Pomp and Consequence: the newly revamped Eleven Madison Park
Last year for my birthday, I was take to EMP and had one of the best meals of my life. I reviewed it on my nerdy blog and declared it the best restaurant in NYC. Last night, I went back with my husband to try the newly revamped EMP, and I have some mixed emotions about it that I figured I'd share with anyone else who is curious.
I had read about the newly revamped menu in the NY Times, in which the restaurant made what I felt were two potentially disastrous decisions: getting rid of the cute menu grid which allows you to pick your own key ingredients thus personalizing your meal; and getting rid of the $125 tasting menu entirely and offering only a $195, sixteen-course tasting. I was actually mad about that -- I felt like this change was going to alienate a lot of people, including me. This decision automatically adds at least $150 to the overall tab, taking it from a place where you might go once in a while for a special night out, to a place you can only go to on a Very Special Occasion, maybe once a year or every couple of years if you're lucky. At least, that's true for us and most people I know who are in the 99%...of people who are mildly logical. So it kind of offended me that this restaurant so cavalierly dismissed some of its most loyal customers.
I was also grossed out by all the gimmicks I had been reading about: domes of smoke, carrot tartare (wtf?) and a magic trick. Like, unless that trick produces a rabbit out of a hat that I get to eat, I'm not interested. But I had such a magical night the first time I went, so last night we decided to give it a try.
The cocktail list now includes a Manhattan cart (as in, a cart with all kinds of fancy fixins' set up to make different kinds of Manhattans), so of course we had to partake in that. We were immediately handed a cute menu for the cart. One side had a map of the city on it, marking different neighborhoods with different symbols (a baby carriage was drawn next to Park Slope, a boot was drawn over Little Italy, a platinum Amex was drawn over the Upper East Side, etc. Ok I lied about the last one). The other side of the menu features 13 different types of Manhattans, each named after a NYC neighborhood (interestingly, a majority of them were named after Brooklyn neighborhoods). I went for the classic Manhattan with rye sweet vermouth and Angustora bitters; husband went for the Bushwick, which consisted of rye, sweet vermouth, maraschino liqueur, and Amer Picon. My drink was great, but his was even better. And the presentation is really fun: they wheel out a big beautiful cart table-side full of all different colored bottles, decanters, garnishes, swizzle sticks, etc. The drinks are made with a lot of flourish and the whole affair draws a bit of attention but it's all part of the Eleven Madison Park circus.
As we happily sipped our cocktails, the meal began. Generally speaking, the overall new gimmick here seems to be "a journey through New York State." I understand that our state has a lot to offer and it's nice and environmentally sound to feature local ingredients, but I don't really care for this new theme. It seems too gimmicky and touristy to me. It's a little obnoxious: here's your dish featuring such-and-such ingredient, which comes from such-and-such farm in the Hudson Valley, which is a nod to such-and-such New York tradition." It gets a bit tiresome. Not to mention, the fact that the wine list only features a handful of New York-made wines out of hundreds of bottles should indicate to the restaurant that not everything New York produces is the best of the best, and at $195 a head, you should be getting nothing less than that. I'd rather have my ingredients shipped in from elsewhere if they are better than what can be found locally. I'm just saying.
Also, another general note and then we'll get down to business: the old $125 tasting menu featured four courses, about five amuse bouches, and an egg cream cart. This new $195, sixteen-course menu, includes those amuse bouches and the egg cream as its courses, which I think is cheating.
All of that said, EMP still provides what I think is the best dining experience in New York, and probably one of the best anywhere. It's still so incredibly fun and indulgent and you are treated like royalty the entire time you are there. Granted, you are paying for it, and paying more now, but I think it might be worth it?
Course 1: the good old box of savory black-and-white cookies. This time, they were buttery cheddar cookies laced with apple. Amazing. I could eat a whole box of these. I bet if I asked they would give me one, but I'm too embarrassed.
