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Eleven Madison Park goes off the rails

r
ryanandjess Jun 5, 2008 10:28 AM

This past long weekend was a big celebration for my wife and I. We love New York, so we decided to do our celebrating there (we’re from Chicago). I wanted to find a great restaurant for the big night, so I spent a lot of time reading all the great information posted here (thanks all!). It seemed pretty clear that the near-consensus top pick for a very special occasion was Eleven Madison Park. I made the reservation and tried not to read the menu every day at work in anticipation.

When we arrived we were greeted with a smiling congratulations on our big day. The room is beautiful, and we were led to a romantic table and presented with personalized menus. We each picked a cocktail to sip while we decided if we were up for the tasting menu (OK, that actually took about 2 seconds to decide: of course we were up for it). The drinks came a bit slowly, and we were actually presented with “appetizers” ( a tray of 4 small bites for each of us – I remember a salmon and cream freche bite, and a delicious lamb empanada-type bite) prior to our drinks’ arrival. OK, unexpected that they arrived so soon but certainly not a big deal. The drinks do arrive and we sit back and start to enjoy (we waited for the drinks to begin nibbling – server take note!). At the halfway point of our cocktails, the first wine pairing arrives (champagne) followed quickly by the first course. Now I’m a bit miffed at the timing, but still hopeful it will be corrected by what I assume is an attentive, experienced serving staff. We finish our drinks without touching anything else, then move on to course 1. The champagne (sorry, I don’t have the list) was the best I’ve ever tasted. Generally if I’m up for a spluge, I do it on red, not sparkling, but this glass made a great case for a champagne splurge. The first course, caviar and poached egg, was outstanding. I felt myself settling in to be wowed. Alas, it was not to be so.

After the next couple of courses were timed just right – certainly not overlapping like the cocktails and first course, and with a few moments to savor each course before the next arrived – things slowed to a c-r-a-w-l. We don’t know what happened. It was a weeknight and getting later in the evening. There had been several 6-8 tops in our area of the room who were leaving. Was some of the staff (waitstaff? kitchen?) starting to do side work? Whatever the reason, after the foie gras (course 4) was cleared, we waited long enough to notice and start looking around the room quizzically, which went unnoticed. After the halibut plates were cleared, we waited. And waited. After about 15 minutes (!) with just bread on the table and several minutes of both of us clearly looking around for some help (and our server in the area the whole time), I have to raise a finger to get him to come by. (This should never happen in a room of this caliber, not after we’ve been clearly trying to make eye contact with someone, anyone. Not well after the point that someone should have been by with an explanation without prompt.) We tell him that it’s been quite a while since the last dish was cleared. He responds “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were wanting to slow things down.” (Why would he think that? We had given no indication as such. It just came off like he was trying to avoid blame.) We said no. He says he’s sorry again and heads to the kitchen. He returned with our dish (wonderful pork belly!) about 5-7 minutes later, which again seemed quite long unless someone had forgotten to start our dish at an appropriate time. But he was very apologetic, fine, we enjoy some more great food and move on, assuming the problem is behind us.

That dish was cleared, and we wait 15 minutes again, the last 5 spent searching the room for eye contact, visibly annoyed. I again have to flag the waiter down (really? Twice?). I say, more forcefully this time, “the timing has really slowed down since the foie gras.” He replies “I’m terribly sorry, your dish is being crusted right now. I’ll go check on it,” and off to the kitchen again. He returns to our area of the room with no dish, talks to two or three other tables while we try to get his attention, then disappears. Now we’re pissed. An assistant comes by to fill our water or something and we tell him we need to speak to a manager. He returns and says the manager will be by in about five minutes (are you kidding?) and I say no, we need to speak to him now. Assistant disappears, manager appears and asks what the problem is. We explain the situation, and that our server now seems to be avoiding us. He is very apologetic and says he will straighten things out. He returns a few minutes later with our beef dish. In those few minutes, we’ve just gotten more and more upset that we’re out celebrating and having to argue and deal with incompetent service issues. Manager returns and my wife tells him again that this has really been unacceptable, that we’ve been to great restaurants and never experienced issues like this (all the while throwing out compliments about the quality of the food). Manager is as apologetic and professional as it is possible to be and asks what he can possibly do to make things right, and won’t we please enjoy our next course. We say OK, but now we’re both just too upset to stay any longer. We take a few bites of the (again, exquisite) beef, catch the manager’s eye and tell him that we have to leave, please bring the check. He has comped the food portion of the bill and asks if he can contact any of the great restaurants in Chicago to “arrange for something special” for us. We paid the remainder of the bill and left, just wishing there were some way to get our big night back.

