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Dinner at EMP - A disappointment

  • r

I have been a fan of Eleven Madison Park since the arrival of Chef Daniel Humm. The food was always interesting, occasionally brilliant, the ambience is lovely, and service was always very accommodating and pleasant. When the price increase and menu changes were announced last year, I was skeptical. Would I really get more and/or better food for $125 than with the previous $98 menu? At this price I would expect it to be no less than spectacular. So, I waited to read of others’ experiences, and what I have seen, at least on CH, has been extremely positive (some of the other sites had more mixed reviews). This week my partner and I decided to take the plunge and see for ourselves. The result was a big disappointment.

I normally prefer to have a detailed description of each dish printed on a menu so I can decide which dishes (in their entirety, not just the main ingredient) appeal to me most, and in what combination. My impression from published reports was that the diner could choose to be surprised or have the server explain the dishes in detail. That is not how it turned out. Our server was pushing the “surprise” element that the chef “prefers”. When I said we would like to have detailed descriptions, she asked which dishes. We looked at each other in mild disbelief, and replied “All of them”. “All of them?” was her response, and she proceeded to rattle off about 2 to 3 words about each, in rapid-fire speech that reduced the narrative to 30 seconds and was nearly incomprehensible. You could see that the prim young lady was perturbed that we were not following the script. Our further inquiries about the dishes we thought would be the most likely candidates were met again with vague and attenuated descriptions. Perhaps I should have asked to speak to the manager, but I just wanted to avoid unpleasantness, and figured anything we order should be great anyway. We ended up choosing:

Foie gras, langoustine
Skate, lobster
Pork, veal
Chocolate, lemon

There were the usual gougeres to start, which were very nice as always. Then, the canapés. They used to bring out one plate with at least 4 canapes per person. Now it’s divided into 3 “courses” but there are still 4 canapes. After the bread and before the appetizer, there used to be a more substantial amuse bouche. Now there is none. The foie gras torchon was as good as any foie gras torchon, but not outstanding. The rather soupy ceviche of langoustine was tasty but also not a wow, and was not a pretty dish. The skate was so blah as to make you wonder what the chef was thinking when he came up with this one. Lobster was delicious, but how could it not be? It doesn’t take much effort to make lobster taste good. It appears to me that the reason they no longer charge a supplement for lobster or foie, aside from the general price increase, is that the portions are minuscule. The pork loin with belly confit and the veal loin with crispy sweetbreads were the highlights of the meal, both very delicious, but the portions were, again, minuscule (maybe 6 small bites of veal and 3 teensy pieces of sweetbread). It was almost comical when the server brought out the 2 sauceboats and proceeded to dole out 1 ½ little spoonfuls of sauce to each plate (they really could have used more) before whisking the nearly full sauceboats off to the kitchen. The pre-dessert was nice but I’ve already forgotten what it was. The chocolate dessert was quite forgettable, the lemon one (a sort of deconstructed idea of lemon poppyseed cake) showed some originality and was very good. Afterwards, there were 4 mignardises per person. At Picholine we would have been presented with countless sweets. At SHO we would have chosen from an unlimited mignardises cart. Why is EMP so stingy?

It appears that even though they are charging more than most of the other high-end restaurants, they are taking every opportunity to cut costs, even when providing a bit more food would cost but pennies more.

On the whole, we felt that the excitement we had found in the past had been lost, portions were skimpy, and there was a lack of concern for diners' enjoyment. If the price were still $98, I would write this off as an off-night, and risk trying it another time. At $125, it is inexcusable. I've had so many really wonderful meals recently, and not just at top-tier restaurants, that I can live happily ever after with EMP off my list.

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  1. .....I like good food and multiple tastes in a meal as much as anyone, but this isn't a buffet.

    Even at restaurants with extensive menu descriptions (Per Se, for insance) there are almost always ingredients not listed. Clearly EMP made a very obvious point with their new menu - I'm not sure why someone who needs every single item explained at length would consider going there.

    I've seen plenty of pictures and read plenty of reviews - and I'll be there in 19 days.....I guess I'll find out then if the new concept is "stingy."


    1 Reply
    1. re: uhockey

      I did not say it was necessary to list every ingredient. A description like the ones contained in EMP's former menu would have been perfect. This is not what the server provided.

    2. Thanks for the clear eyed review. I've never been a fan of EMP either. Picholine is indeed more creative and delicious, as are several other restaurants at that price point.

      35 West 64th St., New York, NY 10023

      1. This is not "stingy" - it is merely the level of saucing that the kitchen feels is appropriate. You could have easily asked for more.

        7 Replies
        1. re: gutsofsteel

          My point was that the remaining sauce was removed to the kitchen. It should have been left on the table so we could add more as desired. It should not be necessary to flag down someone after starting to eat to retrieve the sauce from the kitchen while the food sits getting cold.

          1. re: rrems

            It's completely customary to remove the sauce back to the kitchen after the server plates it.

            1. re: gutsofsteel


              I would think "customary" should be acceding to the desires of the customers rather than accomodating the whims of the chef, who is not sitting at the table. I always had the impression from previous experienceat EMP that the customer's enjoyment was paramount, and my point was that this seems to no longer be the case.

              I am not paying upward of $400 for a dinner for two to be taught how to eat.

