A Thorough Review of the New Eleven Madison Park Tasting Menu (very long)
As usual, full review with all the photos on the blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-thorough-review-of-new-eleven-madison_5.html
This is a fairly extensive review, and so I will be splitting it into two parts.
The restaurant is ensconced in a former bank, and features a large spacious dining room with grand high ceilings, tall windows, and a beautiful view of the park. Not much has changed in that regard, although the artwork that is now hanging in the back looks to be of the very park that we are adjacent to, while the previous pieces have been moved to behind the bar area. The lighting felt as if it wasn't as dim as during previous visits, which was great for taking photos with my so-so camera without using flash. Prime time on a Friday night, neighboring tables included a lovely young couple who were regulars celebrating a birthday, as well as a young aspiring foodie who was very enthusiastic and inquisitive about what was being served.
The friendliness and accessibility that has always been a signature of the EMP experience continued to shine through. That being said, I have read some reviews suggesting that the service feels a bit different than it used to, and I sensed that a little as well. It could be because of newer staff, although my belief is that it has to do with the fact that the staff has more to do and hence, added stress, in the current dinner format.
The night we were there, they had forgotten our black and white cookies at the beginning of the meal, and there appeared to be a mixup when I opted for still water, and iced water came on a refill. While these were lapses that I would never expect to see at a top tier fine dining restaurant, they were not egregious and I'm not the type that demands flawless, anticipatory service. To me, what was more important was that everything was remedied swiftly when it was brought to their attention, and in such a way that our mood for the rest of the evening was not adversely affected in any way.
Whether at lunch or dinner, only one tasting menu is served at a price of $195+t/t. The tasting menu pays homage to New York through various courses. The meal will take at least 3 hours, and the only choice to be made is between beef or duck for the main course. It is possible to have both with a $45 supplement. Even in this set tasting menu format, the restaurant is still extremely accommodative to dietary restrictions and preferences. I strongly urge future diners to not be shy about voicing those. There is a beverage pairing option for $145. I say beverage because it is possible they pair some courses with beer instead of wine, although most of it will be wine. We did not order the pairing, as we thought that it would've been just too much. I did inquire about splitting one pairing, but was told that that is no longer an option given the size of the pours.
CHEDDAR - Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple
The top of the cookie featured a white cheddar glaze and a black vegetable ash glaze. The cheddar cookie itself was well balanced with a cheddar and crab apple chutney filling. While I loved the previous version I'd had featuring black truffle and parmesan, I'm glad to see them move on with the season and the cookie served as a wonderful savory palate opener.
OYSTER - Sorrel, Buckwheat, and Mignonette
The Duxbury Oyster was topped with Champagne and Champagne vinegar mignonette, puffed buckwheat, sorrel, and lucky sorrel. The plating of the dish with the greens draped on top evoked an image of a fresh oyster straight from the ocean. The flavor components of this dish was well designed but I thought there were structural flaws in its execution. For the size of the oyster I got, there seemed to be too much mignonette. As it was the first thing that hit my taste buds, my first reaction was too much acidity. It did balance itself out a bit more later on, but I also found a stray flake of black pepper in my mouth that left a random spicy aftertaste after I'd already eaten the oyster. I understand the design and the plating, but I felt that a more controlled method of distributing the dish's components would have been better.
SHRIMP - Marinated with Olive Oil, Horseradish, and Fennel
Maine Sweet Shrimp already tends to lack much texture even fresh out of the shell, so the freshly grated horseradish and fennel fronds provided a welcome textural component to the dish. Along with the olive oil and lemon, everything brought a brightness to the dish that highlighted the sweetness of the shrimp. A very well composed dish.
SEA URCHIN - Custard with Apple Gelée and Scallop
Everything was there. A sea urchin panna cotta that held the sweet and tart flavors of more sea urchin, scallop marinated in lemon juice, and granny smith apple gelee. There was even a wide range of textures from the creamy custard to the soft shellfish flesh to the crisp apple batons. I cannot fault this dish, and yet I just didn't find it compelling.