  1. f
    foodonlygood Jun 5, 2008 10:55 AM

    Hard to really know what happened or how bad this lapse on their part was but I think they were EXTREMELY generous in making it up to you and I am a very hard grader.
    I will leave it at that and I understand it was a "special" dinner.

    Out of curiosity, do you mind stating how much your bill was for what?
    2 tasting menus comped is about $300, trying to see what percentage of your total that is. Thank you for that info if you decide to share it.

    http://foodonlymatters.wordpress.com/

    2 Replies
    1. re: foodonlygood
      r
      ryanandjess Jun 5, 2008 11:58 AM

      I tried to make it very clear that the manager was great and did everything he could to make amends. But the evening should never have been allowed to devolve so far. The server should have involved others after our first complaint, if not before (when he noticed the lag without any mention from us - yes, that's the service I expect, and have generally gotten, at the very best restaurants). When we're out for a very special occasion, it's never about dollars and cents, and it's always a shame when the end result has to be measured that way. The tabs we paid at Alinea, Moto, and Avenues are long forgotten, but those very special evenings I get to keep forever.

      1. re: ryanandjess
        f
        foodonlygood Jun 5, 2008 12:28 PM

        I get it about the occasion but I am sure if you were charged double or triple I think you would not say it is not about the $$ at all.
        A bad job reading how to serve, shouldn't happen but it did.
        Yes, the best services are seamless, they know what to do without much outright input.
        I am still not sure that waiting 5 min for the manager is such a big deal. You seem to have been overly indignant about it. Their transgression was you waiting an extra 20 min over the course of a long meal. If the manager had NOT come by within 5 min, then assume they are just screwing with you.
        I am not sure where I stand on the whole restaurant(no matter how high end) and service to particular needs. They should serve everyone equally, not offer you better service because you told them it was a special occasion. You pay no more than someone else who did not mention this. Or is this an unfair point in light of the $$?
        They can do a few extra things if they care to but seriously, why would anyone think that it should be much different if you have a reservation with no sidebars? In short, if you do not like the service, don't return and give them a bad review. Since it isn't about the $$, I assume you did not accept the comp and paid in full for the proper principle of the matter and now can vent as any other customer should.
        As Jsmitty said, make another big night with the gift you were given.

        I am not excusing them but if you say no $$ can make up for it. I am sure there is a number out there that could, so then it is just the $$ that were in play could not make up for it.

        Take them out of the rankings of top, top level places for food, decor and service. That is fair if you perceived 11 Mad as one of those. Though then you would not recommend it and not return.

        http://foodonlymatters.wordpress.com/

    2. princeofpork Jun 5, 2008 11:09 AM

      Is there anything more frustrating than going out for a special dinner and receiving such bad service it ruins the meal and experience. Seems to happen more and more these days.

      1. j
        jrhsfcm Jun 5, 2008 12:11 PM

        I'm very sorry to hear about your less-than-stellar evening at EMP. I think most of us generally assume that a high-end restaurant will deliver on those special occasions. Unfortunately, even a high-end restaurant is still just a restaurant; although one would think that such gaffes are unacceptable at such high prices, even the best restaurants (and people, for that matter) have off nights. It's unfortunate that this occurred during your special night out, however, I will say that the manager's attempts to try to make amends were about as generous as possible. It doesn't salvage your evening, but this fact is worth noting.

        I hope you managed to try and celebrate again... but with better results!

