EMP Lunch - A review (long)
I realize plenty of ink has been spilled on EMP, but I just thought I'd add my voice to the chorus, as it were. It is a pretty long review as I have a tendency to be verbose. Review with photos is available at:
So it was that my first meal in New York in 3 years was destined to be at Eleven Madison Park, that temple of Gotham gastronomy which seems to be nearly universally adored (at least, according to what I had read). I was moved to buy a copy of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s EMP cookbook (or, as some have described it, an art book with recipes) a few months ago which only served to stoke my desire to have a meal there. As I walked into the soaring room on a bright and sunny day I couldn’t help but feel a certain frisson of excitement as I was greeted like an old friend by the maître d’ and escorted to my table with a commanding view of the room.
Having made my choice and opted for the full tasting menu with wine pairings, and assured the staff I had no allergies or aversions to anything culinary, I was delighted to have a small box tied with string placed in front of me. Inside the box, I was told, was a take on a New York institution, the black and white cookie, which would serve as the first amuse of the day. This was no ordinary black and white cookie, but rather an explosively savory version encompassing black truffle, parmesan and crème fraîche on beautifully buttery pastry. The meal, it seemed, was off to a flying start.
As a firm believer in starting a great meal with bubbles and thus having chosen a Bérèche et Fils Brut Reserve Champagne to start, I settled in for the parade of amuse courses to follow. First to arrive was a tomato tea containing a “teabag” of lemon thyme and thin crispy pieces of parmesan lavash. The tea was intensely redolent of herbs and tomato and made a nice accompaniment to the crispy and nutty parmesan flavor.
Following was a delicious “lollipop” of curry, dried lentils, and creamy yogurt and a chickpea panisse which tasted faintly of lemon, and my favorite amuse, a stunning sabayon of smoked sturgeon in an eggshell. The buttery emulsion, delicately smoky chunks of fish, and intense chives and chive oil in the bottom of the shell were a fantastic combination. I could have eaten twenty of them.
It was at this point that I was asked, “Would you be interested in a visit to the kitchen? We have a course prepared that we’d like to serve you back there.”
Why, yes. Yes, I would be interested.
In a slight daze I was accompanied back past the staging areas to the cacophonous kitchen space, where I watched the EMP staff work with uncanny precision surrounded by posters of Miles Davis and the poster of EMP’s values (take a look at the cookbook if you want to see these; they’re in there). Led to a single place setting, I had the entire kitchen’s operation explained to me while the course, an edible cocktail, was prepared. Now, I’ve made kitchen visits before; usually it’s a perfunctory one at the end of a meal to shake the chef’s hand and say a few words. This, though, this was something entirely other. The care taken to answer my questions and give me a behind the scenes picture of a 3 Michelin star operation was extraordinary. And the course was delicious too, a Jack Rose cocktail of pomegranate frozen in liquid nitrogen, Grenadine syrup, and Calvados brandy. I appreciated this foray into the kitchen occuring toward the beginning of the meal – often these visits occur at the end of a long wine pairing when I’m a bit, um, tipsy.
Returning to the dining room, a wonderful flaky and warm pair of bread rolls was proffered, along with cow’s milk butter, goat’s milk butter, and sea salt.
The New York theme continued with EMP’s deconstruction of a Long Island clambake. A ceramic pot surrounded by rocks draped with seaweed was placed before me, along with a bowl containing clams with a succotash of chorizo and a parcel wrapped in banana leaf, which turned out to be a small, moist piece of zucchini bread. The rocks around the pot were heated and as seawater was poured on them steam rose up smelling fragrantly like the seashore. Finally, sweet and intense corn chowder was revealed as the content of the pot. Chef Humm has apparently stated that this, or a variation of it, is one of the meals he would prefer to make for a James Beard dinner (two others are the egg cream and his take on New York style cheesecake, descriptions of which are forthcoming). Paired with the course was a malty, lightly hoppy, and fruity Saison Deluxe ale from Southampton Ales and Lagers – a fine accompaniment to the slightly unorthodox clambake.
The next course was couscous, smoked with tomato, yogurt, and a powder made from taggiasca olives. As one might expect, this course immediately evoked the Mediterranean, and was paired very nicely with a glass of 2011 Bandol Rose from Domaine de Terrebrune (a blend of Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Grenache). The wine was beautifully minerally with a hint of strawberry.
