Eleven Madison Park (review)
I've had a week to digest this meal. Mainly, it has grown on me. When I first walked out of those revolving doors, I was left wanting something more (I know, after an epic-format lunch, that sounds quite petulant). It wasn't my first time at a fancy restaurant, so it certainly was a worrying feeling to have. I've since concluded that in part I was feeling a little shy (I think it is a slightly overwhelming environment for a solo diner, compared to other restaurants), and that inhibited my full appreciation of the experience. It was a lot to take in, but looking back, a positive even if slightly challenging experience, and for the next while I can only dream of a future opportunity to go again, maybe even before the menu gets updated…
The food was very nice. Literally, as in, Very Nice™; I'm not sure how else to describe it. It is elegant, but natural with a studied casualness, which shows in the plating. It has the most accessible and essentially "American" food of all the high-end restaurants: not explicitly avant-garde (Corton), nor hyper-refined (Per Se), nor luxury-ingredient-overload (Chef's Table Brooklyn Fare), and so on. It seeks sophistication through lightness and simplicity. The impact is made through the procession of courses, with formidable consistency. Towards this, I've seen a Yelp comment complain that the food is derivative of kaiseki cuisine—and the same thought occurred to me while I was eating, except not as criticism but as a way of relating to their style.
A related point is the significant but discreetly conveyed emphasis on sourcing. They take pains to mention that their uni is east coast, amongst the local provenance of their ingredients. It is admirable and personally I am glad to see at least one high-end restaurant raising awareness of these issues of our time.
But my biggest take-home from this meal was the lesson (one that we all know on some level) that food can be great fun. Here this gives us refined cuisine that doesn't feel like temple food. For example the high-concept presentations—such as the sturgeon, or the carrot, or the cheese—worked by getting the diner involved in their food. Eating is made participatory, and the activity becomes a source of delight. I'm curious of their inspiration, but it would be entirely plausible if they had simply taken the idea of ishiyaki (a hot stone for the diner to grill something, sometimes seen in kaiseki) and ran with it*. The low-key theatrics of the pre-dessert and the chocolate candy are additional examples of fun and humor. These aspects of the experience make the restaurant a good occasion for bringing close family and friends to celebrate.
- The surrounding tables were a mixed demographic: a) an extroverted, older couple, b) a young couple from abroad, c) a quiet older couple, one with a notepad, c) a family of four with teens, from abroad. It was a happy environment.
- They took the special butter that I hadn't yet used. :/ I guess I was eating too slowly for them…
- More generally, it was a *lot* of food, especially when compressed into under 3 hours. I think it is reasonable to say that pacing has an impact on diners' perceptions of the meal.
- I think my biggest wish with fancy restaurants is more interaction opportunities to learn about the dishes and the restaurant. I think people are naturally curious about what they are being fed, it's just that we often don't know what to ask about it. For many of us these experiences are special and rare occasions; the better we understand the food, the more we can appreciate and treasure (and enthusiastically recommend) it for what it is. Of course, more waiters would cost more, and I'm not about to impose on busy-looking waiters.
- I neither received nor made a confirmation phone call—not sure what this means, was this an oversight?
- No kitchen tour, for the record. Fine by me.
- Coat check was awkward. I didn't tip because it was too physically awkward to tip.
Compared to other fine dining—
Kajitsu (80) - A meditation on life. Come alone, or with a friend.
Corton (135/155) - Come with your culinary mind wide open. Leave with it altered forever.
Atera (165) - Exquisite ideas about food.
Bouley (175) - Utterly delicious cuisine.
The Modern (95/155) - If food could express the love of cooking.
Per Se (295) - Perfection through meticulous, laborious finesse.
Eleven Madison Park (195) - Modern American kaiseki experience.
Momofuku Ko (175) - A culinary adventure.
*On second thought, there must be countless examples of elaborate, interactive setups in fine dining. I just haven't experienced any first-hand.
Details (spoilers!). Everything was nice. Taste levels:
• I like this, •• Be sure to try this, ••• Woahwow.
Tasting menu, with 140-day dry-aged beef option (alternative is roasted lavender duck "from long island") 12pm–3.
1. Black and white cookie (crabapple / cheddar flavor)
- Ganache is nice. Not sure what to make of this; mild taste. I miss Atera's flaxseed cookie.
2. Local oyster (Beau Soleil?), covered by wood sorrel, and "mignonette" ice, maybe other stuff.
- Impressive visual. But the "salad" topping obscures the taste of the oyster a bit, I think.
