Disclaimer alert: My family and I are certainly known to the restaurant and I received a significant discount as well as no corkage fees for bringing a couple of special bottles of wine. My son, L.J., works at Eleven Madison Park in the front of the house, and we had arranged everything well in advance. While our experience was certainly enhanced by the relationship, it is no accident that EMP recently was awarded the James Beard Award for Best Service in the nation for the second time and it is currently ranked as the top restaurant in the United States and No. 5 in the world on the prestigious World’s Fifty Best Restaurants list. Whether it maintains that spot or rises even further will be known next week. For my wife and I and our family, it proved to be the perfect place to celebrate a very special family occasion – our 30th Wedding Anniversary.
I had dined at Eleven Madison Park before and loved it. When in NYC, it has also been a frequent stopping point for cocktails at their marvelous bar. I hadn’t been in some time, though, and once my son started working there last summer, I wanted to give him some room to settle in and get comfortable before I returned for the full-scale experience. With this special anniversary, it was the perfect moment. Even better, he would be joining us at the table, marking what is now an all-too-rare occurrence of having all of our family together to share a meal.
We purposely arrived a half hour early to enjoy a cocktail in the lounge before heading to our table. As intimated above, I have always found the cocktails at EMP to be top-notch and this evening was nothing different. The main difficulty is choosing one when so many sound so appealing. For example, each of the three cocktails in the small space above whet my appetite, as did others on the menu.
I wound up choosing the English Milk Punch in honor of the EMP trained master of Milk Punches, Eamon Rockey, currently of Betony. I could see the lineage of the cocktail and better understood the roots of Rockey’s cocktail artistry. Like the ones at Betony, this was extremely well made, beautifully balanced and impeccably delicious. Like any truly great cocktail with a rock, that rock was perfectly clear. Details matter and here as throughout the meal, they were nailed.
The cocktail program at EMP as at its sister restaurant/bar, The NoMad, works under the direction of bar manager, Leo Robitschek. Robitschek is one of the best in the business, which can be seen in both the creativity and quality of his and his team’s cocktails. My son, L.J. ordered his favorite, the Empire Cocktail, a delightful, nearly clear, Vermouth and sherry based apéritif cocktail. Once again, the ice square was essentially invisible. One expects elegance at a restaurant/bar like EMP and ice like this is most certainly elegant, but is important for more than just appearance. A clear block melts more slowly and evenly, prolonging the intended and desired concentrations and balance of ingredients within the cocktail, while the purity of the water confers a minimal impact on the taste of the drink. Details matter.
Perhaps in honor of our anniversary and my birth borough, my wife ordered a rum based “Brooklynite,” a cocktail 30 years older than myself that had originated at The Stork Club in NYC. It was a pretty cocktail that was rather tasty as well.
The honor of opening the package, of course, went to my wife. Within were six “black and white” cookies, a play on the classic NYC (read Brooklyn) sweet treat. Typically these shortbread cookies have a chocolate fondant for the black side and a vanilla fondant for the white. This one only looked the part as it acted more like a crisp cheddar cookie with an apple accent. Given the legendary status of some black and white cookies, I can imagine that some people might actually be disappointed when it turns out to be something different, but that wouldn’t be me, or anyone at our table on this evening. This savory, buttery treat was right up our collective alley. The promise of the package was delivered.
L.J. took it upon himself to confer with our sommelier, Paula De Pano, on a nice bottle of bubbly, the NV Jean Milan Grande Réserve Blanc de Blanc Champagne. It was a nice treat with tight bubbles, crisp acidity and fine yeasty notes.
At this point the food service started in earnest with the delivery of a stack of gorgeous inlaid boxes by Blackpoint Woodworking, which were unstacked and arranged in a pattern in the center of the table.
The wooden platforms numbered four and each contained a different bite with one for each diner.
I chose the fava bean croquette first as it would likely be the most temperature sensitive. They were comforting and tasty as a good croquette should be.
A morel mousse was sandwiched between rye crisps for a contrast of creamy and crisp with wonderful flavor.
Plump Wellfleet oysters were offered with luscious caviar while they sat atop a base of creme fraiche in their shells.
EMP’s version of Eggs Benedict has become something of an icon of late. It does, in fact, incorporate the classic ingredients of the brunch staple, but in a way that was supremely elegant, while retaining and even improving upon the deliciousness of that already marvelous dish. Who doesn’t love a well made Eggs Benedict? This version added a healthy dollop of caviar to the crumbled yolks, bits of ham, spring onion and the Lilliputian English muffins served on the side. This is one of the aspects of contemporary fine dining that I most enjoy – a whimsical playfulness that adds a healthy dose of fun to the necessary deliciousness.
I brought two special bottles of wine to the restaurant the last time I had come down to the city so that they would be settled by the time we opened them. These were both 1986 Bordeaux’s from the year of our marriage. I asked Paula to open the Chateau Leoville Las Cases from St. Julien first.
