As part of their foodie tour of NYC, my parents and I followed up our excellent dinner at Tocqueville with a lunch at Eleven Madison Park the next day. I had taken them to EMP once before, but it was many years ago, before Chef Humm made it the restaurant it is today. Having read all of the reviews on Chowhound and elsewhere, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect, but my parents had only taken a cursory glance at the website - so they were in for a real surprise!
Much has been written on the level of service at EMP, so I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that I was very happy with the service we received. It was warm and professional without being overly formal (like at Daniel), and it was clear that each member of the staff has been trained to go out of their way to ensure that each customer has exactly the experience they’re looking for. There were a couple of awkward moments (my father is somewhat hard of hearing, and tends to pretend that he has heard things when he hasn’t, which caused some confusion while we were ordering, etc.), but overall we were impressed.
Once we were seated, we were greeted by our head waitress, given some incredible gougeres (which put the gougeres at Tocqueville, though they were lovely, to shame!) and then visited by the sommelier, who answered a couple of questions I had about the wine I wanted to try (a vin jaune, which they offered by the glass - an interesting and highly unusual offering). She stopped by again later in the meal to ask how I was enjoying it and brought me a card with information about the wine - a nice touch. After the head waitress explained the menu format to us and asked the usual questions about allergies and preferences, we placed our orders. I had heard much about the clambake, so I asked if I might substitute that for one of my four courses. The waitress explained that it wouldn’t really work in that capacity but that she would be happy to bring it to us as an extra course, compliments of the restaurant. Very generous of them, and just one example of how they go over and above to please their customers.
A few minutes later, we received our first amuse, a tomato tea. I don’t get excited about tomatoes, but this was delicious - herby, clean and the absolute essence of tomato. It was also served at EXACTLY the right temperature - hot, but not hot enough to require caution or blowing. I’d be willing to bet there is someone in the kitchen with an instant read thermometer checking every pot before it hits the table. Our second amuse was an eggshell filled with a foamy sabayon and smoked sturgeon, with a surprise bit of chive oil in the bottom (an alternate mushroom egg was provided for my mother, who doesn’t care for seafood). Beautiful and tasty.
The clambake was served as a final amuse for our table. My mother, who wasn’t expecting to get anything she could eat, was served a special set of tasty, fish-free bites, while my father and I received the clambake in all of its glory. Each element (a razor clam in corn flan, a littleneck clam in some type of vinaigrette, a chorizo madeline and a lobster and potato puff) was a perfect little bite - and the clams were like tiny works of art (see attached photo of my favorite, the razor clam). The accompanying seafood veloute was equally sublime. My mother’s vegetarian substitutes included a watermelon and black olive bite and a potato with lemon pearls, which she adored.
At this point we received a delivery of their AMAZING bread with both cow and goat butter. I’ve never encountered a bread with quite this texture before - it was almost croissant-like in its airiness, but not at all greasy/buttery like croissants can be - perfectly tender and tasting of the essence of wheat. I can understand why a person who prefers a crunchy or thick-crusted bread might not care for it, but I was in heaven!
First course was foie gras for me (of course), cucumber for mom and tuna for dad. I was given a choice between a terrine or a seared preparation, but the waitress seemed reluctant to give me any more information about the dishes (beyond saying that the terrine was more typical of Chef Humm’s style). I typically prefer my foie seared, but I went with the terrine due to that tidbit of information, and I thoroughly enjoyed it - a little double-decker sandwich of terrine between shattering-crisp, paper thin crackers, with a million iterations of plum on the plate (raw plums, plum gelee, a gastrique, a puree, etc.). Gorgeous and tasty. My mother’s cucumber was a cuke lover’s dream (I am not a cuke lover, though). Dad’s tuna was lovely but involved a lot of raw tomato (again, not my most favorite thing).
At this point we were invited for a kitchen tour, which involved a complimentary cocktail presentation made up of apple foam and gin sorbet, frozen with liquid nitrogen. Both the making of the cocktail and the view of the kitchen were fascinating and I know my parents really enjoyed this insider view of things.
