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Dinner at Eleven Madison Park - Impressive, Sometimes Spectucular, Ultimately Disappointing

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I've taken a really long time to post this because for a long time I wasn't sure whether my own experience was particularly interesting or useful to the dialogue about EMP on this website and/or on the internet as a whole. I have no interest in "slamming" the restaurant (and I don't at all view what I have to say as a "slam").

The recent conversation on this board finally prompted me to write about my own experience there - but I intend to keep this as concise and balanced as possible. I just figured it made more sense to write this way, rather than continuing to hijack someone else's post.

OK, so the very short version is this...

Background: Due to a bunch of different reasons, I was fortunate enough to be able to save enough money to take my boyfriend out for a once-in-a-lifetime meal. We both love, are curious about and interested in food, but we rarely have the money to experience the restaurants that we read about and are interested in. I had the money saved for one big blowout meal and I did a lot of research to try to understand what the best restaurant to choose would be. Due primarily (but not entirely) to what I’d read about EMP on this board, that was the restaurant I finally ended up choosing.

The Good: There was a lot that was right about the meal. The food was spectacular. I did experience sort of the same thing plumpdumpling wrote about in her earlier post in that I was surprised that the course of the tasting menu heavily featured what might be considered “cheaper” ingredients – eggplant, broccoli, etc. But I found that each of these dishes were impressive in their own way – their flavors shockingly concentrated, and their components presented in a range of preparations that certainly showed off the skill of the kitchen. Our sommelier was lovely, engaging, and definitely caught on to our interest in the way the pairings were chosen. There were also a couple of lovely touches from the restaurant, including a Happy Birthday “candy bar” (that doesn’t really do justice to it, but it’s the best description I can think of) given to my boyfriend, and the bottle of cognac they left us with at the end of the meal.

The Bad: There was a progression of slip ups in the service from almost the moment we came in that I initially found surprising and ultimately found disappointing. Barely seconds after we sat down, we were poured wine we didn’t order that was then promptly whisked away without a word of explanation as soon as we told them it wasn’t ours. My boyfriend’s cocktail order was forgotten (he asked again and it was brought with the first glass of wine). Three different dishes came while I was away from the table – I returned to my boyfriend trying to remember what was in them so he could explain them to me. Notably one of those was the dessert which came with a birthday candle (obviously a kind touch from the kitchen) which had gone out while my boyfriend waited. He fumbled around for a while trying to find a lighter and finally gave up. Honestly it seemed like it might have been nicer just not to have the candle at all at that point.

While the staff as a whole were very warm and engaging, our captain seemed completely uninterested in us for the entire meal while he was clearly engaged, chatting, joking, etc with the two tables next to us. It was odd, as it didn't seem to match the vibe of the room or the rest of the staff, and certainly didn't match what I felt was obvious interest and engagement on our part. OK, our captain doesn’t like us for whatever reason – that’s fine, it happens. It’s certainly not his job to be our friend. And if the service had been perfect, I wouldn’t even bring it up. But because the service was definitely not perfect, I left the dinner wondering what we’d done. Did we do something wrong? Did we bring it on ourselves? Definitely not the way I expect to leave a restaurant at which I spent nearly a thousand dollars. Honestly, not really the way I’d expect to leave a restaurant at which I left a fifth of that.

Afterwards, some people counselled me to contact the restaurant regarding the service issues, and others told me to leave it alone. In the end, I opted not to contact them (I still don’t know whether that was the right choice or the wrong one). I hadn’t chosen to voice my concerns during the meal because more than anything I didn’t want to make my boyfriend (AKA the birthday boy) feel at all uncomfortable. To complain after the fact seemed somewhat pointless to me and I was concerned that my impulse was a petty one (that I just wanted someone to hear out my complaints).