CLAM - Surf Clam with Morcilla Sausage and Celery Root
The clam course featured many components, the first of which was steamed surf clam presented in the shell, along with diced celery root, diced pear, crumbled morcilla sausage, and topped with a clam and celery root espuma, chives, and piment d’espelette. While I've had chorizo with clam before, the morcilla sausage here added a wonderful depth of flavor. The crumbling of the sausage also helped as I usually have issues with the texture of morcilla. Everything was well-balanced and rounded out by the the foam, which brought a nice earthy, savory note to the fresh taste of the clam.
CLAM - Clambake with Whelk, Parker House Roll, and Chowder
Sliced raw whelk with shaved fennel, couscous, and lemon vinaigrette
Littleneck clam with radicchio and pear
Little Parker House Rolls
The Clambake is often served in lieu of the Smoked Sturgeon course for those who've had the sturgeon before. That night I saw the clambake and the smoked sturgeon show up at different tables. I've been lucky enough to have had both the smoked sturgeon and a previous version of the clambake at a previous dinner before the current menu format went into effect. While the accompanying dishes are nice, I personally think the chowder is the key part of the EMP Clambake experience. It should be pure distilled essence, and "taste like happiness". While this one had great clam flavor, I felt it was missing the something that makes you sit back and say, "ahhhhhhh" contentedly. I tend to associate chowders with warmth and comfort, and the tomato and corn chowder I had on that previous visit gave me that "tastes like happiness" feeling which I felt was lacking in this version. I personally would have preferred the smoked sturgeon over this version of the clambake.
Next up was bread and butter, featuring EMP's in-house bread. The inside is flaky, fluffy, and buttery, while the outside has a delicate, soft crust. Two butters are featured. The first is a cow's milk butter from the chef's favorite creamery. The second is the same butter but with some of the fat from our beef entree mixed in. If you happen to choose the duck entree, your butter would have duck fat. This little, somewhat interactive, touch shows the brilliant attention to detail in the kitchen and the ambition to take something as common as bread and butter and elevate it to another level within the narrative. The beef fat butter did have great beef flavor without any additional feeling of greasiness. One thing I did notice was that while the regular butter remained as it was throughout the night, the beef fat butter melted at a slow but noticeable pace by itself.
SCALLOP - Seared with Radish, Caviar, and Apple
This dish actually featured various textures of scallop, including seared, steamed, and diced scallop dressed with crème fraiche and caviar. The accompanying shaved radishes, radish flowers, and apple provided a good crunchy textural contrast while helping to highlight the sweetness of the scallop. I personally would have liked them to push the envelope even more and feature the scallop coral, which has a unique taste and texture different to all the variations already on the plate.
FOIE GRAS - Seared with Sunchokes and Pink Lady Apples
I originally inquired about foie gras when I made my reservation, stating my preference for a seared preparation. At the time, I was told that the menu that had been planned did not feature foie gras at all. When I arrived, they mentioned my inquiry and said that they would be able to do a foie course in place of the scallop course. The seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras at EMP is still my favorite preparation in the whole city. The piece of foie maintains its richness and structural integrity while being completely greaseless outside of it. I always find some sort of residual grease in foie gras preparations elsewhere, but this one results in a cleaner, better mouth feel. In terms of accompaniments, they managed to stay on the same theme as the scallop, featuring different textures of sunchoke, including crispy sunchoke skin, sunchoke puree, pickled sunchokes, and confit cooked sunchoke, along with lady apple puree and pickled mustard seeds.
CARROT - Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments
The next course involves another tableside presentation. First, a hand cranked grinder is attached to the table while a wooden board featuring a bunch of ingredients in small dishes (those were probably custom made as well) is placed in front of the diner. A type of carrot specifically chosen for its sweetness is used, and ground right at the table. The condiments include two mini squeeze bottles (be careful, it can get messy if you squeeze too hard!) of spicy carrot vinaigrette and mustard oil. The small dishes featured (left to right, starting from the top row) apple mustard, sunflower seeds, pickled quail egg yolk, smoked bluefish, chives and broccoli flower, pickled mustard seed, grated horseradish, pickled apple, and Amagansett sea salt.