Next up: lobster for me, Loup de Mer for Dad and artichoke for mom. I enjoyed my lobster dish (tender chunks in a barely-constructed “lasagne,” with different squash alongside), but I may not have chosen it had I known what was involved in the Loup de Mer. It was by far my favorite dish of the day - seared and crisp, served on a whimsical bed of white bean puree with a puddle of sauce bouillabaisse that looked like a sunnyside-up egg. Surrounded by more white beans with chorizo. Completely, utterly sublime. The sauce bouillabaisse tasted like 10,000 lobsters happily marched to their death to flavor it. Amazing. The artichoke dish was an artful preparation involving grilled baby artichokes and a tender heart filled with tiny brunoise potatoes - nice but nothing mindblowing.
For our mains we had chicken, lamb and pork. This was actually my least favorite course all around, although nothing we had was bad in any way. I ordered the lamb, which was tender and rare, served with eggplants, a yogurt sauce and a cumin sauce. Fine, but not that interesting - a very common flavor combination presented in a rather pedestrian way. I felt the same about my father’s pork - the tenderloin was supremely tender (done sous vide) and the belly nice and crisp, but there was nothing terribly exciting going on. My mother’s chicken was fine, but not nearly as good as the one she’d had the previous night at Tocqueville. It came with a corn and farro “risotto” which she enjoyed, but the white meat was slightly dry. The dark meat, served fricasseed, came in a bland white gravy in a cup on the side of the plate - an extremely odd choice given how artistic and beautiful all the platings had been up to that point. The fricassee was also something you’d expect to get at a down-home Southern restaurant (or maybe KFC), NOT at a place like EMP!
After the egg cream (a fun presentation, and quite delicious even though I’m not a huge fan of malt), we moved onto desserts, which were a bit of a mixed bag. My mother chose chocolate, which in theory I should have loved - I adore chocolate, and this preparation involved lots of velvety ganache, which is one of my favorite things in the world. However, I took one bite and realized that they must have used Valrhona chocolate, which I detest (this was confirmed for me by the waitress). I know I’m going against the grain here, as millions of foodies adore Valrhona, but I find it extremely tart and acidic, which is just exactly what I am NOT looking for in chocolate, and I don’t understand why high-end restaurants favor it. Anyway, that harsh, acidic overtone spoiled the chocolate for me entirely, but the salted caramel ice cream that came with it was probably one of the best things I’ve ever put in my mouth - and since I know most people like Valrhona I’d have to call the chocolate dessert a success. I had the ricotta, which was nicely creamy and paired with peaches, apricots and cantaloupe. To my palate, the peaches and apricots worked, but the cantaloupe was far too watery to match well with the ricotta. The waitress also mentioned a peach vinaigrette, but it was either not there or so mild I couldn’t taste it. BTW, I make my own ricotta at home, and while EMP’s was delicious, it was no better than my own. My father’s plum dessert was an assortment of plums and plum flavored things prepared in various ways - good, although I noticed some repetition from my foie gras course.
We were offered coffee, digestivi and of course received a few little mignardises. I’m not a mignardises person anyway, but I thought these were particularly dismal - a boring macaron, a pate de fruits and a pretty but not exceptional shortbread with lemon curd. Not that I’m complaining - I was MORE than full and more than satisfied by all the wonderful things we had already eaten! They dropped off our keepsake menus and wished us a good day, and about 3 hours after we got there, we were off!
Overall impressions: we really enjoyed our meal at EMP, but I would say that I enjoyed the experience as a whole a little more than I did the food. Some of the dishes were outstanding and unique, but there were also some that were only average, or that seemed to be more about looks/presentation than flavor. I got the feeling that EMP is not entirely sure what they want to accomplish with their menu/cuisine. When we were in the kitchen, the woman escorting us made a point to mention the poster on the wall that has a list of buzz words like “cool” and “innovative,” on it, saying that those are the things they’re trying to focus on. Unfortunately, I think they’re caught between wanting to be more like Alinea or WD-50 and wanting to be more like Per Se, or maybe trying to straddle the line between an American restaurant and a European one. Or maybe they’re too busy trying to please everyone and perfect every aspect of the dining experience to achieve the tight culinary focus that I was expecting. Regardless, I am very surprised that EMP is only a 1-Michelin-Star restaurant, especially considering our experiences at some other 1-stars this week. More on this topic in another post - but for now, thanks for reading!
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010