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Aug 11, 2011 08:43 AM

EMP Menu - Scam or Not?

I'm interested in the experiences/opinions of other Hounds at Eleven Madison Park respecting the menu format. At first it seems adventurous and flexible, but when we went for lunch the other day (had the 3-course lunch), our waiter explained that the kitchen would create dishes based on the main ingredients we chose and then asked if we had dietary restrictions. He didn't make any other efforts to learn about our likes/dislikes or tastes/desires. We bought into the approach and I ordered "Lobster" and "Beef", with "Sheep's milk cheese" for dessert and my wife went with "Black Cod" and "Octopus", with "Chocolate". The waiter asked if my wife preferred intense chocolate or not, and also suggested that the cod be served before the octopus, as it was a "lighter" dish.

Had we been thinking about what he said, and not just enjoying our expectations, we would have realized that the dishes were already planned, otherwise, how would he know the black cod was a lighter dish then the octopus presentation? He also didn't mention to my wife that both her selections were considered appetizers, although after she ordered she overheard another waiter mention that to a different table. She said she would have ordered differently had she known that.

The "Lobster" dish I got was a pseudo-lasagna with loads of squash, which I would not have ordered had I a fuller description. I have no dietary restriction about squash, and it isn't offensive enough to me to mention it as an item I would not want served, but I don't care for it as a central focus of a dish and I was not happy with the dish.

The cheese plate was a mess - literally. An unfocused spread of cheeses, gelees, greasy corn bread, corn kernels, micro greens, and dried, peeled and unpeeled fresh and dried tomatoes strewn about. Again, had I an inkling of what this would have been, I would have steered well clear of it. After tasting the components, I left the rest of the plate virtually untouched. (A bit surprisingly to me, given the reputation of EMP for attentive service, no one followed up to understand why the plate went back to the kitchen intact).

So is it caveat emptor at EMP? Is the burden on the diner to ask about the proposed preparation of each and every dish? If so, doesn't that undermine the point of the concept? Both my wife and I talked on the way home about whether the menu is a scam, and we both think that it is, but not sure what the benefit is to the restaurant. Conceptually, if the server makes an effort to understand our palate and the kitchen actually does tailor dishes, then it could be interesting (although surely unworkable), but to have all the dishes already prepared and then just not tell me about them just seems silly and gimmicky rather than clever and cutting edge.

Are we missing something? Is your experience different? Have you learned to micro-manage your meals there? But if I have to do that, then am I not usurping the chef's inventiveness? Is there a charm or benefit to the coyness of the menu that we are missing? Am I just supposed to enjoy the mystery, notwithstanding that I don't like my food? After the experience, I guess we just don't get it. Happy to hear other views.

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

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  1. It's an ideal format for picky eaters. If you have a laundry list of ingredients and preparations you won't eat, EMP is very accommodating.

    Otherwise, it's a hassle trying to figure out what the dishes actually are, unless the server takes ten minutes to verbally describe every single thing on the menu. So you normally just let the surprises fall where they may, good and bad.

    If you're really proactive, you can take advantage of the menu's flexibility. In general practice, I think it's a silly system.

    1. "Scam" is the last word I would use to describe EMP. Of course the menu items are already planned. The kitchen will adjust your chosen dish based on your stated allergies/dislikes. Some people like to be surprised by each dish; I am not one of them (sounds like you and your wife don't like to be surprised either). There have been numerous threads on this board as to how much detail people want/don't want with the EMP menu.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ellenost

        Yeah - I figured there must have been discussions, but the search and review I did before posting didn't really show me anything completely on point. Could be I just missed them. And my use of "scam" is, of course, somewhat provocative, as I pointed out in my original post, what does the restaurant stand to gain from disappointing customers? That is the part that baffles me. Next time I go, if I do go, I would either take Kathryn's good idea and review the bar menu or spend 15 minutes going through each menu item. Perhaps the lesson is that you should narrow down your potential wants and then walk through those in detail with your server to ensure that you get a dish you like. But from what I'm gathering on this thread, most people seem less than enthusiastic about this menu gimmick, as are we.


        1. re: sir chowalot

          <Perhaps the lesson is that you should narrow down your potential wants and then walk through those in detail with your server to ensure that you get a dish you like.>

          In theory, this sounds like a solution, but in fact our server was not willing to do more than rattle off two or three words about each dish, and was obviously quite perturbed about having to do that at all. Perhaps other servers might be more accommodating, but the expectation is that you will accept the element of surprise, and play along with the script. At these prices, I want to know what I am ordering.

          1. re: rrems

            I dine at EMP a few times a year, and have had different servers take care of me on each visit. I have never encountered any server who had any difficulty or reluctance in providing me with very specific details as to the various ingredients in each dish. I am a very fussy eater. In fact, I have found that the more detail one requests, the more interested the server is in describing the food.

            1. re: ellenost

              I used to dine at EMP a few times a year, before the inception of the new menu format, and I too did not encounter this problem. It only occurred after the menu change.

      2. Not a scam, but certainly a gimmick. Removing descriptions from the menu doesn't really serve a purpose unless they think that mystery equals originality. The dialogue about food preferences has been non-existent in my experience unless you really pester your server.

        Anyway, I like EMP but based on food alone, I prefer places like Le Bernardin, Jean Georges, and Per Se.

        Per Se
        10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

        Jean Georges
        1 Central Park W, New York, NY 10023

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

        1. One way around the menu's guessing game might be to drop into the bar, and look at the food menu there (which is composed of many dishes from the dining room menu). When I went last month, there were 9 dishes that corresponded quite closely to the ingredients on the dinner menu.

          1 Reply
          1. re: kathryn

            Brilliant! I didn't even think of that, although we sat at the bar while waiting for our table recently and happened to look at the menu for a second. I wouldn't have necessarily ever chosen any rabbit preparation over any pig preparation, but reading that the rabbit came with pistachio and cherry and pickled onions certainly grabbed my attention.

          2. Not a scam, but a marketing idea that has kept me away. My restaurant choices are very menu driven, and tend not to go to very well reviewed restaurants that serve no items on my short list. l may miss the best lamb chop treatment ever or super salmon, but it is a risk l will accept.

            2 Replies
            1. re: Delucacheesemonger

              as an aside, since you mention lamb...we went to Del Posto for lunch just two days after EMP and absolutely loved it - the roast lamb there is the best I've ever had, and my wife's arctic char was also right up there with the best we've tasted. Super service, generous portions and wonderful food for $29. Highly, highly recommended.

              Del Posto
              85 10th Avenue, New York, NY 10011

              1. re: sir chowalot

                At previous restaurants, if a guest was really interested in what was in a dish, I would sometimes give them the waitstaff's reference notes that had a picture of the dish, list of ingredients, and how they were prepared. It was a nice and relatively inexpensive comp.