My experience with the new Eleven Madison Park (recap+thoughts)
As usual, full review with photos at the blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot...
Much has been made about the Eleven Madison Park renovations and the menu change. Being a big fan of EMP, I obviously had to go give it a try myself. I've done both lunch and dinner since the change, but this post is just about the lunch experience, for which I was dining alone. I will follow up in this same thread about my dinner experience.
I made a previous visit to the bar area, which now serves only a separate a la carte menu. There was nothing on the a la carte menu that jumped out at me, so I made a reservation for the main dining room instead. A recap of the food first, and then my full thoughts on the new concept at the end.
The new menu at EMP consists of a 4x4 grid of featured ingredients. It is already placed on the plate under the napkin. Diners may choose between a 3 course or 4 course menu, with one selection from each of the bottom two rows and one or two selections from the top two rows. The top row is cold appetizers, the second row is warm appetizers, then main courses and dessert.
The gougeres have not changed, and are as addictive as ever.
The first of the canapes to arrive is a baked potato tea. They take potato skins with a little flesh (too much would ruin the tea), salt them and bake them, then steep them in hot water like a tea. There is a really nice baked potato flavor, but I thought my tea was a little too salty.
Accompanying the tea were two potato crisps with sour cream, chives, and sour cream powder. These were thin layers of potato puree, so they were brittle and very crisp without any frying. I liked the sour cream flavors with the tea, and I think a cute thing would have been if they offered some of the sour cream and sour cream powder to go with the tea, like a play on adding milk and sugar to one's tea.
Presented in an egg shell is the smoked sturgeon sabayon with chive oil. I've seen them do variations of this before, so I made sure to mix this thoroughly with my spoon so as to incorporate the chive oil at the bottom. There are tasty bits of sturgeon and a nice mix of saltiness from the smoked fish with the slight tartness of the sabayon and the warmth of the lovely chive oil.
The last of the canapes was a trio of snow. Green apple, foie gras, and salted caramel are frozen with liquid nitrogen, then pureed/pulsed to create the snow crumbles. This dish was not a success in my opinion. It could be that one of the components was just made/frozen, but overall it was too cold. There was no pillowy, melty, snow-like texture, but instead a lot of chewing. Furthermore, the green apple was too tart and overwhelmed all the other flavors. It was a chore to finish, and I noticed tables where diners in fact did not finish theirs.
The bread is still the same, picholine olive and baguette. However, the butter at lunch now includes the delicious goat's milk butter on the right, and the cow's milk butter which was previously unsalted is now salted in-house.
My first course was sea urchin. I was deciding between the uni and foie, but when I was told that the uni came with lobster and scallops it was a no-brainer for me. The uni is featured in two ways. Tongues and as an emulsion. Also on the dish were pieces of lobster, scallop, potato, fennel, thyme, and a lemon oil. This was absolutely delicious. A great range of textures on offer with the uni tongue, scallop, lobster, potato, and fennel (soft to crunchy). The uni emulsion had great flavor that was really brought out by the lemon oil.
My warm appetizer was the poached dover sole, served with autumn mushrooms, chanterelle puree, spinach, lettuce, and finished with a matsutaki sabayon. This dish was also absolutely delicious. The fish was perfect in my opinion, tender yet firm. The dish was very autumnal, very earthy, with all the mushrooms, but was beautifully balanced by the sabayon which added a needed tartness.
For my main course I had a roasted pork loin, confit belly, and pork jus with guanciale, served with sweet potato, fresh and dry plums, and amaretti cookies. The pork was perfectly cooked as expected, with a tender, slightly pink loin, juicy belly confit, and a super crispy skin on top of it. I loved the two different plum flavors with the pork, but I did not think the sweet potato and cookies added much.
A predessert which they call "malted milkshake" consisted of malt ice cream, a sort of meringue-like bark also malt flavored, salted lemon gelee, milk puree, and black pepper. The flavors seemed a little heavier than what I would normally associate with a predessert, but I loved it because I grew up as a kid with all kinds of malted drinks (malt vitasoy, ovaltine, horlicks, etc.)
My dessert was nuts. As in many variations of nuts. The featured hazelnut came as a paste, crumble, meringue, and ice cream. There was chestnut bavarois, as well as pistachio ice cream, pistachio tuile, and some more pistachio bits. I don't know if it was originally meant to be so nut-centric, as I mentioned that I did not really want fruit in my dessert, but it was delicious. The real winner, though, in this dessert, was the pistachio ice cream. The best I've ever had by far.
