On June 24th 2008 my sister and I had a lovely meal at Danny Meyer’s Eleven Madison Park – the service was first-rate albeit a bit “hovering,” the food was excellent, and the room exquisite. Still relatively new to the realm of fine dining at that visit I was impressed by many aspects of the 5-course gourmand menu that we received but even in my naivety it seemed strange that five courses meant five courses – no canapés, mignardises, amuses, candies, or palate cleansers to be seen. Having been to myriad highly regarded restaurants since that first visit it always intrigued me when people spoke of the gourmand menus at EMP in the coming years – the plethora of treats and gifts from the kitchen, the flawless service that rivaled the best in the city, the 4-Stars From Bruni and Top 50 rating in S. Pellegrino – I knew at some point I would have to return to see how the restaurant under Chef Humm had progressed, but there always seemed to something new, novel, or potentially better on my increasingly frequent trips to Manhattan – at least until I heard about Eleven Madison Park’s duck.
Bearing in mind EMP’s 28-day reservation policy my initial contact with the restaurant would be January 7th – an e-mail was sent inquiring whether the duck could be available at lunch; within two hours a response was sent by Mandy Laterveer who confirmed that although they would gladly prepare the duck, it was a whole duck and (theoretically) a lot of food for one person. While I had little doubt that I could handle the duck on my own, I also had to keep in mind that there was much else I desired to try and as such I turned to chowhound in order to perhaps find a dining partner – what I found instead was two, a lovely couple who were quite familiar with the restaurant and more than willing to make a return, especially for the duck.
After a long visit to the Rubin I would arrive nearly 15 minutes early for my 1:00pm reservation and entering the revolving doors I was greeted nearly immediately with my coat and bag collected from my shoulders before I even stated the name of my party. All smiles and manners I was quickly led to a great table at the center of the room where the crowd was beginning to thin, but more than half of the tables remained occupied with couples lingering over coffee and dessert. Greeted next by our captain, Chris, water was filled and we made small talk for a good five minutes before I was offered the wine and cocktail list. Deferring drink orders until the rest of the party arrived I would next be treated with a porcelain container of gougeres and a copy of the EMP “Chicken Issue” book to browse while I waited. Sampling the gougeres, first one, then two, then the rest I must resist the comparison to compare them to the ethereal versions at Per Se – but then again, at Per Se I only received one while at EMP I had eight to myself followed by a shared basket when my new friends were seated.
Before moving on to the rest of the meal I will simply note here that we were very well taken care of at Eleven Madison Park that afternoon and while I’m certain the number of people who stopped by to say hello (including Chef Humm himself) had a lot to do with my dining partners, I do not feel we received any “special treatment” otherwise during our stay – we enjoyed the same amuses and mignardises as the tables around us, our servings appeared no larger than anyone else’s, and the wine pairings enjoyed by one member of the table were no more exclusive than those at the next table. With that noted, the service was perfect – a balance of formal and conversational, the plates described at length, and the diner never left wanting for anything. With a tasty Anjou Cocktail of Cognac, Pear Brandy, Triple Sec, Ceylon Cinnamon, Champagne, and Lemon kicking things off the new menu proved easily navigable and with orders placed it was time to sit back for nearly four and a half hours of conversation and tremendous food.
Having already noted my gripe above about the lack of amuses during my previous lunch at EMP, clearly someone was listening as the first five items to hit the table after the gougeres were all complimentary. Beginning first with Halibut Dashi Tea with Red Seaweed and Thyme and Sesame/Nori Lavash I enjoyed this clever take on tea and crackers though I have to say the fish flavor of the tea was quite muted in comparison to that of the seaweed, a choice I realized was likely intentional when I took a bite of the cracker and realized the taste was nearly identical.
Having already seen the next dish arrive at the adjacent table I was quite excited given my fondness for egg dishes – alas the only thing truly eggy about the dish was the vessel in which it was served – not a bad thing, just not what I expected. Described as Smoked Sturgeon Sabayon in Eggshell Cup with Chive Oil the texture was creaminess defined. First tasting the smoky sabayon separate and then mixing to incorporate all the ingredients the flavor profile was nicely balanced and the texture pleasant with bits of smoked fish mingling with the creamy sabayon. Largely undetectable at first, the most impressive aspect of this dish for myself was the manner in which the mild notes of chive hung on the palate after swallowing.
