So, a computer virus killed my laptop and ~2/3 of this review, plus a substantial part of my weekend - but here is draft #2.
Full review with copious pictures in blog, text as below:
My final day in New York would take me back to Eleven Madison Park for the third time. Rarely one to revisit restaurants it says a lot about my feelings for a place when I do so, let alone more than once, and in the case of Eleven Madison Park it speaks of trust – a restaurant I trusted on my first visit, a restaurant I sent one of my best friends to on her honeymoon, and a restaurant I recommend unequivocally to anyone who asks. In a world where some restaurants come and go before you ever knew they existed and other restaurants never seem to change Eleven Madison Park does nothing but evolve – from Danny Meyer’s tenure to the current ownership of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara there seems to be a restlessness, a thought that no matter how good they are or how many awards they claim, that they can always improve; and thus far they have.
Sparring you the details of the restaurant as the majority of changes since my last visit relate to the sale of the restaurant from Meyer to Humm/Guidara, the baking of breads in house, the release of a cookbook (okay, picture book with recipes,) and minor staff changes as relates to the upcoming Nomad project (not yet opened when during this visit) everything about my arrival to Eleven Madison Park was the same as my previous two visits – the revolving door, the welcoming smiles, the gratuitous hellos, the brilliant sunlight and fresh flowers, and this time even the table and the friends seated at it with me.
With the room bright and many diners already engaged in food and drink it would not be long before our server arrived, a man named Kevin who would prove to be just as pleasant, knowledgeable, and conversant as those in the past and with napkins unfolded, water filled, and a few beverages to begin the only thing left to decide was the menu – a decision made easily after looking at the grid and inquiring about preparations; the tasting menu, with a few specific requests.
Settling in for the seven-course feast but obviously well aware (as any who’ve dined at Eleven Madison Park are) that there would be much more to the afternoon than that it would not be long before one of the back servers arrived, though this time not with the expected gougeres, but instead with warm moist towels to wash our hands and a white box tied with a string and a card with “Black and White Cookies” written in bold – my mind instantly flashed to Jerry Seinfeld, and with a laugh we plucked the card from the box and began to untie.
With text stating "The quintessential New York treats found in old-School bakeries and 24-hour diners throughout the city. Thought to have originated in upstate New York in the early 1900's. They were originally made with leftover cake batter and are glazed on one side with chocolate frosting and on the other with vanilla" it was explained to us that these cookies were not traditional at all, but rather a savory, and with the box opened you could tell from three feet what was contained as the air of truffle washed over the table. The first of many ‘shout outs’ to the city of New York and yet another step in EMP’s evolution all that can be said about this sandwich cookie is told in the ingredients – crème fraiche, black and white truffles, and foie-gras filling…if they were sold like Oreo’s I’d eat them by the sleeve.
With the first of the wine pairings arriving for one of my friends and a creamy concoction mimicking the classic “Orange Julius” ordered by the other (a drink so perfectly reminiscent of my childhood that I’d be forced to order one of my own later on) my cocktail for the afternoon was the “Heart of Stone,” a brilliant drink whipped up by the house mixologist consisting of Haitian Rum, Amontillado Sherry, Apricot Liqueur, Allspice Dram, Cane Syrup, Lemon Juice – all the flavors blending nicely to accent the smooth notes of the rum and dry sherry but adding a substantial degree of sugar and savory that sang to my personal tastes for sweeter drinks.
Cookies still lingering on the palate the next in Humm’s parade of canapés was “Apple - Tea with Quail Egg and Bacon,” a two part dish with savory herbal infused apple consommé served in a glass and a small cracker topped with a sunny-side quail egg, savory bacon, and a touch of aged cheese. Meant to be taken as a single bite I enjoyed the interplay of the savory and the sweet, a theme the next set of canapés would build on.
Moving quickly as the canapés often do, “Yogurt and Chick Peas” arrived next with a trio of yogurt lollipops dusted with curry and fried lentils plus another trio of warm panisse with yogurt. Beginning first with the lollipop – cool but not cold, spicy but not ‘hot,’ and with a nice crunch from the lentils within it was a very dynamic bite and also a perfect setup for its partner, warm and starchy with just a bit of bite…a perfect point/counterpoint to the lollipop in terms of texture and temperature yet delivering a somewhat similar flavor profile.