I’m still concerned about coming off that way (which is part of why I took so long to post anything). I certainly don’t think my meal was representative of every meal at the restaurant. But I also wish that this viewpoint had been more strongly represented when I was trying to learn what I could about EMP. My overall impression there was one of clubbiness. If asked, I would suggest that you’re likely to have a better time there if you wait until you have the opportunity to eat with someone already known to the restaurant (sort of like coming to a club as the guest of a member). I wouldn’t personally suggest it as a first-time special occasion kind of place. That’s just my experience. I fully understand that others have had different (much better) experiences and I don’t mean to discount those at all.

Oh well, so much for concise.

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

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  1. "My overall impression there was one of clubbiness. If asked, I would suggest that you’re likely to have a better time there if you wait until you have the opportunity to eat with someone already known to the restaurant (sort of like coming to a club as the guest of a member). I wouldn’t personally suggest it as a first-time special occasion kind of place."

    +1

    Thanks for memorializing your experience here.

    2 Replies
    1. re: peter j

      This is an interesting observation, and one that, unfortunately, I agree with—as much as I love EMP.

      Obviously, I've had stunning experiences at EMP from the start (and I guess am now in the "club"), but I do recognize that that's not the case for everyone.

      1. re: loratliff

        I guess I might agree with this. I've eaten there several times, usually with a good experience. However, one time we were with another couple (the man was a bit annoying, sort of "big spender" kind of guy) and I swear we weren't really "liked" by the waiter. At the end, we didn't receive the boxed goodies they give everyone and, while it seems petty to notice it, it didn't leave me with a great feeling.

    2. I've had some dining experiences at other restaurants that were seriously downgraded or even ruined due to service problems (as in outwardly rude staff), so I understand how big of an issue that can be. But reading this, I'm not quite sure how the service you experienced would lead you to be so disappointed.

      Here's my take on it:

      Most of the issues seemed very minor--slip-ups, yes, but nothing that would honestly ruin your meal. The only real service issue I see is your food being served while you were away. But seeing as how you were away from the table when at least 3 of the 8 courses were served, I'm not sure the restaurant is entirely to blame. A lot of finished dishes don't hold well, and it's not like you happened to be away from the table just once when it was time for service, you were gone for nearly half the courses.

      I'm not blaming you or saying you can't leave the table whenever you want (obviously!), but really, what do you want them to do? If they held your plates under a heat lamp, the quality would likely deteriorate. The dessert likely had frozen elements that were time sensitive. I agree that someone should explain the dish when you returned, but my guess is that they misread your table and didn't pick up that you were excited and interested in talking about food. If that's the case, it was probably a conscious decision to not interrupt you to explain the dish, based on their not picking up on your cues. Based on how your captain interacted with other tables, it doesn't sound like he was rude, but rather was just trying to interact the way he thought you wanted.

      4 Replies
      1. re: ricardo87

        "Based on how your captain interacted with other tables, it doesn't sound like he was rude, but rather was just trying to interact the way he thought you wanted."

        I think it's clear you're trying to rationalize away issues someone had at your favorite restaurant. Regardless, the captain was obviously wrong about their expectations.

        1. re: PopMegaphone

          Yes, the captain was certainly wrong about their expectations. I'm simply suggesting that he misread the table's desires rather than, as the OP suggested, actually disliked them as people. Of course neither is good for the diner's experience, but you must admit that here's a huge difference between the two. One is a service misstep the other is rude and antagonistic.

          1. re: ricardo87

            Sorry - I think this is my fault. I was being a bit flip in saying "ok - he didn't like us"... the point I was trying to make is just that I absolutely don't expect any server ever to, you know, be my buddy. But I do think he misread us, and that was surprising to me considering the fact that everyone else involved in our table seemed spot on in recognizing our interest in and excitement about the food. It was also surprising to me that he spent so little time at our table - maybe a total of 5-10 minutes in the entire meal (and much of that was the preparation of the egg cream).

            1. re: ANin

              Well, not to entirely defend them, but I'm wondering if you getting up and leaving the table so frequently had something to do with it? They do try to read their patrons (and obviously risk comes along with that) so perhaps he just thought that you preferred to be left alone.

