Eleven Madison Park

Like every avid glutton enthusiastic diner, I keep a list of restaurants which I hope to visit soon. Naturally, some take precedence over others. Eleven Madison Park had been near the top of my NYC to-eat list for a little too long.

At the start of 2010, I made a New Year’s resolution to eat at more Michelin-starred restaurants than I did in 2009. Being that the year was now almost half over and I was under half-way to my goal, I decided to book a week of eating with my good friend BLT(the Beltless Tiger) during which I would only visit places I hadn’t been before(with exceptions of Jean Georges and Momofuku Ko). We planned to start the affair with a dinner at the hands of Daniel Humm and his team.

I didn’t make any plans for lunch on my arrival day, but I again found myself on the ground ahead of schedule and decided something great needed to happen. I’ve always liked doing two-a-days at the gym, and have adopted the same thought about restaurants. So with dinner already set at EMP, I figured I would try for lunch there too. On the cab ride to the island I called to see if they could get me a table. No luck. The dining room was completely booked. No worries. I figured I would show up at open and take a seat at one of the full-service tables in the bar area.

I arrived just past noon and was welcomed by troupe of young, good-looking ladies into the already bustling business place. I informed them I didn’t have a reservation but was hoping to find a seat in the bar. One of the ladies escorted me to the lounge and offered me a choice between a few tables or a bar stool.

I spotted my ideal seat immediately. A small round table where I could see most of the dining room floor, the front door, the service staff entering and leaving the kitchen, and also have my back close enough to the kitchen door that I could hear the chef calling out orders. I was happy already. The room was gorgeous and the staff all seemed upbeat and carried themselves well about the floor. This was going to be a great lunch.

The only service criticism I have for the meal(or any other I’ve had there since) is that I was fairly slow to be greeted at the table. I’m certainly not one to get upset about that, but I found it odd how long I sat looking around. But once the young lady came along to say hello with her winning smile, great things were set into motion.

I ordered a half-bottle of 1996 Saint-Chamant Blanc de Blancs to get started while I worked my way through the menu(which I already had half memorized from the website. I admit it was my plan all along to do an EMP two-a-day.)

Upon my server’s return, I ordered the lunch gourmand tasting menu and, given my compulsion to order every item I see involving peas, supplemented two dishes from the a la carte bar menu.

A small dish of warm gougeres arrived as my first sustenance. They were light, and just rich enough to play well with the yeast and acid of the Champagne. I planned to keep them around for awhile, but after two or three, a server asked to remove them and I didn’t object.

For the first course, I was presented with a Carrot Lollipop along with Garden Pea Soup with Buttermilk “Snow” and Bayonne Ham.

My first thought: this was easily the best play on peas and carrots I’ve had. The frozen carrot against the warm pea soup was immense. As I got more into the flavors, I became more impressed. The light, crisp, salty ham, the spice of the tendril, the richness of the buttermilk(which I suppose underwent some liquid nitrogen treatment) all based in that delicate soup gave me a food high I can still remember. Truly a magical moment for me. If this was an indication of what was yet to come, I knew my world was about to be rocked.

Next on the agenda was a Taboule Salad with Summer Crudites and Wild Herbs. Though I’m not too familiar with the traditional dish, this appeared to me to be a well-executed, refined take on a tabouli. There was a little Mediterranean influence, but this seemed to be more focused on the beautiful slices of vegetables, which is what I would prefer. While the fresh herb and veggie flavors were nice, and the textures pleasant, this was the one plate of the tasting that didn’t register a solid ‘wow’ with me.

To pair with the Taboule, I ordered a glass of 2007 Dirler Sylvaner, Vieilles Vignes. Alsace has for years been my go-to wine region when doing vegetable pairings, so this made sense to me. The pairing was fair, but not great. The minerality played well, but the Sylvaner was slightly too fruit-heavy and clashed with the citrus and vegetable notes of the salad. Had I known of Wine Director John Ragan’s adeptness at the time, I would have opted for a suggested glass. But the Dirler worked very nicely with a couple of the later courses, so all was well.

