Neither the sun nor moon disappeared. But, for the five blissful hours that my hosts and I dined, it seemed as if the whole world’s attention had been diverted to our table.
Eleven Madison Park is one of the many gems that decorates Danny Meyers’ Union Square Hospitality Group, one of New York City’s most celebrated restaurant groups. I have eaten at four of Meyers’ nine restaurants (ten if you count The Bar Room at The Modern separately; there’s also a catering company that I’m not counting) and Eleven Madison Park has easily become my favorite.
In full disclosure, I was guests of a couple of Eleven Madison Park regulars. The fact that they were known to the house became readily apparent when almost every server in the house lined up at our table to welcome my friends back. Given this amount of attention, I’m not sure that it is fair for me to comment on the service, or even the meal at all.
However, I’m convinced that my friends’ frequency as clients had little, if anything, to do with my amazing experience. You are, of course, free to take what I’m about to say at a discount.
Despite all of the attention and service we received, none of the pleasantries seemed obligatory or felt forced. More importantly, I strongly believe that our service wasn’t delivered at any higher of a level of diligence or care than the first time I was at Eleven Madison Park, when I went with a friend (neither my friend nor I were friends of the house).
[As an aside: towards the end of this meal, another couple from a table near us stopped by and mentioned that they had noticed our familiarity with the staff. When asked, the couple insisted that they received the highest quality of service imaginable and did not feel that they received any lesser quality of service than we did despite the added attention we were getting.]
This isn’t surprising given the Union Square Hospitality Group’s reputation for an incredibly high standard of service. I will admit to having been disappointed with the service at a couple of the other the group’s restaurants. Service at The Bar Room at The Modern can be downright absent; I’ve had two meals there (see here and here) where I’ve had to ask staff to flag down our server during unreasonably long waits. Service at Gramercy Tavern, the one busy night I visited, was also touch-and-go, although certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination.
The food’s nearly-perfect too.
I’ve now had Chef Humm’s eleven-course Gourmand Tasting twice. Both times, I’ve left the restaurant completely astounded by the creativity, beauty, consistency and flawlessness of the food. Gilding the lily is John Ragan, whose wine pairings achieve a level of finesse that I seldom experience more than once during a meal at any other restaurant. I was thrilled to see him win the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Director this year.
Here is the Gourmand Tasting in its latest incarnation along with wine pairings (click on each listing for the photo):
Royal Sterling Caviar
Roger Pouillon & Fils Champagne, Fleur de Mareuil, Premier Cru
Cape Cod Baby Crab
Trimbach Cuvee Frederic Emile Reisling 2001
Kracher Baerenauslese, Burgenland 2003
We had a few changes due to food preferences and one special request by my hosts. But, I’m almost convinced that you could give Chef Humm lumpy milk and he could turn it into Champagne; that is to say I’m sure that I would have been pleased by anything he deigned to put on the menu.
Certainly some courses wooed me more than others. Interestingly, two of my favorite courses from my first Gourmand experience captivated me with a revised verve and vigor.
Last time, Humm took me to the shores of Bangkok with a Cape Cod Peeky Toe Crab salad rolled in a tissue-thin sheet of Daikon radish and surrounded by a constellation of parsley oil, madras curry, and coconut-lemongrass dots. This time, he transported me to the beaches of Baja with a nouveau “makimono” which presented a mix of Cape Cod Baby Crab meat and green apple kissed with lime juice rolled in thinly sliced avocado.
The presentation was stunning: phosphorescent orange flower petals decorated the yellow-to-green gradient of avocado and glowing beads of crab roe dotted a pool of olive oil banked in a swatch of tangy yogurt. The flavors were clean and bright, a mix of savory, briny, sweet, and tangy. Texturally, the tiny dices of apples amid the soft crab meat provided a crisp contrast to the creamy avocado and silky yogurt. Despite its Latin aesthetic, the flavor exhibited Asian tendencies that I particularly enjoyed.
If the Nova Scotia Lobster poached in nage with lemon verbena and violet artichokes was haunting on my first visit, the nuggets of Nova Scotia Lobster gently-poached in an indescribably rich shellfish broth with tender Oregon morels served at this meal were downright devastating – it took me a few moments to recover from its blinding depth and complexity.
I can’t believe how perfectly-cooked the lobster was despite the fact that the broth was served piping hot; the lobster seemed impervious to the heat at the table. Every bite, from start to finish, was equally as succulent. Maybe it was because it was so good I scarfed it down much faster than I am willing to admit.