3. •• Cranberry snow, beet (dice and maybe sauce), goat cheese, caraway, nasturtium
- So this is the texture of properly prepared snow; they probably use liquid nitrogen.
- The dark flavors are nice. I LOVE caraway.
4. "Chawanmushi": uni custard, squidling (tentacle and body) •, bay scallop •, apple mousse and uni hiding beneath it, apple sticks
- Too elegant to eat. I wish I was instructed to combine everything and eat it in one or two bites.
5a. • "Egg": Smoked sturgeon sabayon, smoked sturgeon dice, chive oil
- Essence of tasty.
5b. ••• "Appetizing"
Salad: lettuce, quail egg, bagel crumble, onion rings
Slices of applewood smoked sturgeon, with Osestra white caviar on creme fraiche, and rye bread crisps
- This is a "perfected" food, the platonic ideal of the food that it refers to. Crispy, smoky, creamy, savory, and, fish!
- The salad is plated far on one side, because you'll find you need the other side for your sandwiches!
- Pickles are a bit mystifying, though. The seem to be very plain pickles.
6. • "Asparagus": Mangsalita ham, batons of roasted salsify, (boiled) bulgur wheat, egg yolks and whites, arugula-type leaf, mystery foam, hazelnut slices.
- No idea what Mangsalita is, and why it's important. But, it is quite great a piece of ham. (The Modern does an Iberico ham with its trumpet mushroom dish, but the texture and flavor is… illicitly pleasant).
- The salsify is rendered into something like heart of palm. (Atera's salsify churro is terrific, and so different.)
- An acidic dressing is used. It's a jolt for what looks like a fairly tame dish.
- Love the idea, which seems to be an improvisation off of asparagus plus ham and deviled eggs.
7. Steamed carrot "tartare", with: carrot sauce, mustard oil, green aioli, quail egg yolk, sunflower seeds, smoked bluefish, chive, pickled mustard seeds, grated horseradish, pickled apple, sea salt.
Served on 7-grain bread
- This complements the sturgeon course, in that both are sandwiches. Really fun, but either my tastebuds are going, or this was somewhat bland (??). A pinch of bluefish can have only the slightest effect, no? And perhaps the bread was overpowering the topping.
Croissant bread: normal butter and beef butter, and hand-harvested sea salt from amangasset
- Croissant fans, rejoice in this indulgence. Great alternative to a complicated bread service.
8. Butter-poached lobster claw and knuckle •
Whole charred baby leek, including its roots, and some charred onion (?) crumble (crunch and/or chewy) •
Shellfish "bisque": black sauce, green sauce, meyer lemon zest
- Other diners received lobster tail halves. I think this is cause to ignite the great claw v.s. tail debate.
- Meanwhile my one pristine morsel of lobster knuckle, removed intact from shell, was something to behold.
- The sauces are subtle, I got mainly oiliness and hint of meyer lemon
- I was hoping for more pronounced shellfish flavor, but maybe it's just my sense of taste not working today…
- Wouldn't a whole claw have been more impressive? Thomas Keller's cookbook explains how to extract the claw…
9. Parsnip batons, big parsnip chip, sesame/millet powder, parsley sauces
- ? I'm not sure what make of this one. We already did salsify, and carrot. Superficially this seems like a filler course, a 3rd root vegetable dish prepared in a similar way. Pete Wells has complained about making sense of all the courses, and with this one I agree.
10a. ••• A sip of beef consomme
- So classic. Flavorful and a hint of gelatinous thickness. Just close your eyes.
10b. Beef morsel •, and Ribeye round (browned on the outside, "rare" on the inside), coin of beef marrow
A pile of toasted amaranth •• , thyme leaves, other mysterious sprinklies.
Hen of the woods x2, the finest baby spinach, beef jus
- It is implied that this is the "best" ribeye you will ever eat. The texture is meaty yet tender - an impossibility! The smaller morsel of beef is juicier and has more flavor (maybe from the grilling). I worry that I am too inexperienced to appreciate a fine beef like this.
- The amaranth is brilliant. I've seen this elsewhere but this execution is wonderful, like minaturized fried rice.
- The presentation is impeccable (not that the other courses weren't).
10c. a side bowl of Braised oxtail, foie gras, a layer of potato mousseline
- Very elegant and functions as the "potatoes" in your steak & potatoes. The mousseline is slightly cheesy/funky.