      2. I think maybe I should also clarify the whole stepping away from the table thing. We were there for a bit longer than 4 hours - from 8:30 to a little past 12:30 - doing a tasting menu with wine pairings. I stepped away once towards the very beginning of the meal to wash my hands, and then twice over the course of the meal to use the restroom. I honestly don't think that's very odd for four hours of eating and drinking (?), and I'd be shocked if it's not the norm for most people doing the tasting menu + wine pairings there.

        1 Reply
        1. re: ANin

          Yeah, you're right, that's not at all unusual--you didn't do anything wrong. It sounds like a lot of little missteps and misunderstandings built up into something that made your meal a disappointment. Unfortunately, it seems that a lot of the problems stem from your captain misreading you.

          I'm just curious: did you ever directly engage the captain about the food/restaurant or ask questions? That's usually the best way to convey your curiosity and excitement, and tends to lead to more detailed explanations, interesting little tidbits of information, etc. It sounds like that's what you were after, and if that's the type of interaction you were hoping for, that can have a huge impact on how you evaluate the meal.

        2. Regarding your uncertainty about contacting the restaurant, let me relate an episode I had at Union Square Cafe (another Danny Meyer restaurant) some years ago.

          My wife took me there for my birthday, which happened to fall on a Sunday. We had been to USC on several previous occasions, and we liked it quite a bit, which is why she chose it.

          Unfortunately, though, the food was not up to par that night. We ordered the homemade potato chips as a starter, for example, and they appeared on our table within seconds. They obviously had been prepared earlier and had been sitting as now they were soaked in grease and not at all appetizing.

          The rest of the meal was substandard, food-wise, as well. It was tired and drab, something you might expect at a diner, but not at USC. We certainly enjoyed the wine (an Oregon Pinot Noir) and the service was excellent, but all in all the meal was a disappointment. Like you, we didn't say anything at the time as we wanted to just enjoy ourselves and not engage in any confrontational behavior. So we paid the bill, left a nice tip, and went on our way.

          I thought about this meal over the next few weeks and I decided to write them a letter after all. I said in my letter that I had been carrying this around for a while and finally decided I should let them know that they didn't seem to be paying attention on Sunday nights. I explained our experiences in detail and told them that we had had a lot of really good experiences at USC in the past, but not this time.

          Within a couple of days we had two calls from the restaurant and a letter from the chef, all apologizing for not having lived up to expectations. They invited us back for another dinner to make up for the imperfect one, and, as you might imagine, the second one was flawless. They, of course, comped us the meal and the wine, so our only out-of-pocket expense was the tip.

          I thought it was a great gesture and it definitely gave me back my high opinion of USC.

          I've had dinner at EMP several times since Daniel Humm took over and each experience was top-notch. I do think they try very hard to deliver an outstanding experience for each diner. You would not only be doing yourself a favor by writing them and telling them what happened, you'd be doing them a favor.

          All the best whatever your decision.

          -----
          Union Square Cafe
          21 East 16th St., New York, NY 10003

          1. It seems that service at EMP can be hit or miss, but, based on my own experience I would not attribute it to preferential treatment to those who are known to them. With the proliferation of food blogs many -- I think out of a distorted sense of self-importance -- assume that they are being treated as special because they will broadcast on their blog. The one time I went, I enjoyed stellar food and service and I am not known to them in any way. Others apparently have been less lucky, including you unfortunately ANin. As suggested, you should voice your concerns because I do believe they care.

            1. This is the type of occasion that is always fraught with danger (a bit of hyperbole). You’re taking your boyfriend out for as you describe it a once in a lifetime meal. There’s only two outcomes, either it will be the most wonderful evening of your life, or a terrible disappointment. Too often it’s the latter because expectations are so high. It can’t ever be just another dinner. Hey it’s a once in a lifetime event so how could expectations not be high? That’s where the danger comes in. I’ve heard too many times about how disappointing a special event dinner was.

