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EMP: Bring The Funk

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So, celebrated the big 4-0 at Eleven Madison Park two nights ago. All in all, excellent as always, with one issue that I'll get to later. It had been awhile since I'd been for dinner - I've been for lunch in the past year, and a bite at the bar, but I haven't had a full-fledged dinner in... cripes, probably a year and a half? It's been some time. So I'd been looking forward to it, of course.

After a drink at the bar, we made our way to our table where I found a card waiting for me - from my parents. Seems they'd dropped a little surprise and had called the resto beforehand to pay for our meal. Well... wow! (And the EMP cookbook, too - beautiful!)

Since we had a larger than usual budget to play with (my girlfriend informed me that in her secret conversations with my mother, she'd originally planned on sending us to Per Se, before the gf correctly told her that EMP would be my preferred choice) we figured that as long as we stayed under a "Per Se level" budget, we could play around with the meal a bit - easy enough, as dinner + wine at Per Se would easily be a couple (few?) hundred more than a tasting + wine pairing at EMP. In the end, for reasons I'll get to below, we went with the straight tasting.

As we talked with our wine guy beforehand, I let him know my tastes - first, to mix it up with beers, wines, whatever - and that I had a taste for certain esoteric styles - I'm especially fond of lambics, slightly oxidized wines, beverages with a certain "barnyard funk" to them. He was happy to oblige. He seemed kind of excited to be able to bust out a few out-of-the-ordinary choices.

So without further ado, the food report:

First, an amuse. Two mini "Black & White Cookies" were delivered in a box wrapped in string, and we were informed that the tasting menu had a "New York" narrative in parts. These weren't normal B&Ws, though - they were savory, made of foie gras, one side coated with black truffle. Can't complain about that...

Then on to the Hors D'oeuvres:

1. Apple Tea w/thyme, Sunny-Side-Up Quail Egg
2. Hamachi with Pickled Ginger & Lemon, Scallop Ceviche with Yuzu
3. Yogurt Lollipops with Curry & Lentils, Chickpea Panisse with Yogurt
4. "Borscht" - Beet Gelee, Hard-boiled egg, Rye Crumble, Caviar

Simple starter - tea and an egg on toast, kind of like beginning the meal with breakfast - with the apple perhaps ushering in the "Big Apple" theme. Then we transitioned into three different NYC immigrant communities for a bite or two - Japanese, Indian, and Eastern European / Russian. Some were more exciting than others. The scallop kind of disappeared under the citrus, and the hamachi was fairly mild as well. The "Borscht" was the most flavorful, although... it wasn't really reminiscent of Borscht at all. The Beet Gelee was very mild, and any beety sweetness was lost under the intense flavors of egg & caviar. And other than beets - well, none of the other ingredients are part of Borscht. I suppose calling it a take on Borscht was the only real misstep, as it set up a certain expectation, and then the only ingredient I would actually relate to Borscht was decidedly in the background. That said, it did have a certain Eatern Euro / Russian flair to it, and it WAS tasty. Just not Borschty.

The real star of the Hors D'oeuvres round was the beverage pairing. As he poured, he told us that while he'd normally begin a meal with Champagne, tonight it'd be a sparkling cider - Etienne Dupont "Cuvee Colette" 2008. Let me tell you, when I asked for funk - he done gave it to us. It smelled like a band-aid crossed with a horse stable (mind you, I mean that in a good way... other funk-fans know where I'm comin' from...) but was light and crisp on the palate. I've had funky beers and wines but never a cider that went that route - I don't know (should have asked) if it was naturally or intentionally infected with Brettanomyces, or if it was some other process - either way, fantastic.

The second round of Hors was a trip out of the city to Long Island - the "Clambake" of which much has been written. Beverage was a Southampton Saison Deluxe, a perfect choice. Others have posted about it before, so no need to go into details. The individual bites were all good, but the silky chowder itself handily took top honors. And the presentation - which could easily cross the line into pure gimmickry - worked. Water was poured over hot rocks covered in seaweed, wafting the table with steam aromatized with the scent of the Northeast Atlantic Coast. They say that scent is one of the strongest nostalgia triggers - and for this coastal New England expat, it brought it.

