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A Lengthy Account of Eleven Madison Park

Spoiler alert: everything was great.

For photos, check out my blog post: http://smithratliff.com/2011/06/16/di...

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About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to do something special for Ryan. I mean, it seemed only fair considering that it was him who treated me to tasting menus at both Per Se and wd~50 less than a week apart.

My immediate restaurant of choice was Eleven Madison Park, the winner of this year’s Outstanding Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. We had a tremendous dinner there prior, so I couldn’t image it being much better, but we’ve both known for awhile that a return visit was in order.

From the moment we stepped through the door last night and were greeted by Stephanie, the fabulous maître d’, until the moment we left, we were treated to the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had—both personally and gastronomically—in my fine dining life. Yes, even better than the do-no-wrong Per Se (which was fantastic in its own right).

We were first treated to their signature gougères—a delightfully airy choux pastry, made with cheese. These were served piping hot out of the oven and presented their own enticing aroma the second they were sat upon our table.

From there, we each ordered our first cocktail. I ordered the Monferrato, a balanced blend of Cocchi Americano (similar to Lillet Blanc, and a substitute for the now-extinct Kina Lillet), Triple Sec, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and champagne. Ryan tried the Madison Park Smash, a potent drink of cognac, Royal Combier, lemon, turbinado sugar, Angostura bitters and mint.

We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do the tasting menu rather than the four-course prix fixe, but we weren’t sure what exactly we wanted to drink. After speaking with a sommelier, we elected to do wine pairings, but with a twist—we wanted beer and cocktails as appropriate too, and we were also thrilled to try more unique wines, rather than traditional pairings.

From there, we were off!

The cavalcade of amuse-bouche begin immediately, opening with a chilled pea soup with buttermilk snow a ham crisp.

The next amuse was a fluke, served on a crispy rice cake with basil and Meyer lemon, accompanied by a scallop ceviche with tangerine. The scallop, which was beautifully presented in a scallop shell, was so good that I briefly had to close my eyes and simply absorb the overwhelming wash of flavors.

But no time to waste—our third amuse was waiting! The third amuse was a goat cheese lollipop with beets, served with goat cheese croquettes with watercress and chive. The last time at Eleven Madison, we absolutely adored our heirloom tomato lollipop, but dare I say that the goat cheese and beet version was even better. (Is that even possible?

)

And with that, the real fun began, as our first course, a sea urchin cappuccino with crab and apple, made its way out of the kitchen, along with our first beverage pairing.

The cappuccino, carrot-orange in color from the urchin, was served in a white porcelain dish, modeled after a true sea urchin’s shell. The dish’s top layer—an ethereal foam—was atop sweet slivers of king crab and apple. This dish was paired with a French pear cider, Domaine Christian Drouin Poire Cider, from Pays d’Auge, France, near Normandy.

Our seafood theme continued with the second course: smoked sturgeon and caviar. This dish was served in two variations. The first, a dainty fingerling potato, was topped with crème fraiche, caviar, a bit of preserved Meyer lemon and a few chive flowers for a pop of color.

The second variation, one that Eleven Madison Park is well-known for, was a smoked sturgeon sabayon, served in an eggshell with the top so very delicately carved out. After devouring the smooth sabayon, a layer of pungent, chatreuse chive oil awaited me in the bottom of the egg shell.

The sommelier got a little funky (in a good way!) with our wine pairing for this course. To accompany, we were a Gurrutxaga Txakoli de Bizkaia, a white wine from Spain’s Basque region. As explained to us, the soil where these grapes grow is extremely salty, giving the wine minerality and even a little bit of fizz.

The next course was perhaps the one that Ryan—let’s call him the Foie Gras Freak—was waiting for all night. A foie gras terrine with strawberries, celery and balsamic. We’re no stranger to unique foie preparations—in fact, one of our all time favorites in wd~50′s passionfruit-filled foie with dehydrated Chinese celery—so I knew from the moment this dish touched the table that it would be a hit.

Of course, it was, but perhaps even more intriguing to both of us was the wine it was paired with. Ryan is a huge Bordeaux fan, particularly a good Sauternes, so imagine our surprise when we were poured a Kracher Zweigelt Beerenauslese from Burgenland in Austria.

This wine, almost honey-like in both taste and texture, was virtually indistinguishable from a good Sauternes except for one thing: its color. The Kracher is a pale ruby, rather than honey-toned. (It’s also, upon research, much more wallet-friendly than the bottle of Château d’Yquem that you’ve been coveting.)

