review: dream team…
If ever there was a dream team to get behind, it’s Eleven Madison Park, right here, right now.
This Danny Meyer gem is currently led by a triumvirate of unusually young savants blazing a hot trail.
At the pass: Daniel Humm, Executive Chef
In the cellar: John Ragan, Wine Director
On the floor: Will Guidara, General Manager
Together, they’ve trained a talented group of servers, tenders, and cooks (n.1) who seem to have effortlessly captured the respect and praise of tastemakers near and far.
Indeed, every time I drop in for a meal, they seem to win an award. (I’ve got impeccable timing.)
In the four years that these three gentleman have overseen the operation together, the restaurant has garnered two James Beard Awards (n.2), four stars from the New York Times, and earned a macaron from Bibendum (not the first Michelin star for Daniel Humm by the way, and not his last one either if I were a betting man), among others.
If you’ve read my blog regularly in the past, you’ll know that I’ve applauded them all the way.
As I have done in the past, it’s only fair that I let you know upfront that I have become familiar to Executive Chef Daniel Humm and a number of the staff members at Eleven Madison Park. They know who I am.
More significantly, they know who my dining companions are (and have been for my last three visits). Mr. RBI and Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid (a.k.a Wizard of Roz) are regulars of the restaurant. Indeed, they are this dream team’s very own varsity cheerleading squad.
So how do I write this review without bias?
I have to be honest: I can’t. You’ll have to trust that what I write is fair and accurate.
But I will tell you this: I seriously don’t think they care who I am other than a diner in their restaurant. If Danny Meyer is one thing, he’s the great equalizer, leveling and raising the playing field for diners of all backgrounds. At his table, everyone is a v.i.p.
Hospitality is Meyer’s calling card, and at Eleven Madison Park, it’s at its very best. The servers here are professional, knowledgeable, and very approachable. They’re enthusiastic too. (I’ll have what they’re having, and where do I apply?)
The three of us ordered the 11-course “Gourmand” tasting menu (I don’t know if I’ll ever have dinner at Eleven Madison Park and not order the 11-course Gourmand tasting menu. If not for the food, I’d order it simply to buy myself extra time sitting under that vaulted ceiling).
CLICK HERE to see all the photos from this meal, or click on the course titles below to see each dish individually.
Tuna Tartare-Bonito Croquant
Foie Gras with Asparagus Gelée
Morel Quiche Tartlet
À la nage with Sterling Royal Caviar and sauce gribiche.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin
Custard with green apple and shellfish ragout.
Lollipop with mint and fleur de sel.
Spring Out of Winter
Variations of asparagus with Jamon Iberico.
Torchon with tête de cochon, pickled Spring vegetables & horseradish.
Nova Scotia Lobster
Poached with young carrots, ginger, and Vadouvan granola.
8th Course (Supplement)
Four Story Hill Farm Poulard
Roasted with Meyer lemon, rosemary, and black truffles.
Milk Fed Veal
Blanquette with Spring vegetables, tarragon, and crayfish.
Tangerine, Grapefruit, Pomelo and Lemon.
Cream Cheese Parfait, Rhubarb and Roasted Strawberry Ice Cream.
If anyone doubts that Daniel Humm has mastered classical cooking, one has only to order a bird at his restaurant.
At my previous two dinners, we’ve added the lavender-glazed duck as a supplement course to the Gourmand. That duck is a wonderful thing.
This time, I called ahead and requested the Four Story Hill Farm Poularde, a lunch menu item. (n.3)
This was one fantastic roast bird.
It arrived evenly bronzed (I jokingly inquired of Chef Humm whether he had invented a tanning bed for chicken), darkened with the aid of a thin layer of foie gras, brioche, and black truffles stuffed between the skin and the meat. Humm said it was his mother’s recipe, which left me feeling a little more than cheated.
The breasts, which were carved and plated table-side, were immensely juicy and tender (so much so that I also jokingly inquired whether they had sous vide the entire chicken). The stuffing between the crispy skin and meat, which helped insulate the meat from the dry heat, had an earthy, pungently beefy flavor. It was an unexpectedly and deliciously heavy wallop of flavor.
The dark meat, which was every bit as tender as the breast meat, was removed in the kitchen and was served a little later in a delicious fricassée with morels. [n.4]
It’s not that I don’t like his more modern creations, but I’ve noticed that I gravitate towards Daniel Humm’s more classical side. Although his plating style is quite modern, the flavors and concepts of many of his dishes are rooted in the Old World.
Atlantic Halibut, nicely roasted, arrived with an immensely rich shellfish bisque (reminiscent of the “Nova Scotia Lobster” bisque) pooled in a ring of potato purée. The wine pairing was especially good, highlighting the garlic in the dish in a wonderful way.
I was especially pleased to see Humm’s latest iteration of foie gras escape the hackneyed “foie gras as dessert” story, opting instead for a more savory coloring. This was foie gras as pâté, and I loved it.