The parting mignardises featured two of the more intriguing and tasty items I had during lunch. One was an espresso filled beignet. A warm liquid espresso center that just shoots out of the delicious beignet as you bite into it. The other was a chocolate truffle with ground black truffle mixed in and a chocolate ice cream center. Just great contrasts there between the two items. There were also two squash tuiles with pumpkin seeds which were also nice, but overshadowed by the two little balls of goodness.
As a parting gift, diners receive this nice mason jar of granola. It's a little on the sweet side, but is tasty and goes great with a lot of things.
The main idea of the menu concept is that it's a tasting menu, but instead of just sitting down to the whim of the chef, diners get some say on the direction of the meal. It was still a little awkward because my server wanted to keep some mystery, but if I was going to make a choice, I wanted to make an informed choice. Another problem with trying to make an informed choice is that while the listed "main" ingredient may be the featured ingredient, it was not always the "defining" ingredient (what separates one dish from another) for me. For example, it was the mention of lobster and scallops that swayed me towards the uni, and I certainly feel that I chose wisely.
The food was still absolutely delicious across the board. Nothing has really changed in terms of the style of their food. There was also concern about the increased prices versus the old lunch prix fixe. What I will say is that they have achieved their goal of making the lunch experience much more like the dinner experience. The value is still there because it is so similar to the dinner experience at a discounted price. There is also value because of the more expensive ingredients such as uni and dover sole that were not present in the previous prix fixe. In fact, lobster and beef often required supplements in the old lunch prix fixe. That being said, and as much as I love the more expensive ingredients, I really go to EMP for the high level of cooking. So for a guy like me, who wants to just go there for lunch and eat perfect pasta and perfect pork, the old prix fixe, even with a slightly higher price tag, would suit me much better and be a better value.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010
The one dish that our meals had in common was the sole -- I thought it was fabulous as well, and shockingly beautiful. Your pictures are lovely and capture the glory of the meal.
I'm surprised you haven't gone yet to EMP since you're one of their biggest fans! The new format works extremely well. You can be surprised by Chef by merely selecting the one word description on the menu, or you can ask for a detailed description (as I do). You can still have the duck. My sister and I have had dinner twice at EMP since the revamp, and it's wonderful!
nice review - thanks! based on your post, i am probably going to return; i went this past summer and was "eh" about the whole experience. did i appreciate the quality, technique and skill that went into preparing my "summer" seven course tasting menu? yes. did the flavors grab me by the shoulders and shake me 'round and make me wonder "where ya been all my life?" no.
A week after my EMP lunch, I went with two friends for dinner. Due to the fact that I was focused on having a good time, I did not take notes. I also didn't have my camera with me, and for some reason the pics I took with my friend's phone camera didn't seem to come out well. So no pics this time.
The dinner progression started with about 8 separate canapes, about half of which were good and half of which were very good. This was then followed by the four courses from which we chose our main ingredient. This is probably a good amount of food for most people. I've had a friend complain before that the gourmand was just too much, which is understandable. Another good thing about this arrangement of courses is that the pacing is much better. I often felt that the pacing for the eleven courses of the old gourmand menu was a bit erratic at times.
With regards to the food, the style and quality of the food has not really changed. The canapes allow diners to get more tastes, and the combinations are often a bit more creative than the main ingredient dishes. Perhaps more likely to grab poster selenster above by the shoulders this time around. However, I've always felt that EMP's strength came from their composed dishes, so I personally prefer more full courses and less canapes. For example, I always say that it's not hard to make pork belly taste good. It's what you serve with the pork belly that balances or focuses the flavors and the textures that separates those who are truly skilled.
With regards to the new menu concept, I had read the wonderful NY Post article from this thread: http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/741110 on the new menu prior to going. While I think the concept as shown in that article was much more representative of the experience EMP was going for, I did not feel that my dining experience headed in that direction. While the Post diners used the "dialogue" to move the direction of their dishes, I did not feel that my dialogues with my servers (both lunch and dinner) steered in that direction. Instead, both times my servers said, "If there's anything you do not want in your dish, please let us know." This felt to me like if I didn't like spinach, they would make the same dish but replace spinach with something else. Whereas the way the Post article made it sound, they would try to figure out why I wanted something out (or in) and try to shape the dish to fit what I want.
Then again, if it is indeed this "customizability" that EMP wants from their dialogue between the servers and the diners, then it is a boldly ambitious move. And as such, it is a continually improving process to get to that goal. While my meal was certainly fantastic and I look forward to going back, I feel that they are not yet at where they want to be with the new concept, but that they will continue to try to improve to get there. For right now, even though the lunch menu has more than doubled in price while the dinner menu has come down by about a third, I actually prefer the lunch experience.