              1. re: rrems

                Why wouldn't you just ask for more sauce then?

                I mean, if you think something is under salted, I really doubt that you hesitate to salt it or ask for salt. If you didn't ask, how was your server supposed to know that you'd like more sauce?

                1. re: loratliff

                  When the server was sparingly served me sauce for my main, I requested that he continue with a few additional spoonfuls, which he did without hesitation.

              2. re: gutsofsteel

                That hasn't always been my experience.

                1. re: MMRuth

                  Also depends on the sauce - if it's a sauce that would suffer from being left at room temp, then they take it away of course...

          2. rrems, I'm sorry to hear about your disappointing dinner. I've actually dined at EMP twice within this past month for both lunch (4-course) and dinner (tasting menu ~7-courses) and enjoyed both experiences. While I do agree that the portions aren't the most substantial, I respectfully disagree that they are "stingy." I was substantially satisfied with both menus, especially with all of the amuses (4 during lunch) and (10 at dinner) I was given. Throw in the pre-dessert, petits fours and nitro-cocktail and I was stuffed!

            However, I'm glad to see a dissenting opinion regarding the restaurant, as it seems many hounds feel certain restaurants are "flawless." Again, sorry to hear about your experience, and whole heartedly agree with you about SHO.

            For those interested here are the pics from my recent lunch...dinner pics are still being edited:

            1. We went on friday and had a terrific time, but I also thought service was off a touch. After ordering, we asked about wine and our server said the sommelier would come over. After 15 minutes, nobody did so our waitress ended up taking our wine order. Service was then very good until dessert, when our waitress all but disappeared, to the point where they dropped off the desserts but never asked if we wanted coffee or tea. Then it took awhile to get the check. Very strange.

              I happened to think that the food was excellent all around. I was definitely full at the end of the 4 course meal.

              1. Thanks for the report. I guess EMP got rid of the pastry cart?

                10 Replies
                1. re: peter j

                  Correct. No pastry cart at lunch. And no cheese cart with wide selection at dinner. Instead, there is one cheese on the menu's dessert line. It is brought on a cart and sliced and plated with accompaniments tableside. You can also add it as an extra course.

                  Photos of the cheese service can be seen in this set: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...


                  1. re: RGR

                    ...if one asked, do you suppose the cheese cart could be added though?


                    1. re: RGR

                      wrong. i ordered the cheese course as my dessert course and no cheese cart was presented. instead, when my wife was served her course (chocolate), i was also served an already plated cheese dessert with the cheese sliced/grated in 4 ways, and an accompaniment of dehydrated bread. there was also no pastry cart for dessert (just three "pastries" presented and placed on the table: mint chocolates, peanut butter brittle, and violet macarons).

                      1. re: jon

                        jon, Not totally wrong. The cart was used when we had cheese at our dinner in October.

                        October photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...

                        We've had cheese twice at lunch. The first time, the cart was used (those are the photos I linked to in my previous post), while the second time, like you, we received the cheese already plated.

                        The pastry cart peter j referred to was aka the "tarts cart" and was not used to serve the mignardises, which used to be the assorted macarons.

                        Photo of the tarts cart: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391...

                        ETA: Post edited to reflect tlubow's comment that the cart is not always used at dinner.


                        1. re: RGR

                          When we were there on the 22nd weekend for dinner, there was no cheese cart. The cheese was served on a plate 4 ways with the dehydrated bread. It was a little underwhelming.

                          1. re: tlubow

                            tlubow, I've edited my post above since based on your experience, the cart is not always used at dinner.


                          2. re: RGR

                            that stinks that they no longer have the tarts cart. that thing looks amazing.

                            1. re: jon

                              I liked the tarts quite a bit. On the other hand, the composed desserts, pre- and post-overhaul, have been pretty underwhelming.

                              1. re: hcbk0702

                                I was likewise underwhelmed with the lemon poppyseed thingie, but it's good to know that others seem to enjoy it.

                                Too bad about the carts, though. Maybe EMP will bring them back, the way they did with the extended tasting menu.

                                1. re: hcbk0702

                                  I think EMP is at its best with the more traditional preparations, like the beef with foie gras, or the duck. When they try to incorporate ideas from other restaurants, or modernize by using molecular gastronomy, its efforts seem half hearted and underwhelming.

                                  My experience with the menu "dialogue" was similar to the OP - i.e. my server also seemed surprisingly unwilling to divulge any info.

                                  BTW, the chocolate with squash sorbet at EMP seems to have been directly inspired by the chocolate with sweet potato sorbet at Le Bernardin.

                                  Le Bernardin
                                  155 W. 51st St., New York, NY 10019

                      2. We agree with rrems. We waited fer a while to let the new format settle in. The once very good service was very "off" and unsteady. But the food was so uneven and almost poor we couldn't believe it was the same restaurant! It seemed like an experiment gone wrong that you get to pay alot more to experience.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: links42

                          While I enjoyed my recent meal at EMP, my dishes were not terribly complex and I thought the hors d'oeuvres were the most interesting part of the experience.

                          The service wasn't exactly "off", just a lot more restrained than I expected, given all the hype on this board. Maybe EMP is shifting to a more reserved service style but hasn't quite mastered the flow yet.