Then, after our six mini-courses of thirteen different bites, it was announced that the "meal" was to begin, with five courses from the "grid" menu. The usual great bread (more like a croissant) with amazing butters (goat & cow) was delivered, quickly followed by the Cauliflower. The florets were shredded like couscous, bits of concentrated black olive and orange scattered around the plate and "tabbouleh" (ra concentrated parsley puree) hiding underneath. Interesting, I noted to my girlfriend, that this was (as far as I could tell) and entirely vegan dish. Basically a salad to start the meal, and a decent one, though not the most exciting thing I've had there. Wine was a 2010 Yves Martin Sancerre - smooth and light, a hint of grass that mirrored the parsley somewhat. Like the course it accompanied it was decent but nothing I'd go out of my way for.

Of course, what better way to follow the vegan course than with... foie gras! Two different preps were brought out. My girlfriend was served a terrine with a black truffle emulsion, potato and rye crisps (Trimbach Reserve Personelle, '04) while I was presented with a seared lobe accompanied with apples and oat streusel (Lafaurie-Peyraguey Sauternes, '98) - my wine had a very intense nose, almost spicy - my first thought was "horseradish?" though the gf didn't pick up the same note when she smelled it - belying the sweetness underneath. Good on the palate, though I like a bit more acidity. This Sauternes fell pretty squarely on the sweet side, but it wasn't cloyingly so, so it balanced nicely. After tasting both plates, we each decided we liked each other's better so we swapped. I'm normally a seared foie guy, but the terrine was effin' terrific.

The third proper course was "Sunchoke" - and was one of the standouts of the meal. I like sunchokes, mind you, but they're not something one normally gets excited about. In this case, though... wow. There were a few different preps of choke on the plate - a roasted slab, some chips, a puree, all incredibly hearty and rich, with a watercress emulsion and a bit of horseradish to cut through it. This was an absolute knockout, and probably the dish I'll remember most. (Pichler-Kreutzler GrĂ¼ner Veltliner, '09)

Fourth came a little rectangle of sole, with black truffle sandwiched down the middle, variations on celery around the plate, both stalk and root. Black truffle and celery root are one of those classic combinations, which made the sole almost incidental. There've been similar dishes to this one the last couple times we were at Aquavit (once with hay-smoked cod, another time with flounder - seems mild white fish is the protein of choice among chefs for those flavors) and I can't say one was better than another - in the hands of a decent chef it's a combo hard to go wrong with. Paired with a mysterious private bottling marked "No. 11" from Burgandy, an excellent Chardonnay blend. Great course that hit all the right notes.

Our final savory course was squab, and again we were treated to two different preps. For my girlfriend, with beets and chocolate-infused Squab jus. Mine was similarly plated, a perfect breast (the best squab I've ever had, hands down) and a leg with angry clawed foot attached, only mustard seeds (IIRC) infusing the sauce instead of cocoa. I liked hers better, personally - the cocoa added a wonderful depth, and cocoa + beets are a great combo. I believe we were both paired a Vincent Paris "Granit 60" Cornas '08, a solid if unobtrusive red with a hint of pepper, quite low on tannin for such a young'un.

Before dessert, time for cheese. I'm not a big fan of cheese courses, to be perfectly honest - I understand that they help transition the palate from savory to sweet, though I'll always get more excited for a composed pre-dessert. (WD-50 has for me always set the standard for pre-desserts - I don't know if it was Dufresne or Stupak/Livingston who concocted them, but they've often been meal highlights)

That said, they at least had some fun with it at EMP. It wasn't the standard cheese with quince paste and nuts or any of the typical presentations. I like that they basically served three bites of the same cheese, just each of them treated differently - one straight, one aged in apple brandy, the third you'll have to forgive me for not remembering - something involving pumpkin seeds. They were all paired with apple, rye crisps, pumpkin seeds, (pickled?) pumpkin cubes and a pumkpin vinaigrette. (I'm sure I'm forgetting or misremembering one element...) This is one of those things that EMP does where they realy shine - taking the same ingredient and presenting it multiple ways, just like with the celery and sunchoke earlier in the meal, only here cheese and pumpkin. Lots of restaurants do it, sure, but I'm not sure anyone does it better. Came with a '99 Foreau Vouvray - a somewhat unremarkable Vouv, but then I didn't expect them to pour a Huet Cuvee Constance or anything.