Next, a scallop, perfectly seared with crayfish, smoked potato puree and black garlic. This was served with my favorite wine of the night, a 2006 Domaine Bruno Colin La Boudriotte Premier Cru from the Chassagne-Montrachet, an appellation in Burgundy, France.

I’m going to pause here for a minute to talk about the service. The people are one of many things that make Eleven Madison Park such a special restaurant and once again, they didn’t disappoint. There is never any pretension, snobbishness or haughtiness in the dining room. The staff is jovial, genuine and knowledgeable. They walk a tremendously line of being there just when you need them without hovering. It’s truly remarkable.

In fact, Ryan and I even chuckled as they would seemingly appear out of nowhere to pull out our table whenever either one of us needed to scoot by the use the restroom. Not once did we manage to trick them! (They must have eyes in the backs of their heads.)

After the scallop, we were quite full, as expected, but we powered through. Fine dining can be painful.

Anyway, the next course was variations of broccoli with parmesan, lemon and lardo. Broccoli is my favorite vegetable (how did they know?) and this dish reminded me exactly why. Perfectly-formed cylinders of broccoli stems were served along roasted stems and leaves, all topped with a broccoli jus. The pairing, Dugges Nevermind the Bollox India Pale Ale, from Mölndal, Sweden, was superb too.

Vegetables starred in the next course too, as a trim slice of roasted eggplant was served alongside bulgur and licorice. It was also accompanied by a crispy eggplant chip—paper-thin and perfectly crisped. Our pairing was an earthy Rioja from Spain, a 2002 Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva.

And finally, the last of the savories (and my all-time favorite protein): lamb. A succulent, juicy pink loin with morel mushrooms, English peas and a lamb-mustard seed jus. This was accompanied by a 2004 Olga Juge Cornas from the Rhône Valley.

Then, the most extraordinary part of the night: we were treated to a tour of the kitchen. Stephanie took us back as service was winding down.

We stood briefly in awe of the massive spotless kitchen, adorned with photos of Miles Davis (more on that in a minute), a list of a few adjectives (a few of which are included in this post’s title), and a large sign that says “Make It Nice.”

Stephanie told us that when Chef Daniel Humm first moved to the U.S. from Switzerland, he knew very little English and “make it nice” because a catch-all phrase.

The story of the Miles Davis photographs is a little more complex: in a 2006 review, a critic from the New York Observer said that Eleven Madison Park needed “a bit more Miles Davis.”

The restaurant took the suggestion to heart and created a poster of a few of the words used to describe Miles, used in the title of this post and hung prominently in their kitchen. Last year, Sony Records gave the restaurant two photos of Davis, which now also proudly hang in the kitchen.

While we hung out in the kitchen, we were treated to an Aperol nitro “cocktail.” I was never good at chemistry, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves on this one. (Another fun fact: the chef in the photo, Becky, went to the same high school as me and even graduated the same year! Small world, huh?)

After this, we returned to our table but Eleven Madison Park was still not content just yet. Our next pre-dessert treat was an egg cream—or Eleven Madison’s take on it anyway.

Fresh malt syrup, vanilla and olive oil is whisked together table side and then topped with soda from a classic seltzer bottle. The smooth concoction was not too sweet and just the right balance of tradition and innovation.

Our real dessert came next. It was a chocolate cannelloni with espresso, caramel and yogurt. The chocolate cannelloni had the thickness of a tuile and gave off a satisfying crunch when the spoon touched it.

We even had a pairing with our dessert: a coffee cocktail with cognac, port and demerara sugar.

The parade of mignardises came next. Too many and too delicious to even describe. We were left with a complimentary bottle of V.S.O.P. cognac to supplement these—just another special touch from Eleven Madison.

As our evening began to wind down we realized we were the last table in the restaurant and still felt absolutely no rush from the staff.

In fact, while we sipped our cognac, we spent a few minutes chatting with our service captain about everything and nothing—favorite restaurants, The British Invasion, and the things we love about EMP and food in general. It was a relaxed, yet engaging conversation.

This sort of dialogue extends not only into the service, but also the menu, the food, the drinks. This is exactly what we love the most about Eleven Madison Park.

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Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010

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  1. Sounds nice. How does one keep notes through an event like this, and how much did it cost?

    1 Reply
    1. re: Veggo

      Ah, yes—another thing I forgot to mention: I was handwriting notes in a small Moleskin journal throughout the evening, but at the end of the evening, our captain came by and said "I'm sure your note-taking skills are great, but I thought you'd like to have this."