With the taste of curry still on my lips and palate now fully awake the final amuse to arrive would be a familiar one, but one I could enjoy time and again – “Smoked Sturgeon - Sabayon with Chive Oil.” Served piping hot, smooth as satin, and light as air with the smoky notes of the fish at top and basenotes of butter there really is no way to describe this dish other than perfect and with just a touch of chive oil floating at its top it remains one of my many favorite dishes delivered in an egg shell – every bit as memorable as those at L’Arpege, Manresa, or Providence and just a touch less spellbinding than Keller’s Truffled Egg.
Professing at this point to what I would personally consider to be the “amuse bouche,” though in reality perhaps better described as five canapés served simultaneously the first of many “tableside” dishes arrived in the form of “Clambake - with Chorizo, Apple, and Potato.” Ostensibly an upscale reinterpretation of a New England clam bake with the centerpiece a frothy chowder rife with cream, butter, and lemon at the top gently giving rise to the brininess of the clams and what I’m rather sure was an element of pork what truly made this dish was the accompanying bites – two ‘clams,’ a baked bite, and a fried one.
Beginning first with the ‘clams,’ one was indeed a bivalve, specifically a manila clam with apple and melon juice that was fine but nothing to write home about, while the second was instead a creamy mousse of trout roe, corn puree, and a touch of chorizo – a sweet and savory amalgam with just a bit of spice that led nicely into the next bites – a remarkable Madeline made with corn and chorizo that might as well have been the best cornbread ever served at a clam bake, and a lobster croquette featuring a crisp shell giving way to a buttery burst of lobster. Having never been to a clam bake but quite familiar with the concept I must say this was one of the most clever dishes I’ve seen in some time and with the hot stone and seawater tableside presentation it struck me as yet another evolution in what Humm and team are doing at the restaurant.
With canapés and amuses having whet the palate and now almost an hour into the meal we would next get a glimpse of our main course in its raw form before an I would at last see my only ‘gripe’ about EMP finally addressed in the form of their oft raved new ‘bread program’ – a change implemented shortly after my visit one year prior. Admittedly having enjoyed the olive baton but having never understood why Humm and team did not make their own bread considering their Beard Award winning pastry department and the high quality of both their signature cow and goat milk butters it was with great expectations that the housemade butter rolls would arrive – a warm trio in a cloth bag, and plucking one from the pack and taking a bite I was impressed, somewhat. Sure the roll was tasty, a crisp shell giving way to a dainty yeast-raised crumb with plenty of butter…it reminded me of Thanksgiving dinner, but at the same time it also felt sort of ‘standard’ and the intrinsic buttery notes unfortunately subdued the varying flavor profiles of the two supplemental choices, though I still favored the texture of the goat. Perhaps an artifact of too much hype, or perhaps a fault of my penchant for carbs, in the end there was a part of me wishing they still had the olive baton, at least for the sake of variety, and when it took greater than twenty minutes to bring me a second piece because they had to bake more this desire only grew. The butter roll is a nice start, but in terms of a “program” Bouley, Keller, Boulud, White, and Batali are still turning out equally good choices with far more variety at multiple outposts.
Moving now to the first proper course of the afternoon, “Cauliflower” with Tabbouli Salad, Olives and Orange would arrive and almost immediately the tone was set for the rest of the meal…in short, what Daniel Humm is doing with vegetables right now must be experienced. Served as a sort of cous-cous at the center of the plate with the cauliflower literally broken down to individual grains and subsequently topped with grated orange, dehydrated and crushed olives, plus a veritable cooked wheat ‘snow’ each bite of the dish presented us with something new – at times brine, at times citrus, and finally an herbal note added by parsley cream at the center of the pile; truly an inspired dish.
Finding it hard to believe that I’d been so enthralled by cauliflower my expectations raised by about five notches when I saw the next course was my favorite food – “Foie Gras.” Admittedly expected given the fact that we were each asked if we would prefer a hot or cold preparation when we ordered the tasting the first version served to the lady of the table was hot, a seared lobe from Hudson Valley Farms measuring approximately 2-3oz in size and paired with Granny Smith apples, oat streusel, sorrel, melted leek puree, and sweet foie gras jus. A beautiful preparation, caramelized on the exterior and creamy within, this dish again shined in its vegetal aspects as the mild sour of the apples proved a perfect foil to the savory leeks and sorrel while the oats added texture.