While this is interactive, in the sense that you mix the condiments into the ground carrot yourself, the condiments in the small dishes are already pre-measured. It is expected that you mix everything in the small dishes into the tartare, and only exercise discretion on the vinaigrette and mustard oil. You can also do what I did, which is to split your tartare in half, and put in exactly half of everything into one of the halves to taste it as it was meant to be, and then experiment with the other half. I did come to the conclusion that the way it was meant to be was the tastiest.
What an ingenious dish this was! This took advantage of the diner mixing everything to create unique and remarkable combinations of flavors and textures, similar to some dishes at the excellent modern Korean restaurant Jungsik http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/851849 . The condiments allowed to tartare to taste "meaty" while the sweetness of the carrot always shone through. At the same time, it also had the balance of a traditional tartare. You would be able to enjoy this dish even if you didn't like raw carrot.
Part 2 coming soon!
This is part 2 of the review that the began in the original post of the thread. As usual, full review with all the photos on the blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot.com/2013/03/a-thorough-review-of-new-eleven-madison.html
LOBSTER - Poached with Citrus, Tarragon, and Daikon
The lobster is poached in beurre blanc, resulting in a perfect texture that's tender to the bite with a slight give, yet easy to cut through. What set this dish apart from perfectly cooked lobster dishes at other restaurants, though, was the balance that the accompaniments achieved while highlighting the sweetness of the lobster. It is very difficult to pair lobster with something sweet as the line between highlighting its sweetness and competing with it is very thin. Here, the pieces of dehydrated blood orange and grapefruit did the job admirably while providing an extra textural component. The dish was further enhanced by the tartness and crunch of pickled daikon and a creaminess from the daikon pickling liquid emulsified with grape seed oil.
POTATO - Baked with Bonito Cream, Shallot, and Pike Roe
Different types of potatoes in different textures were featured, including baked and smashed fingerling potatoes, a russet potato skin crisp, and a Yukon gold potato cup. By using the extremely versatile potatoes with a bonito and lime cream, pike roe, and a black shellfish sauce, the flavors and textures provided an excellent transition from the previous shellfish course to the subsequent main beef course. I thought this was really smart, and resulted in a smoother progression than a fish course might have.
BEEF - Beef Broth
The first part of the beef entree involved a small bowl of beef broth. The broth was smooth, rich, and nuanced. While there was plenty of beef flavor, it was never aggressive.
BEEF - Grilled with Mushrooms, Amaranth, and Bone Marrow
The 140-day dry-aged ribeye, grilled over Japanese charcoal, was full of deep, concentrated flavor as expected. But what really distinguished this dish as one of the best beef dishes I've had at a top tier restaurant was that it was actually grilled. This was designed to eat like a real steak, as a ribeye should be, whereas many other places will just sear their beef and lose the mouth feel. The ribeye is sufficiently thick, providing some real meaty bites.
The ribeye came with grilled hen of the woods mushrooms that had a slight char, smoked and grilled bone marrow, crispy amaranth, dandelion greens, black garlic and savory jus, all just piling on to that pure, raw, earthy, meatiness. The dish does not ask you to ponder, but rather compels you to just submit and enjoy.
BEEF - Braised Oxtail with Foie Gras and Potato
The onslaught of flavor continued with oxtail, braised in red wine, mixed with pieces of foie gras torchon and nestled in potato espuma.
At this point we took a tour of the kitchen, where they prepared a version of the Widow's Kiss cocktail using Apple Jack sorbet, Yellow Chartreuse syrup, bitters compressed apples, and Benedictine foam, prepared using liquid nitrogen. The chef that made this actually reached into the liquid nitrogen with his hand to take out the top dome part, which was really surprising!
GREENSWARD - Pretzel, Mustard, and Grapes
The cheese course, used to bridge the savory and sweet courses, featured a playful picnic basket full of goodies. The attention to detail continued to be evident as there was a bottle opener/swiss army knife with the EMP logos as well as more custom plates, this time designed to actually look like a paper plate you might use on a real picnic!