On to the desserts, and back to the NYC theme. Egg Creams (hooray!) were prepped at the table, the milk pure white but infused with cocoa nibs and a hint of orange oil. Kind of like an egg cream crossed with a Creamsicle. Delicious. Then "Cheesecake" - goat cheese with blood orange and vanilla, which continued the cream/citrus flavors of the egg cream. (Bottex "La Cueille" Gamay/Poulsard Demi-Sec Sparkling Rose, NV - inoffensive, easy drinker, but perhaps bordered a little too close to strawberry soda / wine cooler territory)

Finally, chocolate - of course. On my plate, too many variations to count - ganaches, tarts, cocoa nib, salted caramel sorbet. For her, chocolate sorbet with carmelized cocoa pastry, bergamot-infused something (cream?) and olive oil. The latter (hers) - amazing. For our beverage, the funk returned in an Albert Le Coq Imperial Extra Double Stout - a still, malty brew from '03 with a hint of the barnyard and gasoline / motor oil in the nose, rich roasted coffee, bitter chocolate, and tawny on the palate. Incredible - I don't know if Bretts were used in the brewing but it sure tasted that way. I can imagine fresh this one was quite intense, but with a bit of time in the bottle it's mellowed a touch. A really interesting and appropriate pairing. A great choice for me. Our pairer definitely went out on a limb with this one, and it paid off.

Finally, an actual (mini) Black & White cookie to bookend the meal. Cute. And the bottle of cognac - which came out before I'd had the opportunity to order a different brandy, something I'd intended to do. Could be I'd just spaced, though - we were offered coffee, which I declined, probably should have asked for the digestif menu at that point. Once the bottle hit the table, though, figured go with the freebie. At that point it was 1AM, only the two of us and two other tables were left - one a solo diner, the other a birthday party. We lingered for a bit and chatted with our new neighbors in the afterglow of a great meal.

Jar of granola was had for breakfast the next day with some 0% Fage yogurt, and the special "happy birthday" chocolate bars we managed to put off consuming until after dinner last night, though we kept eyeballing them all day...

We've never done the tasting menu before at EMP, and I've got to say, food-wise, it was wonderful as expected. As in any tasting like this - there were 24 different bites/plates, if my count is right - there were some that while not bad, were forgettable (the two raw seafood hors, a couple of the clambake bites, the cauliflower) amid the many highs (the foie black & white, the chowder, the sunchoke, the foie apps, both squabs - especially the one w/ chocolate jus, most of the desserts) - but overall one of the best meals in my memory.

----------

Two things detracted, though. The first was my own mistake, reading Ryan Sutton's recent tasting review and looking at Ulterior Epicure's photo set of his. Of course both of them (I'm sure Sutton was recognized, and they all know what UE looks like) got abundant extra bells & whistles with their meals - the nitro cocktail, a sturgeon & caviar presentation, other little things - that we didn't. No biggie. Recognized well-read food bloggers and critics, more regular customers than we, etc, are going to get that stuff. (I'm not bonkers for the Jack Rose cocktail, anyway - hit me with a nitro'd Sazerac or Margarita, I'd be excited.)

The second - and I'm not going to mention any names, as I don't want anyone to get in trouble, and I'm even going to go so far as to only use the unspecifically-genered "they" when discussing them - was that one of our waiters (and I'm using "waiter" in a non-gender-specific way) came off a bit... short with us.