Moving next to the terrine, expectations again high as Humm’s previous two attempts had both wowed, I must say that my first thought was one of envy; to put it lightly, the terrine was tiny, particularly when compared to the seared liver to my left. Moving on, however, with my gluttony acknowledged the terrine was also excellent, not only in its own ethereal texture but more so in what it did for its plate mates. Beginning first with the most abundant flavor, winter black truffles, the plate featured these in a shredded form first and then in both a foie gras vinaigrette and a purple Peruvian potato puree – the essence perfuming the palate with each bit and carried admirably by the unctuous liver. Again showing a deft hand with vegetables and textures, additional rounds of the sweet potatoes were added along with locally foraged greens and finally a rye crisp adding a slight bitterness well matched by the vinaigrette.
Having already noted that much of this meal would be about the vegetation involved we were all excited to see that our third course was the much raved “Sunchoke” specifically requested by my dining partners. Already a fan of the vegetable but rarely seeing it ‘featured’ outside of soups I was curious to see what the praise was about and when it was not until I took a bite that I truly understood – this was not just a dish made with a sunchoke, but rather an homage to it and featuring it in no less than six forms including sous vided, dehydrated, pureed, roasted, and fried accented by notes of lemon, watercress, horseradish, and pickled mustard seeds. Likely a dish that I would have never ordered, particularly given my general distaste for the later two ingredients, this is simply a plate that needs to be experienced to be appreciated and much like the cauliflower a dish that showed me the kitchen thinking on a different wavelength than prior.
With course four a protein would finally be presented in the form of “Lobster,” and much like the foie terrine the portion was petit while the impact was profound. Described at length by Kevin (with further details provided later on) this bold and decidedly dark dish featured the aforementioned snappy, sweet, and butter poached but mostly obscured from vision on arrival instead choosing to focus the diner’s gaze on a background of army green and ink black – the results of charred leeks, burnt bay leaves, scallions cooked in squid ink, and black garlic shellfish bisque. Beautiful, intense, and equal parts cream and crunch with just a hint of Meyer Lemon acting as acid meld the flavors this was my favorite course of the meal, and one of the best of the trip as well.
With the previous mention of getting a look at our main course in its unprepared form just after the clambake, “Beef” would arrive next – another dish I’d not have ordered from the grid, but given past favorable experiences with aged meats at Roberta’s and Saison one I was willing to trust from Humm and team. Described as rare roasted 55-day dry-aged ribeye prepared simply with cracked black pepper and sea salt the beef itself was supple and tender with just a touch of funk – good, but honestly a bit more fatty and tough than I’d have expected based on prior experience. Moving next to the accoutrements, an composition of wood sorrel puree, pickled white beach mushrooms, baby marbled potatoes, and ‘Bordelaise’ beef jus infused with marrow – it probably goes without saying at this point that they were exemplary.
At this point sipping my Orange Julius while watching with a touch of jealousy as the table across the way was presented Eleven Madison Park’s signature duck the sixth course of our tasting was introduced tableside before plating – a cheese course entitled “Triple Crème” that not only literally presented a triple crème cheese, but also a clever play on words as three varieties of the cheese were presented. Described only as a 30-day aged cow’s cheese from Champlain Valley Dairy and featuring a mild taste with a bloomy rind the alternative interpretations of this cheese were first a version that had been aged while wrapped in an apple-brandy soaked apple leaf and second a version that Murray’s on Bleecker had imbued with house made pumpkin butter center. Interesting on their own, particularly the apple-brandy aged version, and generally not impressed by composed cheese plates the accoutrements here were hit or miss – the pumpkin seed gastrique and apple cream pleasant but the ‘apple mustard’ and horseradish spread far too potent for my tastes.
Cheeses completed but lot of bits and pieces left on the plate another tableside presentation would follow and, while I hate to admit it, the New York Classic Egg Cream was a first for me. Obviously an old time favorite of my friends (both the soda fountain staple and the version at EMP) I watched with interest as Kevin prepared the concoction with great vigor and although I really was not sure what to expect…IE, I thought an egg was involved…the combination of milk, seltzer, and cocoa nibs with light citrus notes was quite tasty – a great palate cleanser after the cheeses.