        1. f
          FuDee Jun 5, 2008 12:35 PM

          I had a very nice experience at EMP for lunch. The food was excellent, of course, and the service was thoughtful and more than competent. Of course there are going to be isolated incidences of subpar experiences in every restaurant. Looks like the hammer just happened to come down on you at the wrooooong time. Sorry bout that.

          http://www.flickr.com/photos/fudee

           
           
           
           
          1. b
            bastet212 Jun 5, 2008 12:44 PM

            I have to mention that you did say you were surprised how fast the first courses came out and did not touch the food til the drinks were served, etc... this would suggest that you DID want to slow the pace down and i believe any server would have read it as such. Most diners at an extremely upscale restaurant would prefer to be left alone to chat and enjoy, not rushed through the meal. Im sorry that your special night disappointed you, but imo, it sounds like the restaurant did everything it could to appease you...perhaps either your standards were a bit high, or your emotions overly heightened due to the special night.

            1. n
              nosh Jun 5, 2008 12:49 PM

              I'm sorry, but I think much of the problem is the mixed signals given by the couple. They quickly ordered the tasting menus, and then got upset that the amuses (not the "appetizers" that the OP labels) came out too quickly, and so did the first caviar course. He says that they hadn't complained at the initial quickness of the service, but he admits that they were "miffed." So now the attentive restaurant did exactly as a perceptive server would do -- and as the patrons seemed to want -- and they slowed down the pace for their celebratory dinner. OK, perhaps too much so, but now they are probably looking for clear indications that the couple is ready before they fire the dishes. If it is true that their server intentionally ignored them, then that is a fault. But read again the initial impression that the reviewer writes -- at the beginning of the meal, he and his wife are miffed that they weren't given alone time to sip their cocktails and survey the room. Finally, the restaurant goes overboard in comping several hundred dollars worth of food and asking how else they can correct the situation, but ryan and jess throw a hissy fit and leave.

              How to salvage their big night? How about simple communication? "We appreciate how you slowed things down for us after the initial course, but we're settled in now and could you please have the kitchen return to its normal pacing."

              6 Replies
              1. re: nosh
                b
                bastet212 Jun 5, 2008 12:51 PM

                THANK YOU! thats exactly what i was trying to say, but said much more eloquently.

                1. re: bastet212
                  r
                  rrems Jun 5, 2008 01:23 PM

                  I had read the original post earlier, and my initial reaction was that there was a service problem (I am a stickler for proper timing) but I re-read it after your post, and I agree with you completely. I don't think 20 minutes between courses is bad, even if they had not given the impression that they did not want to be rushed. I have a reservation for next week at EMP, and I purposely made it for 7:30 (normally I would have done 8:30) because we intend to have the tasting menu and I expect it will take several hours, and that with so much food we will need a little time between courses. I think the manager handled it well and was perhaps more generous than necessary.

                2. re: nosh
                  erica Jun 5, 2008 01:15 PM

                  You could not wait 5 minutes for the manager to arrive? You lost me after that comment! Curious about the "personalized menus." Could you elaborate on those, please.

                  1. re: erica
                    r
                    RGR Jun 5, 2008 01:32 PM

                    For special occasions, EMP provides the celebrating guests with menus on which "Happy Anniversary," "Happy Birthday," or "Congratulations" is printed at the top.

                  2. re: nosh
                    f
                    foodonlygood Jun 5, 2008 01:52 PM

                    Spot on Nosh, Bastet and others. I am sure I wrote too much for y'all to see my exact support for your points.
                    It seems inconsistent behavior on the part of the OP is probably the cause of all this.

                    Of course, I was trying to be sympathetic to the diner and allowed that perhaps the service was not perfect because I am regularly flamed for not being accepting of whatever faults there are in peoples' "experiences" which are subject to a case by case review.
                    It is like witness testimony, so often completely wrong. They swear they saw THAT person commit the crime. Irrefutable science or the fact that the person was 2k miles away disproves their assertions of "facts".
                    Too bad there is no video or DNA sampling.

                    http://foodonlymatters.wordpress.com/

                    1. re: nosh
                      livetotravel Jun 5, 2008 06:51 PM

                      I totally agree w/Nosh. Have eaten at EMP several times, have always communicated up-front to the captain and server re pacing expectations and have always been accommodated. EMP especially, and D Meyers restaurants in general, are all about gracious service. And the comping here is a hallmark of that commitment to the customer.