      He presented us with two envelopes, one with the tasting menu and its detail and another with all of the wine/drink pairings we had had. Really, really nice touch—and not something they did on our last experience.

      The pre-tip total was around $775 for tasting menu, pairings and one cocktail each.

    2. Great report and photos! My sister and I are returning to EMP in a few weeks for the tasting menu, so I love the "preview" (even though some of the courses may have changed by then).

      1. It's worth noting that, as discussed in this thread http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/788118 the tour, nitro cocktail and cognac are not offered to all diners. Just something to keep in mind for anyone else (like myself) reading up for a planned trip to EMP. I don't care for this disparity, but that's already been debated pretty thoroughly on that other thread.

        1. Thanks for the detailed report on one of the highest profile restaurant in the city today. I love it when they come up with some not-your-run-of-the-mill pairings that work. Txakolina is one of the preferred summer drinkers in my household and Gurrutxaga is one that I enjoy with the slight spritz and the minerality that it comes with. The Beer and Broccoli sounds like a winner, too. Nice of them to include a Juge Cornas, from a not- so-easy-to-find vintage, too.

          In the light of your very favorable experience, I have one question and this is in reference to an earlier post where there were allegations that EMP would reserve the “best” service to those who they know/perceive as customer(s) would be writing in their blogs or in major food/restaurant forum such as Chowhound. Did you feel that this was the case? Did they know that you would write them up?

          4 Replies
          1. re: RCC

            The digital SLR and writing notes on each course in a notebook might give it away...

            1. re: kathryn

              This, and the fact that EMP is pretty well-known for doing pre-dinner research about its diners. I'm quite easily "Google-able" and the maitre'd even admitted to me that she had read my Twitter and my website, as she asked about where a photo of me came from—it was taken at Eleven Madison Park's British Invasion event, in fact, and she thought it looked familiar. (Doesn't bother me in the slightest.)

              In their defense, I saw plenty of diners, sans-cameras and notebooks, getting equally excellent service (kitchen tours, etc.), and every table I saw received the bottle of cognac. The whole restaurant had a great energy that night.

              RCC, yes, the pairings were great. This was actually the first time I had ever done a full pairing (more than just 2-3 glasses) at a restaurant of EMP's caliber so I really enjoyed the experience and was thrilled to learn about some unusual varietals that I would not have otherwise tried.

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              Eleven Madison Park
              11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010

              1. re: loratliff

                Oh, just to add, last time we were at EMP, I did not bring my camera nor did I take notes (which I actually regret, as I've forgotten most of what I had!). They were still wonderfully kind and gracious and while we weren't offered a kitchen tour on that occasion, we were still left with the bottle of pear brandy at our table and made to feel at home.

            2. re: RCC

              If the OP was taking notes, taking pictures, and engaging the servers, I think that would alert the restaurant. A recent article on Grub Street indicated that managers often advise the kitchen when there's a possibility that a diner might blog about his or her meal.

              http://newyork.grubstreet.com/2011/06...

            3. In the US, excluding The French Laundry, Per Se, and Alinea, EMP probably provides the most obvious extras for certain diners; it seems like the kitchen tour and nitro cocktail are pretty much SOP for VIPs. Masa and Urasawa can alter the meal progression drastically for their regulars, but that's a different approach.

              I've seen first-hand what TFL (and Per Se) can do for super-VIPs like visiting chefs. It verges on absurd, and I'm amazed they can pull it off consistently without a hitch.

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              Per Se
              10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

              Masa
              10 Columbus Cir, New York, NY 10019

              8 Replies
              1. re: hcbk0702

                At the risk of diverting the thread, but I'm curious as what TFL does for super-VIPs?

                1. re: RCC

                  Old video (when Keller was still actually in the kitchen) with Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert, Scott Bryan, and Michael Ruhlman at TFL. Roughly 80 distinct courses were served to their four-top.

                  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3xB7V8...

                  This kind of stuff does happen off-camera, if you happen to be Joël Robuchon.

                    1. re: hcbk0702

                      I believe it was 80 dishes, not courses. Not all of them got the same dish. In some ways that's more impressive.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        Yeah, that's what I meant. 20 courses for each of the four diners, but each 20 course progression was distinct.

                        1. re: hcbk0702

                          I've seen this youtube link on a few regular TV food specials many times before. Of course, TFL (or any other restaurant) would do domething super special if they will be featured on television. This was a made-for-TV event.

                          1. re: RCC

                            True, but I've seen a similar event at TFL unfold off-camera for some of Ducasse's chefs.

                        2. re: sugartoof

                          Right, yeah—agreed that that is even more incredible.