The bottle opener was for the bottle of Picnic Basket Ale specially brewed by Ithaca Brewery for this course. The basket also contained a pretzel baguette with Amagansett sea salt and a container of butternut squash mustard. The Greensward, washed-rind, pasteurized, cow’s milk cheese, was soft and went well with the pretzel and mustard. For those who do not eat cheese, charcuterie or fruit are offered as alternatives. I thought that the charcuterie matched best with the other components of the picnic basket.
MALT - Egg Cream with Vanilla and Seltzer
The egg cream is made with malted barley and vanilla syrup, Battenkill Valley milk, sunflower seed oil, and seltzer water. It is prepared tableside. I'm personally not a big fan of carbonated drinks, but this egg cream was creamy enough due to the addition of the sunflower seed oil. The flavors were soothing, with plenty of vanilla as evidenced by the black flecks.
MAPLE - Bourbon Barrel Aged with Milk and Shaved Ice
This was the most memorable dessert I've had at EMP since the Strawberry with Basil I had a couple of years ago. The maple and crème fraiche ice cream was tasty without being too sweet, while the maple brittle, maple shortbread, maple cream, frozen shaved apples, milk snow, and shaved ice provided never-ending combinations of textures and temperatures. The snow and ice were not too cold, being just right to refresh you before you sank back into the comfort of the bourbon barrel aged maple syrup. There was a lot going on, but every bite was deeply satisfying.
EARL GREY - Sheep’s Milk Cheesecake, Honey, and Lemon
The aerated cheesecake was light while the citrus tones of the earl grey tea ice cream harmonized well with the honey, dehydrated milk foam, and sheep’s milk crème fraiche.
At this point, the captain stopped by to do a little card trick. The last time I saw a magic trick in a restaurant was at Ninja New York, a restaurant made infamous by a particularly brutal review in the NY Times by Frank Bruni. It was a rather useless display that they used to continue their "ninja" theme. At EMP, I thought the trick served as a whimsical distraction that was quite welcome given we were already over 3 hours into our meal. It was not completely useless and did continue the narrative of the meal, but my main suggestion is just to sit back and not overthink it.
PRETZEL - Chocolate Covered with Sea Salt
CHOCOLATE - Sweet Black and White Cookie with Apricot
The meal ended the way it began, with a black and white cookie. This time, the cookies are butter cookies with an apricot chutney filling topped off with simple vanilla and chocolate glazes.
A bottle of apple brandy is left on the table to finish the meal. For those who don't want alcohol, they have a deliciously sweet gewurztraminer grape juice. The apple brandy is meant to invigorate after a long meal, but I prefer the smoother champagne cognac that they have on occasion upon request.
In all, I think this was probably the best complete meal I've had at EMP in terms of how high the highs were and where the baseline was on the weaker points in the meal. I think the freedom that came with only doing one set tasting menu allowed the kitchen to focus on the most impressive offerings they could produce.
I've recently dined at two other 3 Michelin Star restaurants in Brooklyn Fare http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/884450 and Daniel http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/891059 , and I would rate Eleven Madison Park to be slightly superior based on the Goldilocks Principle. While all three restaurants were super impressive, I found EMP to be "just right" and offered some of the best parts of both of the other restaurants. In terms of atmosphere, there was the ability to sit at comfortable tables (like at Daniel) while still being to observe certain food preparations (like at Brooklyn Fare). In terms of food, there were innovative taste sensations (like at Brooklyn Fare) as well as well-composed dishes with actual mouthfuls of good food (like at Daniel). Add to that the attention to detail and the focus on making the entire meal an event, Eleven Madison Park gets my highest recommendation as the place to go for big celebrations.
As long as I'm credited with a link back to my post(s) feel free to use them. I did notice that it was a bit less dim the night I was there. I wonder if it was a one-time thing.
Also, I've read that the carrot tartare is actually not raw and that the carrot is previously simmered in olive oil and salt.