What I didn’t expect, was my son, L.J. rising from the table to do the honors of opening the bottle. He did so, under the guidance of Ms. De Pano, in a way that I had never previously seen or experienced, at a special cart that had been wheeled over to our table for this purpose. First, he removed the foil wrapper from the bottle neck and wiped it clean.
Then he began heating what looked like it possibly could have been a torture device over a bunson burner. It was in fact a special metal instrument called port tongs, which have historically been used to avoid crumbling ancient corks when opening very old port bottles. At EMP this hot spectacle is used for much more than just old port.
The red hot tongs were then applied to the neck of the Leoville Las Cases below the level of the cork.
He next brushed cold water onto the heated neck, which immediately allowed the clean decapitation of the bottle with a light pull.
Both ends of the bottle were treated to a silver wax seal that had been melted in a small pan over the same bunson burner. This was his first time doing this and there couldn’t have been a better time for him to attempt it.
The wine itself was still quite muscular, but in a refined way as if it were wearing a tailored suit. We toasted each other and delved back into the meal.
As might be expected, even the bread and butter were extra special. The bread was flaky, hot and worth every carb. The cheddar topped butter vaulted the bread completely over the top. I had to restrain myself from having more than one piece.
For most of the savory courses we got to choose between at least two possibilities. For the first selection, one of the options was the refreshing Fluke Marinated with Peas and Grapefruit, that my wife, sitting to my right chose. It was a beautiful dish that adhered to Chef Humm’s push towards visually simplifying his plates to a more essential presentation. This dish was certainly not simple in its production, but it held a geometric purity that offered a relatively minimalist visual appeal with all of the gustatory complexity that one might desire.
Of course, we tasted each other’s dishes! That’s (almost) half the fun! My Foie Gras Seared with Sorrel and Fava Beans was equally minimalist in its presentation. Like my wife’s fluke dish, it offered a limited chromatic range, though that spectrum was tightly defined and beautiful with it’s tableside saucing.
Tonight I was going full luxe and opted for the lobster, which had been butter-poached with dandelion and ginger. This time the green element offered a bitter contrast to the silky sweetness of the crustacean. These were heavenly bites for a mature palate.
My wife selected the Snapper that was Poached with Nettles and Clams, a dish that was more visually intricate than most of the rest. Again, it was lovely, but I was too busy focusing on my superb lobster to afford it much attention.
At this point, the direction of the menu was heading to a more land-centric destination. With our Leoville emptied, it was time to proceed to the main wine event of the evening. A long time ago, I put away a case of 1986 Lafite Rothschild, when it was still relatively affordable. With a variety of special family occasions in the interim, that case has been considerably diminished, but this was the perfect opportunity to unearth and uncork one of the remaining few. This time, it was done without the pomp and showmanship of its predecessor as it was opened in a more routine and mundane, yet effective fashion. Happily for us, it remained as impressive as ever as it helped wash down the next few courses.
The next course was one that everyone at the table partook in. Again, the table-side presentation stood out with the dish’s star cooked within a pig’s bladder, a la the French classic, Poulet de Bresse en Vessie. There wasn’t a bird within that bladder though.
The braising liquid was spooned onto the single asparagus on each plate.
The result was spectacularly delicious. The asparagus was perfectly tender, beautifully green and flavored beyond compare of any other asparagus residing within my memory. This was a dish that truly embraced and exalted Chef Humm’s neo-minimalist approach. Though difficult to choose amongst so many wonderful bites, this single asparagus may have been my favorite dish of the evening. The wine, it turned out, was a perfect complement with the meaty sauce sheathing the stalk.
Our final choice was perhaps the most difficult as it stood between a long-aged rib-eye versus the classic EMP duck. I chose the latter and didn’t regret it. With crisp, complexly flavored skin and perfectly textured rich breast meat along with a spring riot of onion and rhubarb, this stunner justified its long-term presence on the EMP menu. It never need come off it.
The 140-day aged Ribeye was no slouch either. Draped under shrouds of Japanese eggplant, it was jammed with deep beef flavor. Nevertheless, I made the correct choice for me. Both dishes were accompanied by a cup of their respective broths, a satisfyingly warming and delicious touch.
The New Potatoes with Flowers, was perhaps the one dish of the meal that didn’t really excite me while eating it, but given my current bias towards minimizing carbs, I did not truly give it much of a chance taking only a small taste.
The other dish, however, sung a breathtaking aria. Morel custard with spring garlic was pure, high-note, vibrato – an earthy deliciousness that totally transcended its role as a side dish. Matched with its meaty mates, this manifested a marvelous maelstrom of flavor.
The meal evolved towards dessert via a cheese course. For most of the table this came in the form of rolls stuffed with oozing Nancy’s Hudson Valley Camembert and a plate of rhubarb compote along with a sorrel and green garlic creme fraiche. Knowing my preference for limiting carbs, I was given a plate that had the cheese sans the roll. It was a delightful, creamy combination.
From here we moved full on to dessert. The flavors were impeccable, co-mingling with finesse as the elderflower and vanilla gently asserted themselves on the strawberry base.