We were leaning towards the tasting, but I wanted to know more about a few of the regular menu options first. Some favorite ingredients were on there (octopus and rabbit in particular) so I wanted to see how they were prepared. Like I said, we had a budget to play with - a Per Se level budget, theoretically. If a dish from the grid caught our attention more than one of the regular courses from the tasting, could we sub it in for one of us, or could we add it to the tasting with a supplement? This is EMP, of course, so we knew the answer would be yes.

Except it wasn't. We were informed rather off-handedly - I might even go so far as to say gruffly - that the tasting was what it was and that's that.

So - since we couldn't make any alterations to the tasting, at least according to our server - we figured we might go with the regular menu. Maybe it'd appeal more to us. There were octopus and rabbit on it, after all. No idea what'd be in the tasting.

So we asked about the specific dishes from the grid, and the answers were short and mysteriously uninformative.

How is the octopus prepared? "It's braised then grilled."

(pause)

...so I'm sitting, waiting to hear what flavors / ingredients it's paired with, and nothing is forthcoming. I ask more specifically, and am told there are two different versions of each dish listed.

(pause)

Um... yeah, we know that already. What, y'know, ARE the two different versions? There was some hemming and hawing and... somehow we weren't told. Very odd.

I didn't even bother asking about the rabbit, it was obvious that line of questions would go nowhere, and we figured rather than push it... we'd just go with the standard tasting, sure it would be fine. Hey, if they didn't want us to spend more money... so be it. It was kind of a bummer, because in a perfect world we'd have perhaps subbed the octopus for the sole, since the sole was so similar in flavor profile to the dishes we'd had so recently at Aquavit. And we'd have gladly paid extra to add the rabbit to the parade of dishes. They add the duck as a supplement, of course, no reason they wouldn't do it with the rabbit I'm sure. Luckily the meal itself was so solid as to ameliorate any bad vibes it started with.

Our wine guy was the usual awesome EMP-ness, more than happy to mix up a the pairings for my funky tastes, very engaging, but the person who took our order was just... it seemed like they didn't want to diverge from the script. Maybe they were new, maybe they were having a bad day, I dunno. And as the meal went on, they loosened up a bit - it was just during the ordering process, for some reason, they were quite stiff, to the point it was a bit off-putting. Like, it wasn't even an "I'm sorry, the tasting menu is pretty set, the kitchen can't make any serious alterations to it." - I'd have been surprised to hear that, but whatever, it'd have been fine. Instead it was so brusquely delivered that it left us feeling kind of awkward for having asked. I began to wonder if I should ask if my mother had undertipped or something...

----------

So, that aside.... yep, EMP is still tops in my book. Not that I expected that opinion to change.

-----
Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019

WD-50
50 Clinton Street, New York, NY 10002

Aquavit
65 E 55th St, New York, NY 10022

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

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  1. Happy birthday! Sounds like a great meal regardless of the server weirdness.

    Those black and white cookies with foie gras and black truffle sound divine.

    1 Reply
    1. re: kathryn

      Oh, they were. They kind of had that "so rich you couldn't eat more than one bite" thing crossed with the "I want to take a bag of these home so I can gorge on them while watching crappy reality TV" thing going.

      Funny, because years ago I made my own spin on a B&W with foie gras for a dinner party - completely different, a full app, a half-moon of vanilla-scented foie royal matched with a half-moon of seared foie with a bitter chocolate crust painted over it. But when I saw it I was like, "someone's been looking at my secret cookbook..."

    2. Thanks for an in depth report and enjoyable reading. Although I am not a huge fan of EMP, and I know most of CH are, I never had a problem customizing the tasting menu. So i'm surprised they were rigid in that regard ( if i read it right). Also the chocolate infused squab , doesn't sound good to me. It reminds me of the idea that Kittichai had with chocolate ribs. I also am not a sunnyside quail egg fan. But it was great reading your post. I guess I am due to check out EMP, since I haven't been there in over a year.

      1 Reply
      1. re: foodwhisperer

        Well, it mas more cocoa than "chocolate" really - a nice earthy depth. I'm a big fan of cocoa-as-spice, so it worked nicely for me. I know the chocolate ribs at Kittichai - blech, not to my taste either.

