I'm interested in the experiences/opinions of other Hounds at Eleven Madison Park respecting the menu format. At first it seems adventurous and flexible, but when we went for lunch the other day (had the 3-course lunch), our waiter explained that the kitchen would create dishes based on the main ingredients we chose and then asked if we had dietary restrictions. He didn't make any other efforts to learn about our likes/dislikes or tastes/desires. We bought into the approach and I ordered "Lobster" and "Beef", with "Sheep's milk cheese" for dessert and my wife went with "Black Cod" and "Octopus", with "Chocolate". The waiter asked if my wife preferred intense chocolate or not, and also suggested that the cod be served before the octopus, as it was a "lighter" dish.
Had we been thinking about what he said, and not just enjoying our expectations, we would have realized that the dishes were already planned, otherwise, how would he know the black cod was a lighter dish then the octopus presentation? He also didn't mention to my wife that both her selections were considered appetizers, although after she ordered she overheard another waiter mention that to a different table. She said she would have ordered differently had she known that.
The "Lobster" dish I got was a pseudo-lasagna with loads of squash, which I would not have ordered had I a fuller description. I have no dietary restriction about squash, and it isn't offensive enough to me to mention it as an item I would not want served, but I don't care for it as a central focus of a dish and I was not happy with the dish.
The cheese plate was a mess - literally. An unfocused spread of cheeses, gelees, greasy corn bread, corn kernels, micro greens, and dried, peeled and unpeeled fresh and dried tomatoes strewn about. Again, had I an inkling of what this would have been, I would have steered well clear of it. After tasting the components, I left the rest of the plate virtually untouched. (A bit surprisingly to me, given the reputation of EMP for attentive service, no one followed up to understand why the plate went back to the kitchen intact).
So is it caveat emptor at EMP? Is the burden on the diner to ask about the proposed preparation of each and every dish? If so, doesn't that undermine the point of the concept? Both my wife and I talked on the way home about whether the menu is a scam, and we both think that it is, but not sure what the benefit is to the restaurant. Conceptually, if the server makes an effort to understand our palate and the kitchen actually does tailor dishes, then it could be interesting (although surely unworkable), but to have all the dishes already prepared and then just not tell me about them just seems silly and gimmicky rather than clever and cutting edge.
Are we missing something? Is your experience different? Have you learned to micro-manage your meals there? But if I have to do that, then am I not usurping the chef's inventiveness? Is there a charm or benefit to the coyness of the menu that we are missing? Am I just supposed to enjoy the mystery, notwithstanding that I don't like my food? After the experience, I guess we just don't get it. Happy to hear other views.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010