For the bread service I was presented a house-baked baguette, olive bread, cow butter, goat butter, and sea salt. The breads were both hard-crust country style. Both butters, especially the goat’s, were delicious.

Next came one of my supplements, chosen for that keyword that starts with a P:

Big Eye Tuna Tartare with Yogurt, Puffed Rice and Garden Peas.

Oh my. Peas, pea puree, pea pods, pea shoots, pea puree treated with liquid nitrogen. I’m in heaven. Couple that with an incredible tuna tartare, some puffed rice for texture, and some citrus for acidity. I had a lot of fun eating this. Some Champagne made it even more fun. While I did enjoy the tartare, I’m guessing that if the same setting were used for pretty much any other protein, I would be just as fanatic about it.

Back to the tasting menu..Organic Rabbit Rillettes with Foie Gras, Cherries and Pistachio Bread.

On paper, this dish sounded incredible. In the tangible, edible manifestation, this dish was incredible. To start, this was the best rillette I can recall eating outside of France. The flavors and mouthfeel were perfect. Would this rillette have been served with a pack of saltines, I would have been happy with it. But when combined with the variations of pistachios, cherries and alliums, the experience bordered on ethereal. The food runner told me the break the “cherry” at the top of the plate to make a nice sauce for the dish(Thinking back on it, that could be taken as(hopefully playfully) very suggestive. Though appropriate for my meal, being my first time.) This rillette, when combined with all the other elements, made for a highly cerebral, yet passionate, mouthful. I believe it took me roughly 30-35 minutes to work my way through this, constructing small, perfect bites, one at a time. This was the second moment, after the pea soup, that let me know Mr Humm played to win, and was certainly worthy of his recent acclaim(NYTimes 4* and James Beard best chef NYC).

Knoll Krest Farm Egg, Poached with Mushrooms and Asparagus Veloute. This was one of those instances in which a few simple ideas, executed perfectly, make a simply perfect idea. There was no flaw in this dish. The egg, poached precisely with a beautifully runny yolk. The veloute, ideally velvety. The mushrooms, mildly earthly and seasoned superbly. This was a harmoniously integrated masterpiece. The croutons added little in flavor(they surely had no need to) but gave the perfect crunch. This was my favorite course of the meal.

Nova Scotia Lobster, Poached with Young Carrots, Ginger, and Vadouvan Granola. Just as colorful on the palate as it was on the plate, Humm’s playfulness shined here. I tend to be more impressed by well-cooked vegetables than well-cooked proteins(not that any of either fell short this day). That being said, these carrots were certainly something special, and made a great compliment to the lobster, with just a little natural sweetness in each. Top them with a foamy ginger sabayon and a crunchy, mild Vadouvan granola and you’ve got the makings for a serious party in the mouth. I had a lot of fun eating this.

In anticipation of the lobster dish, I had ordered a glass of 2006 Premier Cru Chassagne-Montrachet by Philippe Colin. A dynamite, complex Burgundy. With great richness on top of light, tropical fruit, it seemed the right thing to do. Though when the time came, the food needed something with a little more residual sugar. Something like the last few sips of Dirler, which paired great, but was gone in a flash. My new friend Ryan(by now I was on a first-name basis with about a dozen staff members) happened to be passing by and I asked for another glass of Sylvaner. He took a quick glance at my table, then stepped behind the bar.

Ryan returned swiftly, but not with an Alsatian wine. Instead he brought 2004 Jean Thevenet Vire Clesse, another Burgundy. He explained briefly that it was a lightly botrytised chardonnay(which I’d never had from Burgundy) and gave me a taste. It had the fruit, minerality and sugar the dish needed, along with the richness that I like with the buttery lobster. I was impressed.

