So, celebrated the big 4-0 at Eleven Madison Park two nights ago. All in all, excellent as always, with one issue that I'll get to later. It had been awhile since I'd been for dinner - I've been for lunch in the past year, and a bite at the bar, but I haven't had a full-fledged dinner in... cripes, probably a year and a half? It's been some time. So I'd been looking forward to it, of course.
After a drink at the bar, we made our way to our table where I found a card waiting for me - from my parents. Seems they'd dropped a little surprise and had called the resto beforehand to pay for our meal. Well... wow! (And the EMP cookbook, too - beautiful!)
Since we had a larger than usual budget to play with (my girlfriend informed me that in her secret conversations with my mother, she'd originally planned on sending us to Per Se, before the gf correctly told her that EMP would be my preferred choice) we figured that as long as we stayed under a "Per Se level" budget, we could play around with the meal a bit - easy enough, as dinner + wine at Per Se would easily be a couple (few?) hundred more than a tasting + wine pairing at EMP. In the end, for reasons I'll get to below, we went with the straight tasting.
As we talked with our wine guy beforehand, I let him know my tastes - first, to mix it up with beers, wines, whatever - and that I had a taste for certain esoteric styles - I'm especially fond of lambics, slightly oxidized wines, beverages with a certain "barnyard funk" to them. He was happy to oblige. He seemed kind of excited to be able to bust out a few out-of-the-ordinary choices.
So without further ado, the food report:
First, an amuse. Two mini "Black & White Cookies" were delivered in a box wrapped in string, and we were informed that the tasting menu had a "New York" narrative in parts. These weren't normal B&Ws, though - they were savory, made of foie gras, one side coated with black truffle. Can't complain about that...
Then on to the Hors D'oeuvres:
1. Apple Tea w/thyme, Sunny-Side-Up Quail Egg
2. Hamachi with Pickled Ginger & Lemon, Scallop Ceviche with Yuzu
3. Yogurt Lollipops with Curry & Lentils, Chickpea Panisse with Yogurt
4. "Borscht" - Beet Gelee, Hard-boiled egg, Rye Crumble, Caviar
Simple starter - tea and an egg on toast, kind of like beginning the meal with breakfast - with the apple perhaps ushering in the "Big Apple" theme. Then we transitioned into three different NYC immigrant communities for a bite or two - Japanese, Indian, and Eastern European / Russian. Some were more exciting than others. The scallop kind of disappeared under the citrus, and the hamachi was fairly mild as well. The "Borscht" was the most flavorful, although... it wasn't really reminiscent of Borscht at all. The Beet Gelee was very mild, and any beety sweetness was lost under the intense flavors of egg & caviar. And other than beets - well, none of the other ingredients are part of Borscht. I suppose calling it a take on Borscht was the only real misstep, as it set up a certain expectation, and then the only ingredient I would actually relate to Borscht was decidedly in the background. That said, it did have a certain Eatern Euro / Russian flair to it, and it WAS tasty. Just not Borschty.
The real star of the Hors D'oeuvres round was the beverage pairing. As he poured, he told us that while he'd normally begin a meal with Champagne, tonight it'd be a sparkling cider - Etienne Dupont "Cuvee Colette" 2008. Let me tell you, when I asked for funk - he done gave it to us. It smelled like a band-aid crossed with a horse stable (mind you, I mean that in a good way... other funk-fans know where I'm comin' from...) but was light and crisp on the palate. I've had funky beers and wines but never a cider that went that route - I don't know (should have asked) if it was naturally or intentionally infected with Brettanomyces, or if it was some other process - either way, fantastic.
The second round of Hors was a trip out of the city to Long Island - the "Clambake" of which much has been written. Beverage was a Southampton Saison Deluxe, a perfect choice. Others have posted about it before, so no need to go into details. The individual bites were all good, but the silky chowder itself handily took top honors. And the presentation - which could easily cross the line into pure gimmickry - worked. Water was poured over hot rocks covered in seaweed, wafting the table with steam aromatized with the scent of the Northeast Atlantic Coast. They say that scent is one of the strongest nostalgia triggers - and for this coastal New England expat, it brought it.
Then, after our six mini-courses of thirteen different bites, it was announced that the "meal" was to begin, with five courses from the "grid" menu. The usual great bread (more like a croissant) with amazing butters (goat & cow) was delivered, quickly followed by the Cauliflower. The florets were shredded like couscous, bits of concentrated black olive and orange scattered around the plate and "tabbouleh" (ra concentrated parsley puree) hiding underneath. Interesting, I noted to my girlfriend, that this was (as far as I could tell) and entirely vegan dish. Basically a salad to start the meal, and a decent one, though not the most exciting thing I've had there. Wine was a 2010 Yves Martin Sancerre - smooth and light, a hint of grass that mirrored the parsley somewhat. Like the course it accompanied it was decent but nothing I'd go out of my way for.