Next came a fine dessert of malt ice cream with pretzel and chocolate, the top surface of which visually echoed the potato side dish served with the meats.
I don’t believe that I have had a Baked Alaska in 40 years. It was probably the fanciest dessert of my youth and somewhat ubiquitous during that time at fine dining establishments and elegant soirees. Since then, though, it had drifted somewhat out of fashion along with classic French cuisine, to be gloriously resurrected here at EMP.
During those early years of my life, the thing that made it so popular was the presentation. I don’t recall the dessert as ever having been especially delicious compared to other desserts of the time. That show, though, of a fiery orb, often paraded around a darkened dining room, was magnificent. The spectacle returned to me and my family on this evening minus the parade around the darkened dining room. The Alaska was lit by Sarah Van Doren with the application of burning liquor, supplying gorgeous char marks on the snowy white surface as my youngest looked on with glee and youthful anticipation.
Aside from the sheer beauty of the cake’s construction, what differed with this Baked Alaska from previous incarnations stored deep within my memory was how delicious this one actually was. Despite my dastardly diabetic aversion to sweets,as if it was a siren calling me towards the rocky shore, I was lured into eating more of this than I ideally should have. Fortunately, with the aid of an extra dose of insulin, I managed to avoid the rocky shoals and stayed afloat for further culinary adventure.
Sweet wine is something I have indulged in less over recent years, though I still very much appreciate one laced with a strong acid backbone. This refreshing, sparkling rosé from Patrick and Catherine Bottex, made using the méthode ancestral, an early method of sparkling wine production, was a perfect accompaniment to the rich Baked Alaska, though with its high sugar/low alcohol content, I limited my indulgement to but a few sips.
Instead, L.J. and I opted to experience the restaurant’s vaunted Manhattan Cart, a mobile bar used expressly for constructing the borough’s namesake cocktail. There were a number of variations available. L.J. opted for an Arthur Avenue, which included a quick spray of mezcal for some added smokiness.
I, however, given the particularly sentimental nature of the evening for myself, I couldn’t resist ordering a Park Slope, the Manhattan variation named for the (Brooklyn) neighborhood in which I grew up. This contained Rye, Apricot Brandy and Punt e Mes, the latter yet another reason for ordering the cocktail, as I have become a big fan of that relatively bitter Vermouth. I was not disappointed.
Our wonderful family get-together was rapidly winding down as we were served four different milk chocolate bars to share with each of us getting a card with which to guess which bar corresponded to the milk of a particular animal – cow, water buffalo (despite the depiction of a bison), sheep and goat. The chocolates were complex and delicious and the guessing more difficult that I would have expected.
Minus our son, Andrew and his girlfriend, who had to leave to catch an early flight for business the next morning, we were escorted into the kitchen for yet one more treat. Here, a special frozen cocktail was made directly in front of us to complete our meal. A large block of ice was shaved and collected in separate containers for each of us.
It was a refreshing final touch at the restaurant.
At the end, our remaining crew posed with EMP GM Billy Peelle and Executive Sous Chef Dmitri Magi, who was running the kitchen on this evening.
The dinner at a close, we collected our belongings, which included a few parting gifts such as a jar of house granola, a house candy bar and a copy of each person’s individual menus that had been folded in an accordion fashion and presented in small tins.
L.J., Michael, my wife and I then ambled over to the nearby NoMad Hotel, where my wife and I were staying. The evening was still too alive to simply call it a night, so we settled in to linger at the hotel’s Library Bar that is reserved for hotel guests. At this point, we really didn’t need anything else, including more alcohol, but the drinks were simply too good to resist, so we each had one last round.
I thought it appropriate to finish the evening with a Broken Spanish, a fine cocktail consisting of Fino Sherry, Cocchi Americano, verjus, Benedictine and Becherovka. Other than the name, there was nothing broken about this cocktail, nor was there anything broken about the entire evening, or day, for that matter.
Given that my son works in the front of the house at Eleven Madison Park, I won’t go into a major discussion of its place of importance in the international dining scene and will restrict my comments to just how wonderful a time we all had there on this very, very special evening for my wife and I. The award-winning service demonstrated just why the EMP team is so appreciated and recognized. Ellen, our captain, was superb and deserving of individual recognition, handling questions and requests with particular aplomb and great and appropriate humor, while Paula, our sommelier, was the definition of grace and hospitality. Sadly, both of those members of the team will be moving on from Eleven Madison Park. I’m glad that I got to experience their individual skills and finesse in that setting. This was a very special occasion for my family and it was an especially wonderful anniversary meal and by far, the finest that we have ever celebrated on our anniversary and second only to our 25th anniversary, celebrated en famille in advance of the anniversary at elBulli in that restaurant’s final year of service. Given that I consider that meal at elBulli to be the single most wonderful and memorable meal of my life to date, that is not a bad place to be. The entire team at Eleven Madison Park, from front to back, made it very, very nice for us!