NYC – Saturday – Eleven Madison Park
I have been holding out on writing my post for Eleven Madison Park because I feel like, no matter what I write, nothing will do it justice. I’ve come to accept that as the truth and decided I will just give it my best shot without saying so much that the underlying message gets lost. That message, of course, is that my experience at EMP was the best meal of my life and quite possibly the best dining experience I’ve ever had. Start to finish, everything really was exceptional. But let me rewind…
The boy and I put on some nicer clothes and had a cab drop us off in front of Eleven Madison Park on Madison Ave. in NYC. Walking through the revolving door, you could tell right away that this would be a special experience as the host at the door started pushing as we stepped in in an effort to make the revolving door easier for us. We were greeted very warmly and brought to our table. The table we had was perfect; it allowed the boy and I to sit side by side with a view out to the rest of the restaurant so we could easily share our food and people watch at the same time. The dining room itself was breathtaking. The high ceilings in the space may have looked gothic anywhere else but EMP dressed it up with classy, soft lighting and white flowers everywhere.
After we sat down, we were presented with a small dish of warm gougeres by our captain for the evening (not to be confused with the waiters, servers, water glass refill person, etc. etc.). They had a light, puffy texture with the nutty aroma of Gruyere cheese. After he set the dish on the table, he asked if we would like to start the evening with a glass of champagne. I happily took him up on his offer and he strolled over with the champagne cart. After explaining some of the differences in the bottles they had, I settled on a rose champagne that wasn’t too acidic or too sweet–it was perfect and it really showed how well he was listening to what I like. As we drank our champagne, we were given a wine menu, which was actually a book. I decided I was a little overwhelmed by the book once I saw there was a table of contents. At first I was like, “Wow, a bottle of Pinot for only $30??” until the boy helpfully pointed out that the Pinot list started on page 30. Heh. Narrowing it down to a Pinot from Oregon (my fave), I decided to leave the rest up to the pros. The sommelier came over shortly after I’d flipped through the book a little and he, too, listened intently to what I had to say. He made a suggestion for a bottle–St. Innocent Pinot Noir ‘White Rose’ 2006 from the Willamette Valley–and it could not have been more perfect. It wasn’t too sweet, it wasn’t dry, it had an interesting violet and vanilla combination. The boy and I both loved it and I would love to have it again.
While we were looking over the menus, Chef Daniel Humm made his way around the restaurant, stopping at each table to chat for a moment and thank us for being there. I’m not sure if I responded with anything more intelligent than, “thank you for having us!” but I’m pretty sure I spoke at a bare minimum. I thought it was nice that he came around to check on everyone. After looking over the menus for a little while, we made our selections. The boy picked the 5 course suckling pig menu and I went for the 5 course spring menu. We had already resolved to share everything. After placing our orders, we were presented with a rectangular tray of hors d’oeuvres. There was cucumber with smoked salmon, a bacon and leek quiche, foie gras with asparagus gelee on a cracker and crispy cornets of veal sweetbreads. We were delighted to see right away that there was one of each for both of us.
All were delicious but the sweetbreads were the clear winner. Wow, what tasty little morsels they were. The texture of the sweetbreads was absolute perfection. If I have to describe them, I’d say they were creamy like a soft cheese filling in a ravioli. The crispy exterior gave way easily and didn’t overpower the flavor of the sweetbreads. Amazing. And the presentation was top notch! We knew we were in for a great night at this point.
Our captain reappeared and gave us bread and butter. However, this wasn’t just any old bread and butter. Two small silver servers filled with a sweet yellow cow’s milk butter, Beurremont from Vermont, and a goat’s milk butter, Meyenberg from California, were placed before us. The goat’s milk butter was like nothing I’d tasted: as white as lard, with a tangy flavor of barnyard goat cheese and the soft, creamy texture of butter. The cow’s milk butter was left unsalted but we were also given a small dish of fleur de sel (no cutting corners with regular salt here at EMP) incase we cared to salt it ourselves. The silver servers the butter sat in were perforated at the bottom should the butter start to melt. The bread we had was baked into individual small baguettes. We had a selection of plain French and olive. The olive bread, even though I am not a fan of olives, was fantastic and the clear winner. It was warm, the butters were both at room temperature… it was the perfect marriage. It’s not often you actually write about the bread and butter at a restaurant! I need to, though, because I wouldn’t do EMP justice by leaving out details and I also want to document this for myself so that I never forget.