Course 2: chilled oyster with mignonette, served on top of a dish filled with crushed ice. Delicious.
Course 3: cranberry "snow" with beets and goat cheese. This was the only miss of the night. It was basically a shaved cranberry ice but it was too tart, and the goat cheese didn't provide enough of a creamy, tangy contrast to it because there were only a few small crumbles of it at the bottom. And the earthiness of the beets was overpowering. It kind of tasted like eating red dirt. It wasn't appetizing to me at all.
Course 4: sea urchin mousse with baby squid, scallop and apple. At the start of our meal, the waiter asked if we had any dietary requests and I told him that sadly, I do not care for sea urchin. They took note of my request and served me my dish sans sea urchin mousse, which I appreciated .
Course 5: one of my favorites. This was a "sturgeon" course that was actually split into two: the first course consisted of an egg shell filled with a sturgeon sabayon with chives, which was just heavenly and so fun to eat. The second course was the much-publicized dome filled with smoke, which contained four pieces of sturgeon, which were being slowly smoked as we ate the sabayon. They then removed the top of the dome and revealed the lightly smoked sturgeon, which were delicious. They then placed before us a bowl containing a soft-boiled quail egg, "everything bagel" crumbles, pickled onions, and a dish of crème fraiche topped with a generous layer of caviar. We were also given thin, crispy toasts. The waiter explained that the dish was an homage to the classic New York bagel and smoked fish joints like Russ and Daughters.
It was very clever, and aside from the black-and-white cookies, it was the only New York-centric dish that didn't feel forced. It was absolutely delicious and we had the best time eating it.
Course 6: salsify and Mangalista ham, which was basically prosciutto. I didn't find anything remarkable about this course.
Course 7: was a bit too out there for me. I had heard about the carrot tartar from the reviews I had read, and I was skeptical. I had also heard that before they present you with this course, a waiter comes over and clamps a meat grinder onto your table, which might make you think you are getting steak tartare. But you aren't. You get a meat grinder clamped to your table, which is totally awesome, then a dude emerges from the kitchen carrying two fat carrots. It's not even funny. It's actually sort of mean. If he waved the carrots and a rabbit popped out of the grinder and was promptly turned into a sausage, I'd be on board with this. But just a carrot? So then they make this big production out of grinding the carrots, which are from some farm in New York (there are cows on farms in New York, too, if you wanted to make a real tartare), and it's actually kind of gross because all this orange stuff is pouring out of the grinder. Then they take the carrot mush and place it before you with all this flourish, like you are supposed to be grateful. It looks like baby food. And I'm sorry, but when it comes to sophisticated culinary adventures, I should be served nothing that could also be appropriately served to a little person without any teeth.
The only cool thing about this course is what it's served with. While one person is grinding the carrots, another person presents you with a really cool bamboo-like tray that contains all sorts of compartments, each one full of a traditional steak tartare garnish (poached quail egg, mustard, raw chopped onion, etc.). So you basically mash up the mashed up carrots with all of the traditional accoutrement, spread it on toast, and voila! Carrot tartare. Granted, it was delicious, but...Next!
Course 8: lobster poached with leeks, onion, and shellfish bisque. Delicious, very light -- we had this dish the last time we dined here, and it's just as good as I remembered it.
Course 9: eh. It was a parsnip roasted with sesame.
Course 10: we opted for the duck. It's so good. Same old routine: they bring the entire duck out to you and present it, and it's stuffed with lavender and coated in lavender, honey and Sichuan pepper. It's the most beautiful thing. However...the last time we were here, before the infamous re-vamp, they proceeded to carve the duck table side and plate the breast. Now, after they present the duck, it disappears and they bring you back a plate with one piece of duck on it. Granted, it's fantastic, but it's just one piece. It's not like a small piece, but it's still just one piece. Where was the drama? The production? The rest of the duck breast? Thankfully, they still bring out the duck confit mashed potatoes braised with foie gras, which is heavenly. (And no-- a foie gras braise does not a foie gras course make. I found it mildly offensive that any restaurant outside of California charging two hundred dollars for a tasting menu would not offer foie gras as a course).