                    2. m
                      moh Jun 5, 2008 01:38 PM

                      I am sorry to hear about the botched big night. It is difficult to regain the atmosphere once it has been lost. I understand your frustration, and sympathize. I also think you handled it well, given your disappointment about the big night.

                      That being said, your post makes me want to try this restaurant even more. Exquisite food, plus management that is obviously willing to do everything they can to smooth things over (Comping all the food and offering to try to arrange something in Chicago? Wow - I have never heard of that level of service). I'm willing to take a risk there, it sounds reasonable. It is clear that there is a commitment on the part of the restaurant to make the customer happy. Plus exquisite food? Hmmm, will have to try....

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: moh
                        r
                        ryanandjess Jun 5, 2008 02:09 PM

                        Great Moh! I really wasn't saying anyone shouldn't go, and wanted to express all the positives too! I was trying to explain a very frustrating experience in as even-handed a way as possible. To some of the above posters, I agree that by the time we objected to waiting 5 minutes for the manager we were very upset. I hoped that by not trying to paint myself in some angelic light and pointing out several of the wonderful things about EMP (ambiance, food, greeters, and especially the manager) that people would respect that I was being as even-handed as I could.

                        I would like to reiterate on the wait times - the too-long waits were entirely between courses, (that is, from clearing to dropping, not from dropping to dropping). If that sounds about right, that means a 13 course meal is getting into the 6+ hour range (have to include at least 5-10 minutes with each plate in front of you). Which, of course, is fine if that's what you're after. But that is not the norm, nor is it what we were interested in that night.

                        I know the orignal post was long, but several above posts are less than accurate on the timing of the events. Here is a less verbose summary:

                        1) Amuses arrive (referred to in quotes above as "appetizers" because that's what the menu called them)
                        2) Cocktails arrive
                        3) Halfway through cocktails, champagne and first course arrive. (rushed)
                        4) 2-3 courses served with great timing (adjustment made, well done)
                        5) Course cleared, 15 minute wait, no communication from server after several minutes of looking around the room
                        6) Server, after being hailed, indicates that he thought we wanted to slow down which surprised us, we say no, he says OK. 5-7 minutes later, that course arrives.
                        7) At that point, I said: "But he was very apologetic, fine, we enjoy some more great food and move on, assuming the problem is behind us."
                        8) Course cleared, 15 minute wait, server somewhere between extremely inattentive and intentionally ignoring us by the end of that time
                        9) We hail server again, complain again, server disappears, reappears but avoids/ignores us
                        10) We speak to manager (after being unreasonably upset at being asked to wait 5 minutes), who is utterly fantastic about the whole thing but by now we are simply ready to move on. AKA, ryan and jess throw a hissy fit.

                        1. re: ryanandjess
                          m
                          moh Jun 5, 2008 08:19 PM

                          " AKA, ryan and jess throw a hissy fit."

                          I totally understand how this can happen. Sometimes things can swing the wrong way, emotions tip to the negative and it is so hard to get back on track... I hope you will be able to have a way to make up for that difficult moment! Heck, it seems you have a great excuse to go all out again! I think your report was honest and fair.

                      2. h
                        heightsgtltd Jun 5, 2008 05:49 PM

                        Sorry you didnt enjoy your meal there.. EMP is one of my favorite places in the city, and the service has always been stellar.

                        Oddly enough, last time my wife and I had the tasting menu we waited what seemed like an unreasonable time between some of the courses.

                        We did inquire about the delays, and were told that the dishes are quite intricate in preparation. Each dish does look like it would take along time to be prepped and put together. That being said, when we said things were getting a little slow, the courses did come out a little bit faster.

                        In our opinion, the dishes are so exquisite to eat and look at, it's worth a little bit of a wait.

                        From the sound of it, the restaurant went above and beyond to make it up to you.