      2. The server's rigid and evasive responses to your menu questions were unfortunate, but that was my experience too. Glad you enjoyed your meal though.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Riverman500

          Hmm. Maybe we had the same server... they're usually not like that, and as fioodwhisperer (and Sutton in his recent review) pointed out, customization is no big thing, even encouraged, usually. So lord only know what the deal was.

        2. Yeah, the not very detailed responses regarding the preparations reflect my own experience as well. I'm not a fan of their grid menu. Totally gimmicky.

          Happy birthday and glad you enjoyed the meal!

          1 Reply
          1. re: Cheeryvisage

            Gimmicky is the perfect way to describe the grid. I've said it before -- not a fan of this menu style. I still don't understand how this format enhances the diners' experiences. I've also experienced the terse descriptions (stated nicely of course). As I didn't want to risk sounding like an entitled asshole, I didn't push any further.

            That said, I think EMP is a great restaurant. I just wish they would go back to a traditional menu format.

          2. Very thorough and I only hope they continue that black/white bookend theme when I visit on the 28th - Kinch does it at Manresa with Jellies and Madelines and I've always thought it to be a very clever riff.

            Love the sound of the Foie terrine and the Squab (both) though I find the server weirdness to be quite uncharacteristic.

            Happy birthday - and I hope to get a cheese course as awesome as yours sounds. I wish more NY restaurants did a proper cheese cart :-)

            http://endoedibles.com

            1. Great report! Happy Birthday!

              1. I dined at EMP three times during the past four months, and upon my second visit, about half of my tasting menu was repetition. So when I visited for the third time, I asked my server whether they 'could' change the tasting menu so that it wouldn't overlap, and I said that I would order prix fixe if they couldn't do that. My server said they would be glad to do it for me, so I ordered the tasting menu.

                While half of the menu was something new, still, the rest of the course; the various amuse bouches, appetizers, and most of petit fours (which, I personally think are the best part of the meal) were exactly the same as what I had before... So I had to eat the same stuff for the THIRD time... Well, I guess it's my problem... Going there too often. I still like EMP, but I think I should go there three times maximum a year from now on, in order to avoid this problem.

                Happy Birthday! :)

                1 Reply
                1. re: kosmose7

                  I'd be interested to know if EMP keeps tabs on their diners like Alinea or Per Se/The French Laundry where the only 'repeats' they will serve you are the 'signatures' (and even then they will change them if you ask.)

                  I know they keep up on who has been there recently (and when they were under the USRG banner they kept track of what other restaurants in the family you'd been to as well) but I think it is quite interesting that people who eat there frequently seem to be served the same plates again and again.

                  http://endoedibles.com

                2. Thanks for the wonderfully detailed and well written report. I'm bringing my husband there also for the big 4-0 at the beginning of March. He's so excited, I don't even think he can stand waiting another moment!

                  I too adore quirky, unconventional wines and have found that the soms are always excited to work "outside the box" so to speak.

                  1. I don't know if this is appropriate, but I just want to take the occassion of his birthday to tell sgordon how much I enjoy his restaurant write-ups.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: Sneakeater

                      Seconded.

                      1. re: kathryn

                        And may I say the same for both of you!

                        Side note / addendum to the review above, I just realized: we didn't get gougeres! Are they off the menu now? Maybe the foie B&W is the replacement?

                    2. Went for lunch on 2/28. Had many of the same dishes with the only differences being that instead of the sole we had lobster and instead of the squab we received 55-day dry aged wagyu. Like you we inquired about various preps on the grid and although I hinted at desiring something other than beef they "talked me into it."

                      To my palate the cheese course was a failure in execution - taking mild triple creams and crushing them with mustard and horseradish while the chocolate dessert changed substantially from yours and left me wondering just how in the world they won best pastry Chef at the Beard Awards.