Course 11: the cutest course of the night. This is a nod to NYC Central Park picnics, and it's an actual picnic basket that contains a wooden box full of delicious stinky cheese, a warm soft pretzel, a small mason jar of mustard, grapes, and a craft beer. This was so fun to unwrap and eat and drink.
Course 12: the egg cream cart. It's still as awesome as ever, although, as I mentioned above, I think it's lame to include it as a "course" now, as a way of justifying the price increase. This time around, it was a vanilla malted egg cream and it was terrific.
Course 13: This was a pear poached with honey and acorn, served with ice cream. It looked and tasted like a deconstructed pear crisp. At first I didn't really get it, but the more I ate it, the more delicious it was.
Course 14: I didn't really remember this one -- it was a sheep's milk cheesecake with port, but it sounds more delicious than it was. Honestly, I wish I had told them I don't like desserts and had them just make me a cheese course, like I did last time.
Course 15: Two very delicious chocolate covered pretzels topped with sea salt. Very fun, but again...it seemed weird to count this as a course, when previously, this is the type of offering that would have been complimentary with the $125 menu.
Course 16: sweet black-and-white cookies with apricot. We weren't crazy about these, and again, it seemed silly to count these as a "course" when they had previously been offered as a complimentary perk. I decided that the next time we come here, I'll ask for the savory cookies at the end. Because it just seems like that kind of a place, where you feel at all times like some whimsical elf will pop out of the walls and cater to your every need.
At this point, the waiter came by and did some magic card trick where each card was an ingredient and we each picked a card, then he lifted the lids off two small bowls that had been previously placed before us, and in each bowl was a chocolate that featured the same ingredient as the one on the cards we picked. It was pretty cool. Was it cool? I don't know, I was kind of drunk at this point.
They also brought over a bottle of apple brandy, poured us two glasses, and told us we could stay and enjoy the bottle as long as we wanted. It was past 12:30am at this point, so we finished our glasses and called it a night.
Overall, the meal really was incredible. The entire experience is unique and out of this world. But I have to say, turning what used to be fun perks into actual courses and charging for them seems...like they aren't perks at all. Ironically, for all its pomp and circumstance, this new menu is actually a little less...magical. But I don't think it's anything that can't be solved by carving that duck tableside again. And replacing those carrots with raw New York-bred beef. I'd return, but I'd personally like for EMP to get rid of some of these silly new dishes and rules and go back to the way it used to be.
It seems like the $ that would have gone into some more ingredients is now going into the extra service costs for the gimmicks. The gimmicks are definitely fun and memorable, but in the end I would have preferred another real protein course. Three root veggie courses is about 1.5 too many. It also leaves me with very little interest in going back, since I've seen the gimmicks already! I wonder if the gimmicks will be changed with the menu for future seasons.
Thanks for the review. I also considered EMP the best meal I've had in NY after an amazing anniversary dinner last year. I am still planning on going again this year, but will temper my expectations for these new "gimmicks".
It was interesting reading about your experience to compare to mine a few weeks ago.
I also could have eaten a whole box of the cheddar black and white cookies and found them highly superior to the sweet version of the cookie. And we both were unimpressed by the parsnip course.
The duck and sturgeon courses were our favorites.
I see what you mean about there being less perks considering the price, when you think about the previous meal offerings and price. I didn't think of it during our meal, but I think you're right there.
The Manhattan cart sounds great. But they should probably call it a "Brooklyn" cart. Around 2004, a bunch of Milk & Honey bartenders challenged themselves to come up with various Brooklyn variants: the Red Hook, Greenpoint, etc. And then the idea took off and spread. Unsurprisingly, a lot of the NYC bartenders who created the variations live in those neighborhoods!
You can get these variants at basically any craft cocktail bar in the city now, or make them at home: