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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.

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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.