Eleven Madison Park – New York, NY
Diners flock to Eleven Madison Park to be coddled and pampered, to leave well-fed and well-served. It’s a destination restaurant; a place reserved for special occasions and deservedly so. While Danny Meyer has built his Union Square Hospitality Group into a gastronomical empire, from burgers (Shake Shack) to Roman trattorias (Maialino) to veritable Manhattan institutions (Union Square Cafe), his flagship restaurant remains untouchable, with food, service, and ambience fit for royalty.
Eleven Madison Park, for the past two or three years, has displaced Blue Hill as my favorite restaurant in New York City. Every time I find myself in the Big Apple, no matter the time of day, appetite or food preference, Eleven Madison Park inevitably comes to mind. I suppose it’s a blessing that I live across the country, as paying for triple-digit meals on a weekly basis would also mean I’d have to take up residence in a cardboard box.
As expected, my last visit to Eleven Madison Park for lunch on March 11 was nothing short of spectacular. I came in a touch early for my noon reservation, so I sidled up to the bar for a drink. I’m a big fan of classic cocktails, so when inquired on what I wanted, I mentioned my favorite drink is an Old-Fashioned but something like a Negroni felt more appropriate for a pre-lunch cocktail. The gracious man behind the bar responded perfectly with a Boulevadier, essentially a Negroni with bourbon in lieu of gin. I’ve had and made it a few times before, and I always wonder why it hasn’t displaced the Negroni as its bigger, better, and more handsome cousin.
Midway through my drink, we were led to our table, smack dab in the center of the cavernous dining room. With its art deco interior and 35-foot ceilings, I imagine some are intimidated by dining in a space the size of an airplane hanger. No matter the case, I’m sure those feelings were assuaged by a bowl of warm gougeres. I’ve had these on every visit, and they’re always exceptional. Heavenly when hot and terrible when cooled, I wondered if there was a man in the kitchen whose sole duty was to bake these puffs throughout the day making sure each and every diner ate one as warm and pleasant as the ones we received.
More amuse-bouches soon arrived, starting with a halibut dashi poured over a bundle of red seaweed & thyme. Very tasty and reminiscent of the traditional Japanese seafood broth, Dobin Mushi. A tiny black truffle beignet with black truffle yogurt sauce followed along with my favorite of the cast, smoked sturgeon sabayon with diced smoked sturgeon and chive oil served in a hollowed egg shell– a luxurious meeting of salty, savory, smoky and creamy.
A minute later the bread came around, a selection of three with the highlight being a semolina roll with the texture halfway in between a dinner roll and croissant. Alongside it were cow’s milk and goat’s milk butter, with the latter being infinitely spreadable with a slightly tangy flavor, practically like solidified creme fraiche.
The progressive menu is another favorite of mine at Eleven Madison Park. In lieu of a traditional menu is a four by four grid of ingredients where one chooses one ingredient per row and relays any cooking preferences to the waitress. I suspect it’s an attempt to transform the dining experience from a monologue to a dialogue with a hint of surprise, and it succeeds with flying colors.
Given I was well aware of Chef Daniel Humm’s capabilities, I specifically picked every vegetable on the grid in an attempt to challenge the kitchen. In my mind, whipping up a truly fantastic dish out of vegetables is arguably a significant challenge for any chef. After all, when’s the last time you had a memorable carrot dish? Now what about a superb foie gras or steak? There you go.
Right after we picked a Chianti Classico off the wine list to share, the first dishes immediately arrived.
The foie gras torchon, amidst a kaleidoscope of cocoa bits, apple, and orbs of maple syrup, was almost too gorgeous to eat.The foie was expectedly buttery and rich, but the real key here was the cocoa, which gave each bite some crunch and prevented the dish from getting cloyingly sweet or rich.
Surprisingly, the restaurant’s signature prawn dish, wrapped in an avocado roulade with a dollop of yogurt, was the weakest of the appetizers. Not that it wasn’t good, but rather the sheer excellence of the other starters demoted the prawns to last place.The rich creaminess of the avocado overwhelmed the delicate filling and the accompanying yogurt felt like another blunt strike to further mask the crustacean’s inherent sweetness.
Our unanimous favorite amongst the starters was the salsify braised with Mangalista ham and topped with bulgur wheat and hazelnuts. Salsify is one of my favorite root vegetables around and reminds me of white asparagus’ and artichoke’s illegitimate lovechild. It went swimmingly well with the Mangalitsa pork, as I learned a few weeks ago from Tomostyle, is a Hungarian pork “primarily raised on pumpkins and acorns” that’s an “extreme ‘lard-type’ breed which produces marbled juicy meat that is dense in flavorful fat.” Holy Amazing. Being the polite Asian diners, we all pushed around the last piece of salsify on the plate, seeing if anyone would take the last bite. Of course, I ended up eating it, and it was spine-tinglingly good. No dignity here!
Next up was seared cod with fennel and clams. There was nothing fancy in terms of ingredients on this dish but everything was executed perfectly, almost shockingly so.The cod was tender yet firm, with juices glistening in between the slices; the clams weren’t chewy in the least, and the flavors of fennel and what tasted like a Bergamot sauce rounded out the dish and gave it a bit more heft. No gimmickry here. Just top-notch fresh ingredients coupled with textbook-perfect technique that would make Escoffier proud.
The next dish of roasted celery root with smoked puree and celery root bordelaise was a forgettable one that reminded our table of traditional braised Chinese vegetables. This was the sole dud of the meal, and more than rectified by the succeeding dish of carrots. The root vegetable, carefully sliced, plated, and roasted, teetered on that fine textural line between mushy and crunchy. Intricately flavored with cumin and topped with medjool dates as well as wheat berries for some added crunch, the dish sent my imagination to Morroco– perhaps one of the city’s bustling spice markets, where pungent spices fill the air.With this flawless showcase of carrots, Chef Daniel Humm really stepped up to the “vegetable challenge” I originally had in mind. With each bite I found myself marveling at how such a humble ingredient like carrot could be elevated, with the care and preparation normally reserved for caviar or foie gras.