- Except that I don't taste any foie gras.
- Corton did an "haute Shepherd's pie" already (with cheese foam, and beans!), so I am biased… Of course, this dish is not the same.
11. •• "Ale tasting in Central Park"
Bunch red grapes, Special wheat ale ••, Runny greensward cheese (ale-washed), Jar of red mustard (ale-flavored), Pretzel bread in the form of a branch (ale-flavored)
- I am useless and didn't know how to use the bottle opener. My captain sailed by to rescue.
- The most delightful course, down to the tableware. Everything is perfect.
- The ale seals the deal. It is so light and flavorful.
12. •• Egg cream: malt, vanilla, seltzer, special oil
- So that's an egg cream. Very tasty, especially the malt with vanilla. I should have asked how their recipe differs from the usual recipe; someone should ask and find out!
13. • Poached pear plate: pear ring, dark powder (acorn?), pear or honey custard, quenelle of pear sorbet,
tiny balls and discs of lemon-infused pear, white meringue or cream, pear? gel, caramel candy, …
- Elegant dessert, hint of honey (it was poached with honey). Balanced, not over sweet.
14a. ••• "Cheesecake": a thin layer of cheese cremeux and raspberry gelée; port is used somewhere. Snow, fruity bits, walnut bits, tiny quenelle of raspberry ice cream.
- Captures the essence of a (New York) cheesecake. It is enlightening. The depth of flavor is achieved through through sheep's milk and port.
14b. "Magic trick"
—This was a blackberry chocolate.
- I am surprised that not more high-end restaurants try to capitalize on tea. Kajitsu has truly wonderful tea, but that's a Japanese restaurant. Atera performs a really impressive tea service, but the leaves that I picked were lacking. Corton steeped a terrific chamomile once. I think that's about it.
•• Special apple brandy
- Do other fancy restaurants do this? It's time to sit back, smell the apples, gaze at your companions (if you have any). For very light drinkers like myself, this is a lovely gesture.
15. • Chocolate "pretzel"
- It's manages to be like a Kit-Kat, but more balanced in sweetness.
16. Black and white cookie (apricot / chocolate)
- Like its opening counterpart, this mignardise confuses me. I don't dislike it, it just doesn't push my buttons, not sure why.
• Take-home granola
- Liberal use of sugar/salt makes this a richer granola, so a little bit goes a long way.
I've seen some questioning about the actual number of courses versus the price, and thought it might be interesting to do a comparsion. Of all the other long-form tasting menus, I have only tried Atera (20-ish courses) and Momofuku Ko (18-ish). Between EMP and Atera, I have made a spreadsheet to reveal the structure and equivalences between courses:
After balancing out similar food items, my analysis revealed the following differentiation:
a) Atera also had: "macaron", crisp, "soup" course, cold shellfish course
b) EMP also had: vegetable spread course (carrot tartare), side dish (braised beef bowl), take-home granola
Out of these, the "soup" course was outstanding (I had labeled it 3 bullet signs, which is my way of keeping track of the best dishes ever*).
Then I bolded all the individual courses that I personally felt were clear winners (sometimes both similar courses won). At 14 points Atera "won" by 3 courses, but in the context of 20 courses, I think that's within the noise range, and so it's hard to say which meal really was better.
It remains to be justified the 20 dollar difference between the two menus (Atera's cheese course was actually a supplement). I actually like the high production value of Eleven Madison Park. But if one looks closely, there are other places doing sophisticated cooking at competitive prices too. It all depends on what you want to get out of your meal.
*(Also should point out—of all the places I've tried thus far, Atera has the highest number of ••• dishes. Of course this is all personal/subjective, and moreover, in other restaurants, sometimes the sum is greater than its parts.)
An egg cream is rather like a chocolate milkshake made without ice cream. The original may or may not have contained eggs. EMP's version has no chocolate, but something of a similar savour is produced by the malt and oil. At one point they were putting orange syrup in it -- I suppose that's stopped?
I had some of the 'nice' tea at EMP twice, and the same fellow prepared it [the second time, he was also our captain...blast, I can't remember his name]. I seem to recall him saying that he had started the tea programme on his own initiative. Before he became a serious tea connoisseur, he had a wine background.
Found it interesting that you didn't reward any of the 'main dishes' with ***... I get the impression if you worked for Michelin, you wouldn't have supported a *** rating for the restaurant as a whole.