                      The above noted, each and every savory knocked it out of the park and what Humm is doing with vegetables right now is only rivaled by a couple of chefs (Passard being one) in my experience. The lobster dish as well as the foie course were both ballsy and beautiful - the sort of dish that makes you want to stand up and applaud the kitchen's skills and the service was sublime. The foie portion was only ~1/5 the size of that at Per Se or Manzo which was a bit sad as it was quite good...and all things being equal, it makes me feel a lot better about the $40 surcharge at Per Se for the foie as well.

                      I LOVE the nod to New York with the new Black and White amuse/mignardise pairing and am glad they got rid of the run of the mill gougeres (they couldn't compare to Per Se anyhow.)

                      Overall I was happy with my meal though not as much so as during my previous visit largely because of the weak ending with the cheese and chocolate but with the amuses, the savories, the cheesecake, the jack rose, the cocktail, and the clambake as well as the service were all still 100% Michelin 3* quality leaving EMP amongst my top 3 meals in NYC. Eventually my full thoughts will come together in the blog, but for now I guess this will suffice. :-)

                      http://endoedibles.com

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

                      17 Replies
                      1. re: uhockey

                        Cocktail? I was under the impression that you don't imbibe.

                        1. re: Splendid Wine Snob

                          You were under a false impression. I often drink one glass of wine or one cocktail with certain meals. In general I lean toward rose champagne, dessert wines, or rum based cocktails. What I do not do is drink more than one or two over a very long meal as my tolerance is poor (on a good day.)

                          http://endoedibles.com

                        2. re: uhockey

                          uhockey,

                          Is there a reason you've gone to EMP for lunch rather than dinner? I'm thinking of giving them a second chance after my rubbishy experience last summer but was just wondering if there are any notable differences that swayed your decision.

                          1. re: degustingdiary

                            Very simple, actually. #1) Same menu. #2) Better light for photos. #3) Why "spend" a dinner on a place that offers the same experience at lunch? :-)

                            Considering how much you loathed your last visit I'm not sure why you'd go back....

                            http://endoedibles.com

                            1. re: uhockey

                              Ah, yes that makes sense.

                              Well, it's a world-class restaurant. I even gave Chez Panisse two chances before realizing it just wasn't that great, so I think I can offer the same courtesy to Eleven Madison.

                              1. re: uhockey

                                Is the tasting menu the same for lunch and dinner?

                                1. re: PorkyBelly

                                  Yes.

                                  http://endoedibles.com

                                  1. re: uhockey

                                    so there's a $70 premium to eat the same exact thing but at a later time?

                                    1. re: PorkyBelly

                                      Yep.

                                      Supply and demand.

                                      100+ wait list at night, far less during afternoon.

                                      http://endoedibles.com

                                      1. re: uhockey

                                        Actually there are differences, although, if you dine with regulars who are friends to the house, those differences evaporate. To start with, the amuses are significantly more limited and there is also no after meal cognac service.

                                        1. re: doubledoc

                                          This is incorrect. The cognac is different, but directly from our servers mouth (and from witnessing three other tables doing the tasting during lunch) the amuses are identical.

                                          http://endoedibles.com

                                          1. re: doubledoc

                                            i got the cognac bottle at lunch, and flat out asked our server if what we received was the same as a dinner service and was told yes.

                                            1. re: streaksinthesky

                                              Good to hear. I saw other tables get it as well but couldn't "confirm" if they were "known" to the house.

                                              Otherwise, our server who would have no reason to lie, also told me services were identical.

                                              http://endoedibles.com

                                              1. re: uhockey

                                                In my experience there were 3-4 bites of canapes for lunch vs 6-8 for dinner. Has that changed?

                                                1. re: fooder

                                                  This has been my experience as well. Basically same meal, but different number of canapes. But i am not the worlds best counter and i take neither pictures nor notes, so I could be wrong.

                                                  In any event, I really enjoyed the lunches there.

                                                  1. re: fooder

                                                    Has changed. Same service now that they've moved to the Black/White cookie combo, Clam bake, etc.

                                                    http://endoedibles.com

                                                    1. re: uhockey

                                                      I trust you. Sounds good to me.