prayed that they would slow down the progression of the tasting menu.
My hopes of surviving the Gourmand menu seemed dim, but I was not about to give up. I quietly sipped water and tried to aid digestion, hoping my brain signals could hurry my stomach up. Then, the cheese cart was rolled towards us. I couldn't even look at the selection, delicious as it looked, and pleaded for a sample plate of 3 pieces, rather than listening to descriptions of all the available cheese. My stomach was nearing overload but we soldiered onwards. With tiny bites, I enjoyed a very nice aged Gruyere with apple butter, a Spanish semi-firm cheese with crunchy Mancora almonds, and a triple creme goat's cheese with jam. My boyfriend enjoyed an ashy goat's cheese (pungent!), a quietly funky semi-firm cheese that had been aged in balsamic vinegar, which I found delightful, as well as a third I cannot rememer. All were very, very tasty but I only had a small taste of each, trying to save room.
Finally, the pre-dessert Winter Citrus parfait of Grand Marnier and tarragon, paired with an orange tuile and candied black olives, and tiny perfect cubes of citrus, with dots of sauce. This was beautifully presented, with perfect tiny cubes of fruit, gorgeous scatterings of various sauces in perfectly circular dots. Overall, I found it wonderfully refreshing, and not flavors I would have normally expected to go together quite so well. Luckily, I had no troubles finishing this course, as it was so light, even though I could fill my stomach filling up.
And lastly, dessert: essence of arabica, crispy cannelloni with coffee, chocolate and milk. This was a delicious crispy tube filled with an espresso-chocolate mousse. Lovely, sweet, and rich, without being too heavy, which I was grateful for. The mousse was contrasted nicely with a crunchy, chocolate-y soil and refreshing ice milk. While not as wonderful as the chocolate sea salt tart, this dessert was a nice ending to an excellent meal. By the last few bites, I was feeling faint, but happy with my meal. And then...misgardises!
We finished with coffee (thank God) and a fluffy of mignardises: a Grand Marnier cream puff with olive oil cream (decadent), some sort of herbal green jelly (refreshing), a tiny linzer cookie (perfectly crisp), a raspberry macaron with dark chocolate ganache (intense), a pistachio financier (nutty and buttery), a passion fruit bon bon (tart but sweet), a wonderful peanut butter-chocolate tart (rich and delicious). They were all wonderful, with the peanut-butter-chocolate tart being my favorite, but I was experiencing severe fullness, as well as palate fatigue.
Overall, the service at the restaurant was exemplary. Some may find the excess of staff to be odd or annoying, but I enjoyed watching the crew members flitting about the room, like a well-oiled machine. Every one we came in contact with was pleasant, happy, and poised. Perfect service, delicious food (I still dream of that lobster...that suckling pig...those gougères!), a wonderful setting, and a beautiful evening. We settled up our bill, and stepped out of the restaurant, into the night, full, happy, and more than a little bit sleepy.