Of course, what better way to follow the vegan course than with... foie gras! Two different preps were brought out. My girlfriend was served a terrine with a black truffle emulsion, potato and rye crisps (Trimbach Reserve Personelle, '04) while I was presented with a seared lobe accompanied with apples and oat streusel (Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes, '98) - my wine had a very intense nose, almost spicy - my first thought was "horseradish?" though the gf didn't pick up the same note when she smelled it - belying the sweetness underneath. Good on the palate, though I like a bit more acidity. This Sauternes fell pretty squarely on the sweet side, but it wasn't cloyingly so, so it balanced nicely. After tasting both plates, we each decided we liked each other's better so we swapped. I'm normally a seared foie guy, but the terrine was effin' terrific.
The third proper course was "Sunchoke" - and was one of the standouts of the meal. I like sunchokes, mind you, but they're not something one normally gets excited about. In this case, though... wow. There were a few different preps of choke on the plate - a roasted slab, some chips, a puree, all incredibly hearty and rich, with a watercress emulsion and a bit of horseradish to cut through it. This was an absolute knockout, and probably the dish I'll remember most. (Pichler-Kreutzler Grüner Veltliner, '09)
Fourth came a little rectangle of sole, with black truffle sandwiched down the middle, variations on celery around the plate, both stalk and root. Black truffle and celery root are one of those classic combinations, which made the sole almost incidental. There've been similar dishes to this one the last couple times we were at Aquavit (once with hay-smoked cod, another time with flounder - seems mild white fish is the protein of choice among chefs for those flavors) and I can't say one was better than another - in the hands of a decent chef it's a combo hard to go wrong with. Paired with a mysterious private bottling marked "No. 11" from Burgandy, an excellent Chardonnay blend. Great course that hit all the right notes.
Our final savory course was squab, and again we were treated to two different preps. For my girlfriend, with beets and chocolate-infused Squab jus. Mine was similarly plated, a perfect breast (the best squab I've ever had, hands down) and a leg with angry clawed foot attached, only mustard seeds (IIRC) infusing the sauce instead of cocoa. I liked hers better, personally - the cocoa added a wonderful depth, and cocoa + beets are a great combo. I believe we were both paired a Vincent Paris "Granit 60" Cornas '08, a solid if unobtrusive red with a hint of pepper, quite low on tannin for such a young'un.
Before dessert, time for cheese. I'm not a big fan of cheese courses, to be perfectly honest - I understand that they help transition the palate from savory to sweet, though I'll always get more excited for a composed pre-dessert. (WD-50 has for me always set the standard for pre-desserts - I don't know if it was Dufresne or Stupak/Livingston who concocted them, but they've often been meal highlights)
That said, they at least had some fun with it at EMP. It wasn't the standard cheese with quince paste and nuts or any of the typical presentations. I like that they basically served three bites of the same cheese, just each of them treated differently - one straight, one aged in apple brandy, the third you'll have to forgive me for not remembering - something involving pumpkin seeds. They were all paired with apple, rye crisps, pumpkin seeds, (pickled?) pumpkin cubes and a pumkpin vinaigrette. (I'm sure I'm forgetting or misremembering one element...) This is one of those things that EMP does where they realy shine - taking the same ingredient and presenting it multiple ways, just like with the celery and sunchoke earlier in the meal, only here cheese and pumpkin. Lots of restaurants do it, sure, but I'm not sure anyone does it better. Came with a '99 Foreau Vouvray - a somewhat unremarkable Vouv, but then I didn't expect them to pour a Huet Cuvee Constance or anything.
On to the desserts, and back to the NYC theme. Egg Creams (hooray!) were prepped at the table, the milk pure white but infused with cocoa nibs and a hint of orange oil. Kind of like an egg cream crossed with a Creamsicle. Delicious. Then "Cheesecake" - goat cheese with blood orange and vanilla, which continued the cream/citrus flavors of the egg cream. (Bottex "La Cueille" Gamay/Poulsard Demi-Sec Sparkling Rose, NV - inoffensive, easy drinker, but perhaps bordered a little too close to strawberry soda / wine cooler territory)
Finally, chocolate - of course. On my plate, too many variations to count - ganaches, tarts, cocoa nib, salted caramel sorbet. For her, chocolate sorbet with carmelized cocoa pastry, bergamot-infused something (cream?) and olive oil. The latter (hers) - amazing. For our beverage, the funk returned in an Albert Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout - a still, malty brew from '03 with a hint of the barnyard and gasoline / motor oil in the nose, rich roasted coffee, bitter chocolate, and tawny on the palate. Incredible - I don't know if Bretts were used in the brewing but it sure tasted that way. I can imagine fresh this one was quite intense, but with a bit of time in the bottle it's mellowed a touch. A really interesting and appropriate pairing. A great choice for me. Our pairer definitely went out on a limb with this one, and it paid off.