Prepared au torchon with a core of tête de cochon, the slice of foie gras came with a gem-like rainbow of pickled Spring vegetables, tête de cochon gelée, Dijon mustard, and freshly shaved horseradish. Was that chimichurri-like sauce made from ramps? I’m not certain, but it was delicious. Warm strips of pressed toast arrived on the side, tucked in a blanket. Together, it was a beautifully updated classic.
The vegetables at this meal were particularly good.
“Spring Out of Winter” framed a lovely picture of an early-season sprouting, with tender baby asparagus and pea shoots peeking from under a frosty blanket of “free form” creme fraiche ice cream (frozen with liquid nitrogen) and shards of dehydrated almond milk. Silky, double-shucked peas dotting the plate made everything look and taste pretty. And a ribbon of waxy prosciutto punctuated the dish with a hit of saltiness. It was simple, beautiful, and delicious – a variety of flavors and textures. Could this hyper-organic dish have been an inspiration from Chef Humm’s recent trip to noma?
The young carrots in the “Nova Scotia Lobster” were so beautiful, so tender, and the frothy ginger-shellfish sabayon and a spoonful of crunchy “vadouvan” granola so playfully delicious that I nearly overlooked the lobster. Lobster is never superfluous, but here it was not the star.
If there was one disappointment for me in our twelve-course dinner, it was the “Garden Pea” lollipopsicle. The frozen pea sucker was flat on flavor, its natural sweetness dulled by the chill and undone by an over-salted crust of chopped frozen peas.
And I found the “Santa Barbara Sea Urchin,” served in a hollowed eggshell, just a bit unbalanced for my taste, light on sea urchin (it really was more of a seafood ragout), heavy on acid.
But, as with the “Kumomoto Oyster Sundae” at my last meal, I learned to appreciate this dish better by mixing all the contents together instead of spooning off a cross-section of strata. The flavor improves the more the ingredients come together.
The cheese program here has blossomed; it really has. Once offering a decent selection, now the restaurant’s cart houses a wonderful variety of artisanal gems from around the world. This time I especially enjoyed a perfectly ripened Petit Sapin, scooped onto my plate with a spoon. I also revisited the Dallenwiler Wychas, a particularly golden alpine cows’ milk cheese from Chef Humm’s home country.
Angela Pinkerton, the restaurant’s executive sous pastry chef, does wonderful things with fruit. Last year, she wowed me with a carpet of black mission figs dusted with candied pistachios and topped with milky ricotta ice cream.
This time, she capped a chilled citrus salad with a creamy, lemony frozen dome (I suspect liquid nitrogen). With a dash of pop rocks, she called this lively and refreshing dessert “Soda Pop.”
But Ms. Pinkerton’s crowning achievement was painting a dish red with velvet, a fruit-filled twist to the otherwise expected chocolate ending. Indeed, the square of “Red Velvet” cake was the least interesting thing on the plate.
Instead, I was drawn to a velvety turn of roasted strawberry ice cream sitting on a velvety strip of pink rhubarb gel. To one side, a dome of cream cheese “parfait” enriched with white chocolate. If that wasn’t velvety, I don’t know what is. Slices of dehydrated strawberries and little red meringue kisses gave the dish *snap.* Visually stunning, dripping with creativity and wit, upending expectations with its dynamism, and backed by genuine talent, it was the Lady Gaga of desserts.
As any good meal should, the Gourmand ends with booze and candy.
They dropped off a bottle of cognac (strong enough to singe the hair off your chest, or put hair on it) with glasses, a d.i.y. aperitif. Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid and I, largely teetotalers, were provided a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling cider instead. With these drinks came Eleven Madison Park’s famous tray of pretty little macarons, neatly lined in rank and file (pink peppercorn-caramel!).
That Eleven Madison Park is the only restaurant in New York that I’ve visited each year for the past four says a lot. (n.5)
It says that I am treated well there.
It says that I think the food is excellent.
But, most importantly, it says that they’ve earned my respect.
I can’t wait to go back.
To read about the other meals I had on this trip to New York, CLICK HERE.
n.1 James Kent, currently a sous chef at the restaurant, has been selected and is being groomed by the likes of Daniel Boulud and Gavin Kaysen to represent the United States in the Bocuse d’Or next year.
n.2 (Ragan won the Outstanding Wine Service award in 2008 and, just days after this, my latest dinner, Daniel Humm took home the title of Best Chef New York)
n.3 Because the duck is presented and carved whole for two, it’s offered as the main course on the 3-course prix fixe menu, but not on the tasting menu. Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid had told me about the poularde (normally served at lunch only) and sent me a link to a snapshot of the beautifully burnished chicken on her Flickr photostream. One look and I was smitten.
n.4 I was unexpectedly treated to this meal by my gracious hosts. But I don’t think we were charged for the chicken supplement. And there might also have been some un-billed wine for Mr. RBI.