Next our hors d’oeuvre plate was whisked away and we were given a dish of smoked ham sabayon served in an egg shell with some edible silver on top. The sabayon was creamy without being too thick like yogurt. It was warm and savory; it was perfect. I laughed pretty hard at one point when the boy broke his egg shell trying to get every last drop from the bottom. He looked like he wanted to crawl under the table and die. I told him not to be so worried because the overall goal of the evening was to be comfortably spoiled! We had no idea how true this would be.
Our first course came out after a nice pause. The boy was served a terrine of various parts of the pig’s head with cornichons and baby radishes. I was treated to a plate of asparagus with mixed preparations, Parmigiano Reggiano and smoked meat. The terrine was fantastic but my favorite element of the two dishes was the asparagus ice cream. It was so unexpected for this little dollop to be cold and tasting so much of asparagus. They really knocked that one out of the park.
For his second course, the boy was presented with suckling pig pork belly with an array of vegetables. I had Atlantic turbot with spring peas. My turbot was okay but not fantastic. It was still miles ahead of anything I would make for myself but I felt the peas overpowered the fish. The sauce was delicious and light. Perhaps I’d have felt my dish was much better had the boy’s pork belly not been so fantastic. Honestly, I think we were fighting over the last few vegetables on his plate. The pork was a great mixture of spices, salt, fat and juice. The vegetables were truly outstanding. You could tell that someone labored over these vegetables in the kitchen. They weren’t there just to make the plate look pretty or more interesting. I think the only thing from his plate that wasn’t eaten was a small sprig of grass with a clover hanging from it. Outstanding.
Up next for the boy was pig confit with cipollini onions, dried plum chutney and five spice jus. This was easily the best dish of the night for him so far. A (very) slow-roasted chunk of pork was pulled, then compressed under a layer of crispy pork skin. The top layer was a wonderful contrast to the base. It was a crispy, salty crown to the little cloud of heaven that laid underneath. The remarkable thing about the meat was the way it felt on the tongue. There was the rich, full flavors of fat and meat but none of the greasy mouth feel that so often accompanies these types of dishes. The dried plum chutney, the five spice, the caramelized cipollini and the green onion all complemented the pork so well, too. Just a remarkable dish, all the way around. The boy was ready to call it the best dish of the night… until he tasted mine.
My seared and lightly poached Atlantic halibut with Meyer lemon, massive capers and parsley was the best dish ever. Ever. Not just “of the meal” or “of our trip” or any other qualifiers like that. Ever. It was simply the best dish I have had and it will be very hard to top it. It sounds so simple but I think that’s what made it so delicious. The perfectly cooked fish, the crispy wafers, the Meyer lemon… wow, that lemon was outstanding. The texture was just right for making it’s way onto a bite of fish without being too heavy to overpower the flavor of the halibut or being so runny that it was lost during transport. This dish was so unbelievable that adjectives fail me and wouldn’t do it justice anyway. The boy commented that he was totally floored with his confit until he had a bite of my fish. At that point, he felt completely depressed because mine was so good that his now sucked. Haha.
Thinking nothing could top my fish and how much we raved about it, I have to admit the next two dishes came close. The boy had a pork rack with morel mushrooms and roasted asparagus. I had a milk-fed veal glazed with ris de veau, morel panna cotta and fava beans. The stand out item in both dishes were the morels. I had to have the boy eat more than his fair share of my veal because I was starting to feel full and wanted to pace myself for dessert and macarons. We happily fought over the regular morels and morel panna cotta, the latter of the two being a favorite for me.