                        1. g
                          gutsofsteel Jun 5, 2008 06:17 PM

                          Why were you in a rush? Every time I've been at EMP and had a blowout meal, I expected it would be 3 hours and I was happy to have such a luxurious, leisurely paced meal. Time to drink wine, time to talk, time to relax. Nice not to eat too much too fast, nice to savor each course separately....

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: gutsofsteel
                            e
                            Eujeanie Jun 5, 2008 06:55 PM

                            I've read this thread a couple of times.

                            I've been there, to a certain degree.

                            The last question "why were you in a rush" doesn't really address the issue. You don't have to be "in a rush" to expect timely delivery of your food. It has nothing to do with whether you can spend hours conversing with your partner. I've been married 31 years, have never run out of things to say to my husband, but I don't want to sit in a restaurant for 4 hours. I think we all have a sense of what we feel to be proper timing (and that can fluctuate between too fast and too slow depending on the circumstances).

                            Sometimes you just get sick of sitting in one place.

                            But I also think if you're going to go for an 11 course meal you are sort of "asking for" it. That is a long time to sit, even if the courses do come out in a timely manner. And it can seem very rushed if they do. A Catch-22.

                            I think it's all about expectations and I don't think the OP was totally wrong...although I do think they sent mixed signals in the beginning.

                            I'm sort of rambling, but I can see both sides.

                            My pet peeve is not getting the check once we're done. When I'm done, I want to GO. I don't get offended if the check is dropped off early...if I want something else, I'll ask for it. But I like having the option of leaving when *I* want.

                            Anyway, I'm sorry their night turned out badly, I can really feel for the whole situation.

                            1. re: Eujeanie
                              g
                              gutsofsteel Jun 5, 2008 07:20 PM

                              3 hours is absolutely normal for a tasting menu in this type of restaurant. Even longer. The fact that somebody doesn't like that experience is really a different issue. For example, it is considered quite rude to bring a check before the diner has asked for it, in a fine restaurant. You may not like that convention, but it exists. If you want the check, you can ask for it.

                              if you are going for a multicourse tasting menu and you want to get out in 3 hours, you need to say so at the outset. And perhaps the restaurant would have told you to modify what you were planning to order.

                              Sounds like some misunderstanding and possibly some expectations that didn't match the circumstances.

                              1. re: Eujeanie
                                w
                                walnutz Jun 6, 2008 08:53 AM

                                I was at EMP 2 weeks ago for my anniversary. Upon ordering the tasting menu, we were specifically told that it would be a 4 hour dining experience. With that, we knew exactly what to expect, and couldn't have been happier. 8:30 reservation, and finished at 12:30am. Some of the final dishes took a little longer than the first ones, but I think that's exactly how it should be. We needed a few minutes (or 15) to relax, finish our wines, digest, etc... If everything came out every 5 minutes, I don't think we would've been able to finish everything. Total bill came out to $760, and to be honest, I would've been disappointed if we were rushed out. This was hands down the best service I've ever had.

                                1. re: walnutz
                                  il Trifulau Jun 6, 2008 02:26 PM

                                  $760? Ouch!
                                  Could you say how much of that was wine/drinks?

                                  1. re: il Trifulau
                                    r
                                    RGR Jun 6, 2008 03:29 PM

                                    I'm not walnutz, but we have done the Gourmand several times.

                                    The menu is $145pp. If that $760 is the out-the-door cost, then the rest would be beverages, tax, & tip.

                                    http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com

                                    Worth. Every. Penny!

                                    1. re: il Trifulau
                                      j
                                      jmh Jun 9, 2008 02:13 PM

                                      We did the "gourmand" tasting menu for our anniversary a few months ago. With a cocktail each to start the evening, the eleven course tasting with wine pairings came in at about $740 (incl. tax and tip). We were advised at the outset that we were making a four hour commitment. We were blown away by several of the courses, and pleased with all of them. A truly memorable meal -- agree with RGR that it's worth every penny.

                                      The only change I might make is to skip the wine pairings and choose two nice bottles instead. The variety of food and wine over the eleven courses was a bit dizzying. On the other hand, the pairings were really exceptional, and we certainly tried some wines we wouldn't have thought to order.