Continuing the New York theme, the pre-dessert of the afternoon would feature another staple in the form of “Cheesecake,” but quite unlike the version popularized by Juniors and others this was not your dense cream cheese pie in a buttery crust, but instead a light goat cheese meringue and airy snow served over creamy panna cotta with a layer of blood orange gelee and a quenelle of blood orange ice cream. Light and smooth, sweet and tangy, and complicated both in texture and temperature this was a beautiful dessert and gave me hope for more to follow.
With the coffee and digestif menu presented and the Siphon ordered to coincide with dessert Chef Humm would visit the dining room and after visiting with a number of tables including ours Kevin would next lead us to the kitchen – my first visit – where a special treat awaited.
Having heard impressive things about the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park I was not particularly surprised to find it spotless, polished, and operating with quiet poise and great speed at each station; what I was surprised by, however, was the alcove and standing bar where we were led for a nearly twenty minute conversation with multiple members of the staff and an on-the-spot complementary cocktail described as a “Jack Rose” featuring a Grenadine and brandy base, Liquid nitrogen apple puree sorbet, and topped with Pomegranate purée submerged into liquid nitrogen. Sweet but boozy, cool and creamy, fructose laden but balanced it was every bit as good as what Achatz and Co. are doing at Aviary in Chicago and served with a warm smile instead of a smug grin.
Returning to the table where napkins had been replaced and the dining room had mostly emptied Kevin returned with yet another cart – this one carrying the Siphon system – and presenting the beans for our approval he began the long process of preparing a pot of Yirgacheffe Ethiopia by Ecco Caffe as our desserts were delivered. A robust blend with a slight flowery note over a deep base of cocoa and honey the extraction was as good as anticipated and although not quite as memorable as the brew served the previous year still the most impressive restaurant coffee program I’ve experienced.
With an excellent pre-dessert and a lot of fluid constituting the last hour of the meal dessert almost seemed like a surprise when it arrived…and unfortunately, at least for myself, “Chocolate” was not the good kind. Described at length as Milk Chocolate Sorbet with Bergamot Creme and Caramelized Cocoa Puff Pastry Crumble the concept of the dessert honestly seemed like a sound one, but in terms of the execution there was just something off – the chocolate too mild, the bergamot too potent, and the additional McEvoy Olive Oil and Maldon Sea Salt simply adding to the confusion by producing a strange saline note. Texturally unique I guess I appreciate Chef Pinkerton’s willingness to take chances, but from a Beard Award Winning Chef I simply found this dessert to be a disaster.
With a second cup of coffee helping to quell my disappointment Kevin would soon return with a box similar to that which welcomed us and on untying the box we were again greeted with a trio of Black and White Cookies – this time sweet, with chocolate vanilla frosting and yuzu filling. Again untraditional, but again delicious and reminding me of the savory/sweet opening and closing to my meal at Manresa.
With the afternoon winding down but a few tables lingering in addition to ours the check would arrive along with copies of the menu, a jar of the house made granola, and a trio of glasses plus a bottle of Cognac and sparkling cider to enjoy as we liked – a lovely touch, even for a restaurant like Eleven Madison Park – and after a short while of sipping and lingering ourselves as the dinner team began to prepare the dining room for the second service we took our leave and said our goodbyes with a great string of meals behind us and more plans for the future.
…and so, despite a strong start in the end I honestly was not as ‘blown away’ walking away from Eleven Madison Park on this visit as I was in the past, yet having said that the meal was still impressive on the whole and really, even an average meal from Humm and team is the sort of thing that most restaurants can only aspire to. As expected, service was without flaw, the savories were genuine pieces of culinary art, and the atmosphere was second to none. Certainly the later part of the meal tailed off substantially for me and I still question the composition of both the cheese plate and the chocolate, but at the same time I realize it was not for lack of trying – merely for lack of match to my palate, something that could change on the menu as soon as tomorrow and given their tireless pursuit of perfection something that will undoubtedly have changed when (not if, as there is no question) I return...really, at this point I just can’t imagine trip to New York City without Eleven Madison Park just like I cannot imagine Eleven Madison Park without New York City.