              You felt like you weren’t part of the club. I understand that. When I was in college, I dated a young lady who came from a family that did quite well. I have always been a fan of food but my fine dining experiences up to that point had been very limited. Her parents come to visit and wanted to take us out to dinner and they take us to Lutece. I had never been to a place like that and there was definitely a bit of feeling out of place, a fish out of water. I recall looking at the menu and asking why there were no prices on it. My jungle guide girlfriend whispered to me that the only menu that had prices was her father’s. That way guests didn’t worry about the costs of what they were ordering. Strange customs in a new land. That was the start of learning how to dine out at place like Lutece (which is now sadly gone). You learn how these places work and then work it to your advantage.

              I’ve been fortunate to have done ok enough so that eating at “fine” dining places is a regular occurrence. The tables you saw talking with the captain had a familiarity with the environment. I think that helps you engage with the staff even at a place you have never been at. You did nothing wrong at your dinner. The staff didn’t pick up on your interest. My wife is quite masterful in engaging with the staff from the moment we are being shown to the table. We talk to the sommelier to get opinions about the wine, ask what’s in the amuse, you ask for the servers’ names if they don’t say it up front and so on. There’s a running conversation going on. That’s how you join the club. While we have still had disappointing dinners, its rare. I hope you have an opportunity to have the second in a lifetime dinner.

              4 Replies
              1. re: Bkeats

                I think you're absolutely right that the fact that I knew this was our one shot at EMP certainly contributed to the feeling of disappointment here. Definitely my expectations were for near flawless service and that definitely was part of what led to my disappointment. But I’m not sure those expectations were unfair. After all, we’re talking here about one of the most expensive and highly reviewed restaurants in New York. A restaurant specifically touted as being a star example of restaurant service at its best, owned by (arguably) the leading expert in restaurant hospitality. And that was definitely a huge factor in me choosing EMP over the other restaurants I considered – so I was surprised when that wasn’t the experience we had.

                I would point out, though, that it wasn’t the staff as a whole that seemed out of tune with us. In fact, what was notable to me was that everyone except our captain seemed very in tune with what we were hoping to get from the meal and the experience as a whole. We’re both ex-industry folk ourselves (although certainly never on the level of EMP) and we’ve never had any trouble adjusting appropriately to the atmosphere of the restaurant or engaging the staff at a restaurant before this meal. We’ve never had a meal at a restaurant on the level or price point of EMP, but we’ve also never had any issues at any of the restaurants that we normally go to for “special occasions” – most of which sit at around half to three quarters of the cost of EMP. I did expect EMP to be better. But I’m willing to admit that maybe that was my own inexperience / naïveté.

                1. re: ANin

                  That really is a shame then. Like I said before, I hope you have another opportunity to have a better experience.

                  1. re: ANin

                    So, I wasn't going to weigh in on this, but it's interesting, I've had similar service failures at EMP in the dining room. The last time I ate there, everything was flawless, but at that point I'd eaten there 3 or 4 times in the previous year or two and am a regular at the bar.

                    At prior times, the food was always excellent, and the service unfailingly polite, but the pacing was odd - one time, my party was seated, and 20+ minutes passed between being seated and anyone coming by to talk to us. Another time, we did the tasting, and the gap between two of the courses was close to 40 minutes - I don't expect courses to be right on top of each other, but that's a long time to be sitting there with empty plates, even more so when no one came by to apologize or explain why there was a delay. Then one other time, in between dessert courses I had a 30 minute wait.

                    Each time, the issue was individually slight enough that Ididn't bring it up to the captain, but over 4 meals, plus other comments on blogs and message boards, it becomes pretty clear they have a fundamental issue with pacing their courses and communicating with their guests.

                    To be clear, everyone there is incredibly friendly, and I enjoy talking to them very much, but I consistently see things get missed, and missteps that I wouldn't expect from a NYT 4*. And especially not at a Danny Meyer property.

                    I would definitely write to them - if nothing else, the birthday cake coming out when you were away from the table is stupid. The argument that "oh, should we just put the food back under the lamp?" is acceptable to a limited degree, but there's no reason that cake couldn't have sat at the pass for an extra five minutes until you got back. But the biggest sin that demonstrates is that you were made to feel unimportant, and that's pretty inexcusable at a restaurant of that level.