                                      1. re: jmh
                                        r
                                        RGR Jun 9, 2008 03:43 PM

                                        Exceptional pairings, indeed, jmh! EMP's wine program headed by superb sommelier, John Ragan, won the James Beard Award last night.

                              2. attractivekid Jun 6, 2008 11:31 AM

                                EMP is great, best service I've ever had as well

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: attractivekid
                                  s
                                  Schpsychman Jun 6, 2008 12:28 PM

                                  I have to jump on and agree with these posts. Went to EMP in February with my wife and after our 3 hour slice of heaven we reluctantly left. We were not rushed out, the service was literally perfect, and the pacing of the meal was ideal. I think the original poster didn't know what he was getting himself in for and thought, like too many other inferior restaurants, that they'd be in and out in 90 minutes or so. Can't and shouldn't rush perfection......

                                2. Adrienne Jun 6, 2008 04:58 PM

                                  I have to say, ryanandjess, you have, intentionally or not, brought up some very interesting issues. And whether it is about the money or not, restaurants in that price range and of that caliber are expected to have waitstaff who are insightful enough to sense that table 1 wants their meal to come at a clipping pace and table 2 wants a longer digestion time. Of course no one makes their mark every time.

                                  I have to say on first reading I thought "well they're pretty demanding, aren't they?" and then I thought of the only time I have ever taken a flight just for a meal -- when I finished my first year of medical school a good friend and I celebrated our achievement (being alive and kicking at the end of that year was a pretty big deal!) by flying to Napa and eating at French Laundry. I can imagine that with the amount of scheduling and coordination and cost we put into that trip, if anything small had gone wrong I probably would have been pretty upset -- especially if I'd felt that I was being ignored. I'm kindof timid though so I probably would have just cried in the bathroom and gone back and kept on with the meal.

                                  In any case, interesting thread!

                                  1. s
                                    SYCRoberts Jun 7, 2008 04:23 PM

                                    Oh boy, the restaurants business is tough. Disappointments are inevitable.

                                    The service at Eleven Madison Park is consistently one of the best if not the best in NYC. We ate there recently (again) and were astonished by the perfect service, a service that you get only in much more expensive restaurants like 3 Michelin start establishments in Europe.

                                    You sent a message to the waiter at the begging of the meal that you would like slow pace. The pace was probably too slow and your waiter was not attentive enough. Maybe you just scared him off by your initial dissatisfaction?

                                    In any case, the manager’s behavior by offering you such a generous compensation was perfect.

                                    I would not describe this incident with such a bombastic negative title “Eleven Madison Park goes off the rails”.

                                    2 Replies
                                    1. re: SYCRoberts
                                      t
                                      thegreekone Jun 8, 2008 08:10 AM

                                      >I would not describe this incident with such a bombastic negative title “Eleven >Madison Park goes off the rails”.

                                      agreed.

                                      1. re: thegreekone
                                        Scagnetti Jun 11, 2008 12:16 PM

                                        I agree also about the title.

                                        I don't get why a table who is celebrating a "special" occasion should expect any more attention than any other table.

                                        The attempt at remedy by the restaurant seems MORE than adequate.

                                        Sorry, I loathe the over the top "I've dined in the capitals of Europe and have never been treated like this" type comments.

                                        I think the OP was overwhelmed with unrealistic expectations because of the restuarant and the occasion.

                                    2. k
                                      kayonyc Aug 27, 2008 07:50 AM

                                      I just had dinner last week with my boyfriend and had the 4 courses with a nice bottle of wine. The food was fantastic. However, while I was hoping to be proved wrong, the service was definitely off. I'm not going to elaborate on all the issues we had, since we've already conveyed our disappointment to management but our intial wait for the Sommelier and Waiter was inordinately long (20-25 minutes total?) Another big complaint was being presented with the dessert menu when our third course (entree) had not arrived yet. Again, that was only two issues out of many. It was really odd, and totally not what I had expected from the restaurant given its reputation. I've had nothing but the best experience from GT or the Modern.

                                      1. ChefJune Aug 27, 2008 07:56 AM

                                        Ryanandjess, I would be sending your above post as a letter to Danny Meyer. There is no way he would find your experience acceptable.

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