After we finished up with our plates, our captain brought around a cheese cart. I almost turned him away but something told me not to. I was right. He asked what kind of cheeses we liked and I explained my preferences. He thoughtfully made up small cheese plates for both of us based on our preferences and, let me tell you, he hit it spot on. One of the cheeses we had was the Lynnhaven “Chèvre Frais” (goat cheese) that is made only for EMP. It was truly outstanding and I wish I could have taken a block of it home with me. I love goat cheese so much and, outside of Paris, this was the best I’ve had.
Next it was time for a small taste before dessert. A pre-dessert amuse, if you will. When they were set on the table, the captain said this was Chef Daniel Humm’s take on strawberry cheesecake. One spoon had a soft ricotta cheese with graham cracker crumb (fantastic) and the other was a tiny ball of strawberry liquid that literally exploded in your mouth once bitten. I was so shocked by this that I think I dribbled a little on my dress. Thankfully, it blended in and I was laughing too hard to mind. The captain had warned as he walked away, “careful, they can be dangerous” but only smiled knowingly when I repeated, “dangerous?” I’ll know better next time!
Dessert was fantastic for both of us although I don’t know that we finished either plate. We took our time over coffee but I knew there were still macarons to be had so I was determined not to fill up my last few free spaces in my belly. I decided coffee didn’t count so we both indulged in that as well. The boy’s ice cream sandwich was actually pretty remarkable. We each took a bite expecting it to taste like mint chocolate ice cream but it actually tasted of real mint. There was none of that sickeningly sweet fake flavor to be had in this mint ice cream at all! It was exceptional. As for mine, it was chocolate and malt ice cream with some more fantastic Meyer lemon… what more could a girl want? I happily dived into my upscale lemon Whopper, pausing only for a few moments to appreciate the carefully constructed lemon gelee layer over the soft chocolate base with a delicate offering of edible gold flake. The remarkable thing worth noting about this dessert is the yellow smear you see in the photo. That was olive oil sauce which was the sauce version of gelato as far as the depth of the olive oil flavor was concerned. I laughed as I let the boy have a taste because it was just so odd but worked so well. Suffice to say, we were both very pleased with everything up to this point and only had more goodness to come.
Macarons. Time and time in food and wine, it’s apparent how dead on the French are in their approach to food combined with pleasure. Macarons are proof of this. The captain presented the tray and asked which ones we would like. Quite obviously, I asked for one of each. Before he left, he said his favorite was the violet but that one was just a little too bitter for my liking. Standouts in the macaron offering at Eleven Madison Park, for me, were the candied black olive, PB&J, hazelnut and brown butter and the chocolate banana. The PB&J was especially delightful for me because, for some reason, there’s not much that can beat a plain peanut butter and jam sandwich. And, yes, I call it jam.
So there it is. A full account of our meal at Eleven Madison Park. The only thing I would like to add is another note on the exceptional service. I am sure some people have come to expect service like that but let me just say I was blown away and it will be hard to top the level of unpretentious but professional friendliness we encountered at EMP. The staff there are truly a class act from the girl who refilled our water with a drip cloth so as not to get any on our table to the man who quickly swept the crumbs from our table between each course. As an example of how great the service is, allow me to share one more story. At one point during dinner, I dropped my knife. There’s no way any of the wait staff saw me, but it made a noise and I knew it had fallen. I looked down and I could see it on the floor. I looked to the boy and I asked him if he thought I should attempt to pick it up on my own. Due to my position at the table, it would have been awkward for me to get it on my own. He suggested I flag someone over for a new knife, since I would need a new one anyway, and was happy to see our captain walking toward us when I looked up. He came over and, without saying a word, he lowered a silver platter covered in felt that held only one knife… no other silverware, just that one knife, the same as the one I had dropped. He placed it at my setting and picked up the knife I had dropped at my feet. I looked from the knife to him and he exclaimed, “believe it or not, I have trained my ear to identify which piece of silverware has fallen from which table in the dining room.”
I believe him.
Eleven Madison Park was truly an exceptional experience. I hope it goes without saying that we will be back… next time, for the 11 course Chef’s selection Gourmand menu!