My second menu supplement, and last savory course of the meal: Colorado Lamb, Herb Roasted with Sucrine Lettuce, Garden Peas and Oregon Morels.

A pretty straight-forward, impeccably-executed plate of food. A tender, juicy cut of lamb with tender, juicy morels. Earth and game, delicious. The peas added a welcome fresh flavor between the heavy bites. The best part of this dish was the little lamb shoulder ravioli hidden under a tuft of pea shoots.

To pair with the lamb(actually, more for the morels) I ordered the 2000 Vigna dei Dardi Barolo by Fantino. A solid Barolo, though nothing life changing. Medium bodied, dissipated tannins. Fair acidity with mild earth made the pairing work well over all. Though if I were given a bowl full of those lamb raviolis, a bottle of this Nebbiolo would most definitely be in order.

On to dessert. “Red Velvet” Composition with Rhubarb and Roasted Strawberry Ice Cream.

I’m in a toss-up for the highlight of this overall creative dessert. It’s between the dome of cream cheese parfait, or the roasted strawberry ice cream combined with the dehydrated strawberries. They were both fantastic. The other parts of the dish, aside from the red velvet cake, were variations of strawberry and rhubarb. Lying under the ice cream was what I’m calling a rhubarb breath strip. I’m going to urge Angela Pinkerton(EMP’s pastry chef) to sell the recipe to Listerine.

Along with my “Red Velvet” dessert, my new friend Ryan showed up with another bottle. For a pairing, he brought 2005 Zweigelt Beerenauslese by Kracher. I had never come across a Zweigelt that I had liked. But I had only tried dry wines from the grape, never a late-harvest or a botrytised wine. And having loved anything I’ve tried by Kracher, I was excited to try this. It was a nice blend of light Pinot Noir-style red fruit with the concentrated, honey flavor of a BA, with a little of the botrytis spice on the back palate. A fun wine.

When I thought all was said and done and I was soon to be on my way, a plate of macarons arrived. As if the food, wine, service and atmosphere hadn’t already won me over, macarons are one of the keys to my heart. The flavors were fun. The standouts for me were the strawberry basil and the pink peppercorn with caramel.

By this time I think the dining room was empty, the bar cleared out, and I was the last diner of the service(a position I find myself in a little too frequently). When I got the bill and looked it over, I hadn’t been charged for my menu supplements or half of my wine pairings. Halfway through the meal I had let slip that I was returning for dinner that night with my friend BLT and was planning to eat and drink heavily. I’m not sure if the two-a-day had anything to do with the generosity, or if they just reward enthusiastic diners. Whatever the case, it was unnecessary, though appreciated.

It didn’t take long for EMP to become my favorite restaurant in the country. Since this first visit, seven months ago, I’ve had seven full meals, two small meals and been in a handful of other times for drinks and snacks. The menu approach has changed. There is no longer a gourmand menu, which I was fairly upset about, but got over. The food, staff and venue are all great enough to keep me coming back.

The little table in the bar remains my favorite seat in the house, though it has been replaced with a slighly larger square table. And during their remodel last fall, the kitchen doorway in the bar was removed, so there isn’t quite the amount of activity going by(which is probably preferable to most guests, but I miss it, along with hearing all the chef’s calls).

Why Eleven Madison Park sat unvisited near the top of my to-eat list for so long I’m not sure. But a meal there has become a priority when visiting NYC and I can’t justify being in the city and not stopping by. The list of accolades keeps growing for Daniel Humm and his crew(The latest of which is: sous chef James Kent is in Lyon, France as I type, prepping for the Bocuse d’Or, where he is representing the United States.) BLT and I have become well acquainted with much of the staff, and are treated extremely well. The food remains just as magical as my first meal. And I anticipate I’ll be paying many more visits in the future.

Eleven Madison Park. 11 Madison Avenue. NYC. 212.889.0905  www.elevenmadisonpark.com


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