For our final bite before the meal commenced we received what I can only describe as the very essence of truffle absorbed in a sponge. Titled Black Truffle Beignet with White Truffle Yogurt the single bite was by far the standout of the canapés and perhaps the best I’ve ever had anywhere – I could have surely consumed a dozen more.
With our first courses soon to arrive the bread service would logically follow – a service that has changed only for the better since my last visit and will apparently be changing more soon. Featuring a Picholine Olive Roll and a French Baguette with Cow's Milk Butter, Goat's Milk Butter, and Sea Salt the breads were good but certainly nothing to write home about. What were impressive, however, were the butters – specifically the tangy goat’s milk version but also the mellow and grassy cow’s milk option which was vastly more spreadable than the icy puck of my previous visit.
With much made of the new menu format at EMP I won’t go into the controversy, but for those unfamiliar I will simply note that each dish is delineated with a single word and if further explanation is desired the captain will be glad to go into exquisite detail and if a specific component of a dish is not desired or tolerated there is a good chance it can be omitted. Beginning first with cold options my selection would be my favorite course of the meal – “Foie Gras.” Presented as a marinated torchon infused with Venezuelan Cocoa and sitting atop a quince gelee drizzled with quince consomee the torchon itself was perfect and melted in the mouth releasing notes of cocoa that permeated the palate. With coarse sea salt atop the torchon lending some textural variation the gelee was mild while the consomee was intensely sweet. Paired with a cocoa brioche the entire dish was excellent – I only wish there would have been more brioche.
For my friends the first courses of the day would be Hamachi - Marinated with Fennel/Meyer Lemon/Horseradish and Chèvre - Butternut Squash/Pumpkin Seeds/Chicory; thankfully I was allowed a bite of each. First tasting the Hamachi I appreciated the clean and light fish and the excellent balance achieved by the sweet lemon and heated horseradish. Not to be outdone, the Chevre dish featured a round of butternut squash that was hollowed out and stuffed with creamy cheese. With a sunflower seed and pistachio Tuille, dandelion greens, crunchy pumpkin seeds, and bitter chicory atop the dish was light and textural, a lovely salad.
With conversation flowing freely and multiple servers, managers, and staff stopping by to say hello our second courses would arrive after perhaps twenty minutes. Having already sampled most of the menu on prior visits, one of my co-diners opted for the Foie Gras as her second course while the selection enjoyed by her husband would be one of the more remarkable flavors of the meal – Skate seared with Madras Curry, Baby Bok Choy, and variation of Lemon. Noting aloud that one of my best memories from my first visit to EMP was actually the first time I ever tasted skate the bite that I had of this dish was again quite memorable. With the characteristic texture of the fish accented in ample notes of clove, chile pepper, cinnamon, and allspice the key to this dish was (just like my first visit) Chef Humm’s deft hand with lemon and the manner in which it melded the sweetness of the protein with the mild vegetables while tempering the heat and allowing the whole amalgam to achieve a decidedly Asian inspired harmony.
Far less complicated than the skate but equally satisfying would be my second selection, Crab - Tagliolini with Meyer Lemon and Black Pepper. Hand made in house daily the Tagliolini was uniform, prepared slightly past al dente, and loaded with butter, black pepper, and chopped scallions. Topped simply with a drizzle of fresh lemon juice and flanked with both chunks and shredded King Crab there was nothing about this dish that reinvented the wheel, just great ingredients nicely prepared and presented simply – it was delicious and not nearly as filling as one would have guessed.
More conversation for the table, more wine for the gentleman, and a visit from Chef Humm would precede the third course of our meal – for my friends they each opted for the Beef - Tenderlon and Cheek Roasted with Celery Root and Black Truffles, Mirepoix which I did not taste while I myself decided on the Pork – Variations (Belly, Loin, Confit) with Mustard Spatzle and apple cider. Noting to Chris that I find mustard to be somewhat overwhelming he mentioned my concern to the kitchen and accordingly they left off the mustard sauce while instead adding a cider and pork reduction to the mustard infused spatzle. Pink, perfect, and easily cut with the edge of a fork the loin was delicious while the belly featured a layer of crackling skin over the melted fat and collagen – it was textbook. Flanked on all sides by the mustard tinged spatzle I must say it was still a little too much for my tastes, but the cider reduction and confit certainly helped.