At first sip, the broth, whose colour exhibited all the vibrancy of steamed lobster shells, seemed terribly over-salted. I know that a lot of shellfish (especially lobster) broths mimic the ocean with aggressive seasoning. This one was no different. I’m convinced that, by itself, the broth would have been too salty for me had Mr. Ragan not come to the rescue with the most memorable wine pairing of the evening.
2004 is reputedly a particularly good year for Rhone Valley wines, and M. Sorrel’s white Hermitage is certainly exemplary. It was clean, with an assertive minerality and a slightly sweet, honey-like flavor which not only cut through the buttery salinity of the rich shellfish stock but elevated the sweetness of the succulent lobster meat. (There was at tinge of sourness in this soup as well, mostly concentrated in the morels, which have a wonderful tendency of sponging up the acid, I have found.)
The roasted duck, normally offered as a main course for two on the restaurant’s three/four course prix-fixe menu, was surprisingly shockingly good. I admit being just the slightest bit hesistent when my hosts asked to substitute it for the last meat course on the Gourmand menu, which was supposed to be an herb-roasted Black Angus beef with asparagus, Parmesan and sauce Bordelaise. They insisted that the duck was something I should not miss.
They were right.
The server presented the bird, with its plumage of lavender, table-side before whisking it away to be carved and plated. Although I have absolutely no reason to doubt them, I have a hard time believing that the presented bird was the same from which our portions were cut. I am always skeptical of Western preparations of whole duck; the Chinese really do have a knack for the quacker.
But, here, the skin was crackling crisp, perfumed with lavender honey and spices (I recall getting a smoky hit of cumin), *and* the breast meat was moist and flavorful; there was just enough fat between the two layers for measured indulgence. How did they do that? I barely needed the rich veal demi glace that was presented. No less impressive was the square of duck confit (obviously prepared separately) topped with an equally crispy sheath of duck crackling. This, above the Cape Cod Baby Crab and the Nova Scotia Lobster, was my favorite course of the evening.
Otherwise, all of the courses were executed with aplomb. Niman Ranch Pork Belly, with its meltingly tender strata of meat, fat, skin and gelatin, was paired with the glory of Spring: minted peas (“á la Francaise”) and a bright cream sauce (think Ranch dressing meets lemon). Chef Humm substituted loup de mer for the halibut, thereby taking us on a detour to the Mediterranean. The filet of sea bass, topped with a thinly-shaved section of candied lemon, was accompanied by a rainbow of vegetables including beautifully-cooked baby artichokes, roasted tomatoes, a courgette with the blossom intact, and a roasted tomatillo crusted with pine nuts. Multiple facets of umami were explored on that one dish.
The Lynnhaven Chevre and heirloom beet course, which had appeared in “Cubist” form on my first visit, reappeared this time in a ying-yang presentation: a supple sphere of ethereally smooth goat cheese chased by a second sphere of beet juice exploding with surprisingly piquant vinegar (Terre Bormane red wine vinegar, if anyone is interested).
If nothing else, the Royal Sterling Caviar course presented an exercise in poaching perfection. I have no clue how you cook an egg such that the white is barely opaque and the yolk is completely warmed through, yet completely runny. I’m even more clueless as to how you manage to plate such an egg without compromising its delicate constitution. But, there it sat in a milky pool surrounded by the most wonderful tapioca pearls I’ve ever had; they melted away after contributing a fleeting bounce. This was perhaps the most subtly-flavored, and, for the same reason, one of the more nuanced caviar compositions I’ve ever had.
Foie gras is rarely my favorite course. The first time I was at Eleven Madison Park, the cocoa-veined torchon was electrifying, if not for the presentation, certainly for the amazing wine pairing. This time, the foie gras, in terrine form, was less enthralling, but no less perfectly-executed. It was smooth and spread easily onto the accompanying round of brioche. While the pickled ramps and rhubarb added an interesting sweet-savory accent, I was much more taken by the “foie gras custard,” which was served warm and topped with a fluffy cloud of rhubarb espuma.
They have a cheese cart now. The selection is somewhat beyond pedestrian, but for the most part, the limited selections were common (Epoisses, Tomme de Berger, Monte Enebro, off the top of my head). Three of the ten cheeses were from Andante Dairy. It certainly is no match for the enthusiasm and range offered at Picholine, where I dined the following evening. But, this admitted cheese snob was certainly not disappointed; I was just thrilled to see them offering a cheese course.