A series of proteins arrived next, starting with variations for pork (belly, loin, confit) served with spatzle and apple cider. As soon as this dish was placed on the table, I could hardly contain myself. The pork confit Chef Humm served during my last visit was so good I’ve practically reserved a part of my brain to remember it forever and ever. Pink, moist, and fork-tender, this pork loin sang with such bright clean flavors it could have been mistaken for chicken. The belly, prepared sous vide, then quickly broiled to develop a crackly cap of skin, was peerless. My first bite had a nice crunch while the rest of the belly -meat, fat, and collagen- practically melted into a pork-belly-scented cloud.
Our next dish of beef tenderloin and cheek with celery root puree, black truffle sauce, and mirepoix was a showcase of faultless cooking. The black truffle sauce was potent and pungent; the cheeks, likely braised for an eternity, parted with the touch of a fork. The topping of mirepoix? Astonishing. Each piece of celery, carrot, and onion was a mathematically-exact square and identically sized, no doubt cut with surgicial precision.
The last of the proteins, a milk-fed veal with crisp sweet breads, pearl onions, and smoked marrow might have just been the best dish that day. My first bite left me shaking my head in wonderment, and my second bite was so good I nearly passed out. The veal was remarkably moist and tender (I’m guessing cooked sous vide), and the sweetbreads contrasted a crisp exterior with a creamy almost custard-like interior. But nothing prepared me for the smoked bone marrow. The small, off-white blobs could have doubled as manna from heaven; so beautiful, creamy, and deeply infused with a heavy smoky flavor that I nearly overlooked the veal. Sweetbreads and veal are some of my most beloved ingredients, but on this plate they were merely the supporting cast.
A trio of desserts signaled this meal was coming to an end. Raclette melted over a confit of marble potatoes and mustard greens was gooey and oozing, as good racelette should be. And while I’m sure our order of lemon cake with poppy seeds, olives, and yogurt was tasty enough, our final chocolate dessert was so good it practically wiped out any recollection of the previous desserts. A smear of black sesame paste was topped by a cocoa-dusted dome of bittersweet chocolate crémeux, a quenelle of banana ice cream, and surrounded by tiny caramelized marbles of banana. So simple yet so genius, the tiny caramelized balls resulted in one the highest brulee shell to filling ratios I’ve ever experienced. The unexpected marriage of the rich dark chocolate with the black sesame paste was phenomenally good, upending expectations, and eliciting groans of pleasure.
Now you’re probably wondering why there aren’t any photos of the lemon and raclette desserts. Being the coffee geek that I am, I was completely sidetracked by our last order, Eleven Madison Park’s infamous Coffee Cart. While likely the priciest coffee I’ve ever ordered ($26 for the siphon, chemex is $22; serves 2-3), the mere fact of simply having such an elaborate coffee program speaks volumes of the restaurant’s dedication towards, well, everything.
It’s incredible how many restaurants neglect their coffee. Espressos often arrive over-extracted, watered down, or downright nasty after sitting on the counter for a half an hour. After all, good machines and grinders aren’t cheap and require extra training for the staff. So my eyes totally lit up when I was informed Eleven Madison Park has a dedicated barista in the back and intensively trains certain staff just for the coffee cart.
I ordered a siphon for the table, and the show began. An elaborate contraption of two glass bulbs perched above a bunsen burner along with wires and temperature probes sticking out, a siphon coffee maker seems more at home at a laboratory than a Michelin-starred restaurant. Hell, it uses vapor and gas to suspend coffee in the upper glass bulb, all the while maintaining an optimum temperature to brew coffee. The resulting coffee was very bright and floral, but to be honest, being primarily an espresso drinker, I couldn’t taste the difference between coffee made from a siphon filter and your traditional gold-filter drip coffee. Nevertheless, it made for a good show.
Right as I paid the bill and was ready to take off, our server invited us into the kitchen to take a look. The kitchen was simply enormous with chefs preparing the mise en place for the dinner service. Off to the side was a small counter, with a place for three set. I soon realized the restaurant had one more surprise up it’s sleeve: a live demo making liquid nitrogen old-fashioned cocktails. I’m not sure if the bartender had specifically remembered old-fashioneds were my favorite cocktail, but this was a welcome surprise.
Whiskey and bitters were topped by a sorbet and coconut ice cream, both made with liquid nitrogen. The sphere of coconut ice cream, still smoking from it’s liquid nitrogen bath, cracked upon a lashing with my fork. Cold, sweet, and boozy, certainly a perfect way to end a leisurely three-hour lunch.
As I walked out of the restaurant, I was positively giddy and it showed. My face was slapped with a smile so wide it could stretch across the country to my home in Los Angeles. And if I wasn’t in such a decorated dining room, I might as well have skipped -not walked- out of the restaurant. Yes, the food was incredible, but the service was doubly so. Hospitality is literally written on Danny Meyer’s calling card, and this experience at Eleven Madison Park proved just that. My party of three left feeling more important than Jonathan Gold, Ruth Reichl, and Sam Sifton combined, and I can’t wait to go back.
[UPDATE]: I returned on a rainy day in late September for a back-to-back lunch and dinner. Lunch was great; dinner was incredible, with Mauro Colagreco as a guest chef. That night I experienced two dishes I’ll never forget:
– Belon oysters with pear, shallots, and watercress
– Quinoa with mushrooms, parsley, and parmesan