Finally, an actual (mini) Black & White cookie to bookend the meal. Cute. And the bottle of cognac - which came out before I'd had the opportunity to order a different brandy, something I'd intended to do. Could be I'd just spaced, though - we were offered coffee, which I declined, probably should have asked for the digestif menu at that point. Once the bottle hit the table, though, figured go with the freebie. At that point it was 1AM, only the two of us and two other tables were left - one a solo diner, the other a birthday party. We lingered for a bit and chatted with our new neighbors in the afterglow of a great meal.
Jar of granola was had for breakfast the next day with some 0% Fage yogurt, and the special "happy birthday" chocolate bars we managed to put off consuming until after dinner last night, though we kept eyeballing them all day...
We've never done the tasting menu before at EMP, and I've got to say, food-wise, it was wonderful as expected. As in any tasting like this - there were 24 different bites/plates, if my count is right - there were some that while not bad, were forgettable (the two raw seafood hors, a couple of the clambake bites, the cauliflower) amid the many highs (the foie black & white, the chowder, the sunchoke, the foie apps, both squabs - especially the one w/ chocolate jus, most of the desserts) - but overall one of the best meals in my memory.
Two things detracted, though. The first was my own mistake, reading Ryan Sutton's recent tasting review and looking at Ulterior Epicure's photo set of his. Of course both of them (I'm sure Sutton was recognized, and they all know what UE looks like) got abundant extra bells & whistles with their meals - the nitro cocktail, a sturgeon & caviar presentation, other little things - that we didn't. No biggie. Recognized well-read food bloggers and critics, more regular customers than we, etc, are going to get that stuff. (I'm not bonkers for the Jack Rose cocktail, anyway - hit me with a nitro'd Sazerac or Margarita, I'd be excited.)
The second - and I'm not going to mention any names, as I don't want anyone to get in trouble, and I'm even going to go so far as to only use the unspecifically-genered "they" when discussing them - was that one of our waiters (and I'm using "waiter" in a non-gender-specific way) came off a bit... short with us.
We were leaning towards the tasting, but I wanted to know more about a few of the regular menu options first. Some favorite ingredients were on there (octopus and rabbit in particular) so I wanted to see how they were prepared. Like I said, we had a budget to play with - a Per Se level budget, theoretically. If a dish from the grid caught our attention more than one of the regular courses from the tasting, could we sub it in for one of us, or could we add it to the tasting with a supplement? This is EMP, of course, so we knew the answer would be yes.
Except it wasn't. We were informed rather off-handedly - I might even go so far as to say gruffly - that the tasting was what it was and that's that.
So - since we couldn't make any alterations to the tasting, at least according to our server - we figured we might go with the regular menu. Maybe it'd appeal more to us. There were octopus and rabbit on it, after all. No idea what'd be in the tasting.
So we asked about the specific dishes from the grid, and the answers were short and mysteriously uninformative.
How is the octopus prepared? "It's braised then grilled."
...so I'm sitting, waiting to hear what flavors / ingredients it's paired with, and nothing is forthcoming. I ask more specifically, and am told there are two different versions of each dish listed.
Um... yeah, we know that already. What, y'know, ARE the two different versions? There was some hemming and hawing and... somehow we weren't told. Very odd.
I didn't even bother asking about the rabbit, it was obvious that line of questions would go nowhere, and we figured rather than push it... we'd just go with the standard tasting, sure it would be fine. Hey, if they didn't want us to spend more money... so be it. It was kind of a bummer, because in a perfect world we'd have perhaps subbed the octopus for the sole, since the sole was so similar in flavor profile to the dishes we'd had so recently at Aquavit. And we'd have gladly paid extra to add the rabbit to the parade of dishes. They add the duck as a supplement, of course, no reason they wouldn't do it with the rabbit I'm sure. Luckily the meal itself was so solid as to ameliorate any bad vibes it started with.
Our wine guy was the usual awesome EMP-ness, more than happy to mix up a the pairings for my funky tastes, very engaging, but the person who took our order was just... it seemed like they didn't want to diverge from the script. Maybe they were new, maybe they were having a bad day, I dunno. And as the meal went on, they loosened up a bit - it was just during the ordering process, for some reason, they were quite stiff, to the point it was a bit off-putting. Like, it wasn't even an "I'm sorry, the tasting menu is pretty set, the kitchen can't make any serious alterations to it." - I'd have been surprised to hear that, but whatever, it'd have been fine. Instead it was so brusquely delivered that it left us feeling kind of awkward for having asked. I began to wonder if I should ask if my mother had undertipped or something...
So, that aside.... yep, EMP is still tops in my book. Not that I expected that opinion to change.
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002
65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010