I’ll be the first to admit that I rarely gravitate towards the sweet end of a meal. Desserts, no matter how good they are, are usually an afterthought for me. But, if I have one regret from the evening, it is that none of us stuck to the pre-appointed “Vacherin” for the pre-dessert course. (Or, rather, I’m upset that *I* didn’t stick with the vacherin, since both of my friends had already had it and chose other desserts.) It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the strawberry and basil sorbets that my host lured me into ordering instead (I’m such a sucker for frozen treats); they were fantastic. But, in restrospect, I would have liked to have seen more of Chef Humm’s creativity with pastries.
In addition to the savory courses, Humm is now overseeing the pastry program at Eleven Madison Park as well. I think he’s improved the desserts since my last meal there shortly after Nicole Kaplan left (Kaplan has now eluded me twice; she left Del Posto just before my meal there earlier this year. She is now the pastry chef at the Plaza Hotel).
The “Vermont Quark Soufflé” was my favorite dessert of the evening. There was no sugar-coating going on here (a mark of a confident and talented pastry chef). The soufflé, standing tall and proud in a tiny china cup, was rewardingly tangy, relying on the tart-sweet green apple sorbet for sweetness.
If the soufflé was a model of restraint and virtue, both the “Chocolate-Peanut” and the “Chocolate Symphony” were damning indictments of indulgence.
I generally abhor peanuts in my food – don’t put them in my Pad Thai (at which point, it ceases to be Pad Thai, I know), brownies, sauces, or soups. And, don’t bother me with peanut butter unless it’s chunky and paved onto screeching hot, crusty toast (I have no use for PB&Js). Like sushi and cheese, I’m a purist when it comes to peanuts.
But, to be honest, it wasn’t the dark chocolate-peanut creation that interested me. Rather, it was the accompanying popcorn ice cream that caught my attention. This dirty blond strutted all over me with toasty, buttery, full-bodied sass. In other words, it was sexy.
If Hershey’s had a haute couture line, this palette of “peanut gianduja” (for lack of a better way to describe it) would be its spokesmodel; it was exquisitely dark and smooth. Not immensely appealing on its own, the Madeira (D’Oliveiras 1987 Harvest Malmsey Madeira) paired with the course knocked the sucker right off the catwalk with an explosion of nutty caramel that could not be replicated by a gazillion Payday bars.
I was in the midst of observing that there couldn’t possibly be a more rich and thick dessert than my Chocolate-Peanut when my hostess pushed her “Chocolate Symphony” my way.
You know all of those “Chocolate Black Out” desserts out there? They’re all posers next to this one. If there was a symphony in this dark chocolate tart, I didn’t hear it; I was too busy trying to keep myself from slipping into a coma. This sent me whimpering back to my haute couture. This was thicker and richer. Sticky, too. One bite was certainly more than enough for me.
The meal ended with the usual flourish of mignardises. Highlights included a wonderful olive oil pate de fruit, some pretty outstanding raspberry macarons (not soggy like last time), and lovely San Tropiziennes, which really are scarce these days.
Maybe I was jaded. I’m almost sure I was under a magic spell. And, I’ll admit that it might have been impossible to have a bad experience in the company of such lovely and gracious people as my hosts (who have since adopted me as their “Kansas City Kid” – which makes me sound like some 20′s mobster.) But, I’m pretty certain that a dinner at Eleven Madison Park offers an experience unparalleled by most other restaurants in New York. For the city’s finest dining, it’s truly sine qua non.
Many have said it; I have said it; and I’ll say it again: it’s absolutely absurd that Chef Humm doesn’t have a single Michelin star. Personally, I think he and his staff deserve two. That Humm achieved his first Michelin star when he was 24 (in Switzerland at Gasthaus zum Gupf) has nothing to do with it. Or, it has everything to do with it – he’s now had six more years to progress and excel.
For all the insight and “expertise” that the Michelin Guide Rouge has on the New York dining scene, the omission of Eleven Madison Park from its asterisked list indicates an near-fatal flaw and oversight in their evaluation process. I’ll refrain from making comparisons. Suffice it to say, considering some of the operations that the Michelin has awarded stars to, it’s preposterous that Eleven Madison Park has none. I hope they fix that this year.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10010