                    1. re: ANin

                      There was one captain, in particular, whose attitude was more than dampening. If, by chance, I am initially seated in his section next time around, I plan to ask to be seated in a different section.

                  2. I'm sorry you had a disappointing experience. As someone else said, you'd be doing both yourself and them a favor by letting them know of your experience and disappointment. This gives them the opportunity to improve as well as to make it up to you.

                    1. I just wanted to chime in here to say that I fear that this post has taken a more negative turn than I had intended. There were truly terrific things about our meal at EMP. The food, for one (very important) thing was spectacular. I also truly don't believe that our experience is representative of all experiences. I believe that the many glowing reports of other dinners at the restaurant are clear proof that extraordinary service does occur there.

                      1. If I were you, I would copy this review you've written for us and paste it into a word document. I would address it to Danny Meyer at his offices: Union Square Hospitality Group; 626 W 28th St, New York, NY 10001

                        He would be very dismayed to know you had these unfortunate experiences at one of his restaurants, and I'm sure would bend over backwards to make amends. I know for a fact that "a club" is not the kind of restaurant he chooses to run.

                        You do yourself (and him) a disfavor if you don't let him know.

                        6 Replies
                        1. re: ChefJune

                          I have to disagree. If things aren't bad enough to speak up during the meal (why didn't you?) sending a letter later so that people can "make amends" strikes me as uncouth. Why not just send a negative letter after every meal you have anywhere (even if the food is, as it was here, "spectacular"). Heck, if you can get another free meal out of it, all the better.

                          I am always happy when places do something special for me when I dine there, but the thought of trying to parlay one dinner into a second free one because things weren't perfect the first time is troubling.

                          bash away.

                          1. re: RGR

                            I went on Tuesday for dinner. While the captain may have been ignoring me (which never occurred to me think about), it was clear to all that I was there with close friends and our intention was to talk, talk and eat. The other staff was flawless. Could not empty my water glass for the life of me.
                            The meal was very, very good. Clearly well thought out and executed. For me, I loved half the meal and the other half was take it or leave it. The granola - simply out of this world.

                            1. re: batgirl284

                              Your comment about the water glass was funny to me, as my boyfriend and I always play a game to see if I can get up for the restroom without having them rush over and pull the table out for me. We've not once succeeded—they always swoop in at the very last minute! They seem to have eyes in the back of their head.

                            2. re: nmprisons

                              nmprisons -

                              Well said! And as I've said before (but for some reason it was removed from this string) I much prefer getting "perks", if and when that happens, because EMP (or any restaurant for that matter) feels I am appreciating the meal not because they feel they need to placate me.

                              1. re: nmprisons

                                The OP said that she didn't want to create a negative environment for what was supposed to be a special occasion. Based on the progression of events, it seems like the criticism would have been difficult to voice in real-time.

                                As one of the premier restauranteurs in the world, I'm sure that Mr. Meyer would want to know when his flagship restaurant fails to meet expectations. My experiences at EMP have always been positive and I appreciate that they go to great lengths to make it so. Doesn't seem to me like well thought out, constructive feedback equals seeking a comp'd meal, but rather giving the owners an opportunity to maintain the high standards that it has set for itself. If a comp'd meal comes out of it, then that's their call.

                                1. re: chewbie

                                  I wanted to say, very briefly, that EMP tracked me down as a result of this post before I had a chance to contact them - although taking all of your opinions into account, I most likely would have done so.

                                  I want to reiterate what I posted earlier: there were a lot of great things about our meal. I should have made that even more clear in my original post. We did have service issues that I found disappointing - I stand by that even though I know some of you disagree. I will say that my recent communication with the restaurant has been overwhelming and incredibly impressive.

                                  I feel that they truly believe in their restaurant and their level of service. It's very rarely that I've ever had a chance to interact with people who have so much pride in their work - it really is pretty extraordinary. I do intend to check back in on CH once things are more resolved but I just wanted to say that they had contacted me and that I've been tremendously impressed by my conversations with them.