Nearing the third hour at the four top our next course would be the special request that led to the meal in the first place – the Whole Roasted Muscovy Duck Glazed with Honey, Fennel Seed, and Lavender. With the 14-17 day aging process explained at length by Chris the whole bird was next presented for our perusal and the smell, to say the least, was intoxicating. Returned to the kitchen in order to be plated it would be a mere ten minutes before the well portioned bird would return to the table accompanied by kumquats and roasted turnips and topped with orange infused duck jus at tableside. With the crispy lacquered skin and rosy medium flesh dancing with notes of lavender and the sweetness of honey the dish was every bit as good as the rumors – a standout at a restaurant where everything ranges from very good to excellent.
With the taste of the duck still vivid on the palate it would be only a short time before the next course would arrive to transition us from savory to sweet – a taste that seemed as though it were custom made to follow the duck. Titled Variations of Jasmine and Orange the day’s palate cleanser would be a lovely textural interplay of Jasmine Sorbet, Orange Short Bread, Orange Snow, Milk Foam, Cilantro, and sections of tangerine. At one moment sweet, another moment savory, sometimes cold, sometimes crunchy – a palate cleanser that could easily stand up as a proper dessert.
With desserts en route, the next part of our experience would truly be an experience – the show of the evening as Chris prepared Intelligentsia’s carefully selected Toarco Jaya Reserve beans from North Toraja, Sulawesi via Siphon method. Explaining each step as he progressed in great detail the whole experience was a step above anything I’ve experienced thus far in terms of assuring purity of flavor and body – the result was fragrant and smooth with a velvet mouth-feel and notes of fig and caramel most notable. At $22 the coffee certainly is not cheap, but it is enough to serve three and as such certainly not out of line with what one would pay for a similar quality bean elsewhere – and that is without the show.
For our desserts the choices were a case of opposites – for myself vanilla and for my co-diners chocolate. Beginning first with my selection, an EMP classic, I was served the Vanilla Soufflé with Quark and Passion Fruit. Tall, proud, fluffy, and finished tableside there really is not much more that can be said of the souffle – it was perfect. What was most remarkable about the dish was the manner in which the intensely sweet passion fruit offset the pungent cheese – the pairing mixed with the heavy vanilla tones forming a veritable cheesecake cloud, neither too sweet nor too savory.
For my companions, “Chocolate” would place a dark chocolate crémeux amidst rounds of crunchy caramelized Banana, Black Sesame infused chocolate crumble, and dollops of caramel and yuzu. Taking only a small bite of the portion offered I have to admit that I did not get a great representation of the nuances of the dish, but the savory sesame and deep chocolate was great while the crackling shell of the banana balls was an admittedly cool effect.
Sitting and enjoying our coffee as the restaurant began to prepare for dinner service the final bites of our afternoon would arrive as Lavender Chocolate Macarons and Peanut Brittle Tuille – both tasty, the macarons a bit gummy, but flavorful and floral without being overpowering. Arriving along with the mignardises were the check and our descriptive menus presented in a black envelope, as well – a menu that was unfortunately noted later to have been printed incorrectly, mine for instance containing the descriptor for the Hamachi but not the Foie – a small detail to be sure.
With the sun outside beginning to fall and folks starting to arrive for dinner service I was surprised to find that we were not the only table remaining – as a matter of fact there were two others enjoying their wine and desserts. With conversation still flowing we were never rushed but realizing I was due for dinner reservations in less than an hour the bill was paid we bid our team farewell. With final parting gifts including the newest Relais & Chateaux Guide, a complete collection of the EMP books, and a jar of Honey Raisin Granola in hand we made our way to the street and I bid my new friends farewell for now and thanked them for a lovely afternoon – the sort of afternoon that breeds fond memories and repeat customers, the sort of afternoon that shows a restaurants progress over time, and the sort of afternoon that this time did indeed “wow.”