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Mar 20, 2007 01:32 PM

Lovers of Eleven Madison Park, speak to me

I finally got to go there last weekend with my wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law, for my dad's birthday this past Friday.

Beautiful, gracious service. And I am a sucker for the haute gimmick of amuses sprinkled between courses and the cute little orange-cherry brioches that we received ("a gift from Chef Humm to the ladies at the table"), and a double-sucker for the practice of having the chef himself circle the room and solicit comments from diners. I was definitely charmed.

But I wanted to love the food more.

Here's the thing. I think I am getting a handle on this particular thread in contemporary cooking. The meal reminded me a lot of my most extravagant meal during a recent trip to France, at a very lovely place called Stephane Derbord in Dijon (which received a few raves on the international board). There were foams, and dishes very elegantly composed of geometric shapes and artful smears of brightly colored sauces, and lots of trios of things, and quartets of things - lots of small things arranged together is what I mean. None of this is bad, at all. I am interested in cooking that addresses texture and visual elements as well as taste. At both restaurants I had the following two problems, though:

1) The flavors, though clearly very very carefully considered, were not STRONG enough for me. I felt like I had to cock my head and strain to fully taste what I was eating. At Eleven I had the big-eye tuna salad, the suckling pig dish and a pineapple-yogurt cheesecake. Everything was just slightly bland (except for the cheesecake which was quite salty), in the way that things I make myself sometimes are when I'm being timid with the salt - good ideas but too delicate to be delicious.


2) The portions. Now, as soon as someone complains about portions I tend to tune out, presuming that they're total Philistines if they think that a lot of food is somehow synonymous with great food. But - the dishes at Eleven are so carefully composed, and each tiny element is so small and precious, that it encourages (or forces) you to take very small bites, and I think that the end effect is to magnify the slight blandness of the food - not only is it very delicately flavored but you never get a real mouth-filling bite of a sort that would let you taste the food. If I had eaten my pork dish in full bites it would have been gone in two or three, so I tried to savor it by primly cleaving off postage-stamp sized bits of meat and then adding a single drop of the scarce (but lovely) marmalade, a sliver of the microscopic (but delicious) caramelized baby onion, etc. Accordingly, though I could appreciate the exquisite quality of each part of each bite, I never got an actual mouthful. And truly, suckling pig is a food that's meant to be eaten by mouthfuls, so that the sweet porkfat suffuses your taste buds with porky flavor.

So all in all I found the experience thought-provoking but unsatisfying. It reminded me again of why I'm such a big Anita Lo fan, as I find her food very thinky but also hearty enough to be both emotionally and intellectually exciting.

And I don't feel content to leave it at that. I read some rec's on the board for Eleven before we went, and they were very thoughtful and had me feeling certain that this would be a totally memorable meal. I feel like maybe I'm not approaching this food from the right angle, and I'm interested to hear from folks who love this place about what it is they love about it. Maybe I need a little re-education to really get it.

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  1. I don't have the taste problems you've mentioned at EMP - though I do have them at Annisa, where I think everything falls short of expectations. I wonder what you would think about Blue Hill at Stone Barns. My guess is that you wouldn't enjoy it.

    But I would agree that the portion sizes can be smaller than what we might be think is justified whether because of how we normally eat or because of the price we are paying for the meal.

    But when I think about it...I find the portions there to be just right. Nothing on the menu that I've had is truly small in [portion] size. I've never left the recent incarnation of EMP stuffed and having a hard time getting out of my seat and to the door, nor have I ever left hungry. I think they nail it pretty well.

    2 Replies
    1. re: dkstar1

      I definitely got enough to eat, so I'm not complaining about value for money. It's just that, for example, there was a caramelized onion the size of a blueberry that was an integral part of the flavor palette for the pork dish. The tininess of the onion meant that I had a choice between popping it in my mouth with one bite of pork and then missing it for the rest of the dish, or spreading it around (which I did) such that I got so little of it per bite that it was barely there.
      Of course, you could argue that I'm overthinking my eating here. But I think the evident thoughtfulness of the cooking warrants a parallel response.

      1. re: GDSwamp

        I see what you mean. It's a fair argument - but sometimes you just have to go with it. Your point is probably something many people will agree with you on...

    2. I know exactly what you are talking about, but have never been able to verbalize it as well as you have. I was always a big fan of EMP prior to the change of chefs. I enjoyed the room, the service and the food. I've been back since the change, but it had lost something for me. Now I know what's missing. I don't think EMP has descended into the ranks of the emperor having no clothes, but I don't think it deserves all the adoration it typically gets.

      2 Replies
      1. re: RICKO

        You know what? I think you made a brilliant observation and hit my feelings right on the mark although i couldnt express them as well as you.. I had lunch there last month. Everything wonderful, but my chicken came with dots, yes dots of mashed potatoes and squash. Why so little? They were delicious but microscopic. Im not a big eater but lets compare it to a similiar dish i had at Bouley where you get a decent portion of potatoes. So whats the difference? At EMP you feel a bit cheated and at Bouley you're in Nirvana. Thats what makes EMP a very good restaurant, but Bouley a great one.

        1. re: DoctortedNYC

          I have experienced both of Daniel Humm’s restaurants – Campton in SF and EMP. Imho, he did well at Campton and actually did better at EMP. However, when we had to choose between dinner at EMP and Bouley (we’ve also dined here before), we decided to cancel our EMP reservation and were very satisfied with our decision.

          As a matter of fact, and just very recently, it was a no brainer for us to go with Babbo (another restaurant that we’ve dined at) for an upcoming dinner and, again, relinquished our EMP reservation.

      2. I feel the same way. I would like the flavors to be more assertive, more seductive, more explosive, more confident.

        1 Reply
        1. re: mimolette

          I would agree; the meal was nothing spectaular.