I had been to Eleven Madison Park once before, the February after 9/11 when I returned to NYC with my family because the City needed all the help it could get. Those days were well before the arrival of Chef Daniel Humm, who came to the restaurant from Switzerland via San Francisco. I recall that meal as having been nothing special.
Even before Frank Bruni awarded Eleven Madison Park four stars, the restaurant had been on my short list. It had already received raves from people whose opinions I value. I finally had my opportunity this past Monday, when I had some time open up for lunch. By myself without a reservation, I expected to dine at the bar, but I was pleasantly surprised to get a table along the back wall with excellent lighting for photography.
Generally I prefer company when I dine. It is more fun to share an experience with an interesting companion, however, on this day, I didn't mind dining by myself. It was nice to relax to my thoughts and there was plenty to observe around the beautiful Art Deco room. In addition, the staff did a wonderful job of engaging me just enough without intruding. They erased any hint of discomfort in dining solo.
While perusing the menu, I ordered a cocktail. I chose a Widow's Kiss from amongst a very enticing cocktail list, a number of which were based on classic 19th Century cocktails. The Widow's Kiss was based on a creation by the legendary "Professor" Jerry Thomas as written in his "The Bartender's Guide." The cocktail dates from around 1862 and includes Calvados, Benedictine, Yellow Chartreuse and Angostura Bitters. Distinctly on the savory side, it was perfect for a chilly afternoon. I look forward to exploring the list a bit further at another time.
I ordered a three course lunch tasting menu for $42, pricing actually slightly less than at Jean-George, the place that created good-value lunch prix-fixe menus. The major difference is that it appears more straight-forward to add courses at J-G. Of course when one orders a menu at a restaurant like EMP or J-G, one doesn't just get what was ordered.
The first amuse included two small bites. One was Salmon Tartare with Fennel. The other was Black Pepper Sable with Celery Root and Black Truffle. Both provided a pleasant start to the meal.
The second amuse was my first real indication that this was going to be a special meal. Sunchoke Veloute with Bosc Pear and Hazelnuts erupted with intense, but perfectly balanced and smooth sunchoke flavor, with a brunoise of bosc pear with-in the soup to add brightness and a hint of sweetness. The combination presented marvelous flavor and textural contrasts. The hazelnut wafer was tasty, though I didn't feel that it added to the dish beyond its visual appeal.
I was excited to see the selection of wines available by the glass. The list held real gems at relatively reasonable prices. As I was having a predominantly seafood lunch, I ordered one of my favorite whites, which happened to be on the list, Nicolas Joly, Clos de la Coulee de Serrant, Savenneres, 2005 for $24. It served beautifully through the meal.
The first of my ordered courses arrived. It was Chicken Velouté with veal sweetbreads and chanterelles. While it has become relatively common, I still love the beauty and theater of a soup being poured table-side atop artfully arranged solid ingredients as occurred here. Every aspect of this dish was simply marvelous,from the still crisp sweetbreads to the velvety chicken to the choice chanterelles to the dollop of cream to the rich and wonderful velouté itself.
For my second dish, I had a little difficulty choosing and enlisted my waiter's help. Ultimately because I was curious to see how pasta would be handled and presented here, I chose Linguini with Alaskan King Crab, black pepper and Meyer lemon. In many respects this dish was very Italian, primarily in that the pasta was the focus and everything else played supporting roles including the crab. It was very good pasta and the dish had good flavor, but at the end of the day, it was still pasta. Ultimately, I was a little disappointed as I expected a little bit more of a flavor bang rather than the subtlety presented by the kitchen. It was a lovely dish, but for me, on that day, it was not the best choice. When my waiter asked if I had made a good choice, I responded as I wrote above. It was a good choice, but not the right choice. In retrospect, I thought the diver scallop that I had passed over, would likely have been a more special dish.
I discussed my opinion because I was asked and I believe that a restaurant ought to be told the truth. I did not expect anything else, but one of the managers, with whom I was having an on-going occasional conversation asked me again about the dish and I repeated my response. A short while later, she personally returned with the Diver Scallop that had been seared with celery, meyer lemon and black truffles. I had been correct – this dish was more special. In fact, it was one of the most delicious and special scallop dishes that I have ever had and as good a scallop dish as I have had since I first tasted Rocco Dispirito's Taylor Bay scallops at Union Pacific a decade or so ago. The lemon was perfectly honed to accent the dish, adding just enough acidity to balance the richness of the truffles, the aromatics of the celery and the sublime sweetness of the perfectly seared scallop. This was a wonderful surprise, presented with grace and hospitality, and since it had not been asked for by me, given complimentary.
The scallop was a difficult dish to top. While my final savory dish, Bouillabaisse with striped bass, mussels, manila clams and chorizo, didn't quite top the sheer pleasure of the scallop, it came awfully close to matching it. The fish was immaculate, despite the day being a Monday and the depth of flavor of the bouillabaisse was intense. It was, however, the presence of the chorizo that really put this dish over the top for me.
Most of the desserts were presented via a dessert cart. While they all looked lovely, I wasn't really tempted until my waiter asked if I would be interested in the dessert from the grand tasting menu, the Chocolate Peanut Butter Palette with caramel popcorn and popcorn ice cream. Per his recommendation and given the quality of the meal that preceded it, I followed his recommendation. I was not disappointed.
I came to Eleven Madison Park expecting quality, but I hadn't planned to eat a particularly big lunch. I certainly received quality – the meal was outstanding. I ate a bit more than I originally intended, but it was so good, how could I not? This meal, in fact, the entire dining experience, truly resonated with me, from the moment I walked through the doors to the moment I left. The service was as good as I have ever experienced in the American style with just enough warmth and familiarity to make one comfortable, while never forgetting the details that get done seemlessly and in the background to make for a flawless service experience. Danny Meyer's restaurants have a reputation for great service, but this was the epitome. I have never been made to feel more relaxed and welcome in a restaurant.
As for the food, it was outstanding. Even the one dish that somewhat disappointed me, the linguini, was a good dish. I simply ordered out of curiosity and discovered that it wasn't what I had been really hoping for. Ironically my disappointment lay in the fact that the dish didn't really "sing" to me. It was the one dish from Chef Humm's kitchen that didn't fully resonate with me. All of the other dishes had very bright flavors, while the pasta was muted. Earlier I compared the lunch prices at EMP with those from J-G. After tasting his cooking, price is not my only point of comparison between the two restaurants. I would say that in my experience, the food at EMP stylistically most reminds me of that at J-G, with both relying on bold, bright acidic flavors. That is not to say that Chef Humm's cooking is a clone of Chef Vongerichten's. Chef Humm's cooking is clearly original both in form and conception, but to my palate, his taste aesthetic is reminiscent of Chef Vongerichten's. I would gladly eat the food of either chef any day.