Following this was a foie gras terrine cured with black sesame, gem lettuce, and a small slice of duck prosciutto. I’m actually not normally a fan of foie gras done in this way, but the dish had a nice balance to it, the black sesame and pepper crust adding a savory note to go along with the unctuousness of the foie and the bitterness of the greens and saltiness of the duck completing the picture. There was also a soy component in the black puree on the plate which was very interesting and created quite the umami overload when tasted along with the foie. The wine that went along with this course was a 2010 Domaine Jamet Côtes du Rhône Blanc, mostly Marsanne with some Viogner and Rousanne, focused, tart and apple-y with a hint of spice. Evidently EMP thought enough of this wine to buy the entire 10 cases allotted to the United States. It was delicious.
It was about this time that I noticed Chef Humm making his rounds of the dining room, greeting every table. We chatted briefly and I complimented him on the experience thus far; he humbly accepted the accolades and wished me a good meal. Again, I found this a wonderfully personal touch.
Back to lunch, then, and a caraway gnocchi with whey, fresh curds, and spring herbs. This was intensely vegetal, but the richness of the gnocchi tempered the herbaceousness and at the bottom some beautifully charred fiddleheads lent a smoky hint to what was a fantastic assemblage of flavors. A glass of Lieu Dit Sauvignon Blanc 2011 from Tyler Winery in the Santa Ynez Valley was poured with this. It was very much a lean Sancerre style sauvignon blanc and really lifted the herbal qualities of the dish.
The next course was a black bass with pine nuts and various grilled mushrooms, served along with dollops of caramelized onion inside an onion skin. I don’t remember all of the specifics of this one and it was misidentified on the menu I was given as a lobster course. Nevertheless, it was delicious, the earthy mushrooms and the sweet, mild flavor of the nuts working well with the mild taste of the fish. The wine that was paired with it was, to the best of my recollection, a 2002 white Rioja, the Vina Gravonia from Lopez de Heredia. It was the richest wine served yet, with vanilla notes from oak aging and apple and beeswax notes which held up well against the robust mushrooms and onion.
The last course proper before dessert was a fatty, gorgeous piece of roasted lamb roasted with artichokes, freekeh (a Middle Eastern grain) and spring onions. The sommelier was aware of my love for red Burgundy and offered a glass of Pommard 1er Cru from Domaine de Courcel, Grand Clos des Épenots 2007 to go with it. Pommard wines tend to be rustic expressions of Burgundy – this wine had a hint of that but was more elegant and mineral driven than some Pommards I’ve had, with nice spice notes. It was a really nice match for the rich, slightly gamey flavor of the lamb.
As an interlude, we went on to the cheese course, which featured two pieces of chevre from the same producer, Rainbeau Ridge in West Bedford, NY. One was more aged than the other and as such had a slightly bitter and more complex taste, but both were grassy, creamy, and lovely. They were served as part of a delightful salad of greens, strawberries, pistachio, and garlic. Rounding out the course perfectly was a Chenin Blanc from Domaine aux Moines, the Roche Aux Moines Savennières 2010. This wine is only produced in the best years and its strawlike character worked wonderfully with the cheese.
On to dessert, and another very New York-centric offering - an egg cream made tableside by EMP’s Captain, Timothy Belaus. An egg cream, of course, contains neither eggs nor cream, but seltzer and milk (traditionally chocolate milk). EMP’s version was made with cocoa nib and orange flavoring and served as something of a refreshing palate cleanser.
This was followed by Humm and compatriots’ take on a New York cheesecake, containing goat cheese, fresh raspberry and chamomile, and then finally a chocolate sorbet with lavender, orange, and sea salt. Both were outstanding and had a great mix of savory and sweet elements. A final pairing with a Domaine La Tour Vieille Banyuls, 2009, a fortified wine done in a port style, completed the meal proper.
Coming full circle, a final mignardise: a sweet black and white cookie very different from the first and reminding me without a doubt what city I was in.
At the end of the meal, a final touch – a bottle of Guillon-Painturaud Cognac was left with the check and I was told to take my time and have as much as I wanted (I guess this is a standard conclusion to the tasting menu).
It’s hard to talk about this place without sounding completely fawning; however this was one of the best meals of my life, and at a very reasonable pricepoint considering what was offered. I was dumbstruck by the level of service, which is the best I’ve ever experienced – they made me feel as if I were the most important person in the world the entire time I was there. Bravo EMP – I shall be back.