Eleven Madison Park, New York
The culinary cyber-tabloid reports – based on tips from trusted sources – that Frank Bruni, the outgoing restaurant critic of the New York Times, has been recently spotted circling back to Eleven Madison Park.
Will “Fantastic Frank” be issuing a last-minute re-review of Danny Meyer’s palate palace before the end of his tenure next month (August 19, 2009)?
He’s already re-evaluated all of the existing four-stars in town – Daniel, Jean Georges, and le Bernardin – and deemed them every bit as noble as his predecessors did. And then he added two, raising per se, shortly after it opened in 2004, and masa, early in his reign (December 29, 2004), to peerage.*
Could this be Bruni’s opportunity to be become the ultimate critic kingmaker? Might he be knighting Humm and crowning Meyer with a four-star review as his final act? Will the curtain fall on that high note that so many have anticipated yet have gone unrequited?
I don’t know.
What I do know is that Bruni’s review of Eleven Madison Park in January of 2007 was nothing short of a sanitized slap in the face.
Okay, I dramatize. A little.
Yes, he awarded the restaurant three stars – not too shabby (though it’s one star short of what I would have awarded it based on my two experiences — but, I wasn’t eating with him, so I won’t question his judgment).
The more objectionable part is that he didn’t give Eleven Madison Park its own review. He split the article between two Danny Meyer restaurants, short-shrifting both Eleven Madison Park and its kin, the Bar Room at The Modern. And, well, he also gave the Bar Room three stars at the same time.
I loved Chef Kreuther’s food in The Modern dining room – in fact, I’d call it spectacular. But I’ve been to the Bar Room – twice – and it ain’t no three-star joint.
Since, Bruni’s stayed relatively silent on Eleven Madison Park, only coming out in a journal entry to shun the restaurant on the basis of stinginess. It seemed a foregone conclusion that Eleven Madison Park would have to wait for a new critic in order to earn its fourth star.
Before I continue, I must disclose that I am friendly with one member of the Eleven Madison Park staff; he and I have had a few meals together and we have gotten somewhat acquainted. And, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Chef Daniel Humm on a few occasions. In due course, a few of the staff members at the restaurant have come to know who I am.
But that hardly makes me a Meyer mouthpiece. Like many people I know who love Eleven Madison Park, I have been enthusiastic about the place from the instant I tasted Humm’s food – long before I knew anyone there and anyone knew me. But I need not go further. Hopefully, my track record proves my impartiality.
Since my last visit to Eleven Madison Park last year, Chef Daniel Humm has thrown down a hefty gastronomic gauntlet. He’s injected an element of spontaneity into his top tasting menu, the “Eleven”: the kitchen’s whim in lieu of a set menu. He’s kept the five-course “Seasonal Tasting” and, amidst the economic crisis, managed to maintain its price for the regular 3-course prix fixe. And, jumping on the the porcine wave overtaking restaurants high and low, he’s added a five-course “Four Story Hill Suckling Pig” menu.
Yet, despite all of these siren temptations, I failed to take up his challenge during my two trips to New York this year.
But I did make in for desserts.
After the James Beard Awards in June, I decided to take a couple of chef friends out for a late night snack. I met them at the now-standard post-James Beard Awards beacon, Bar Boulud – a veritable people lost-and-found in the post-gala confusion – and proposed that we head over to check out the desserts at Eleven Madison Park. Mindful of the time (we were bumping up against 10.30) we caught a cab and headed down town.
The restaurant was winding down when we arrived. The bar area was empty, and I grabbed a familiar spot.
We each ordered a dessert, which we demolished handily. Since one of my friends is a pastry chef, we ordered two more to share. The kitchen sent out an in-between (normally, a pre-dessert) for each of us and then generously tacked on a third dessert to round out our second set. They slayed us with a legion of mini macarons to finish.
And then had the audacity to send me an empty bill folder. I approximated the tab and left a hefty tip.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this dessert raid, or click on the course titles for the individual photos.
Tahitian Vanilla Soufflé
Vermont Quark and Passion Fruit
Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2
Chocolate Tart with Caramel and Maldon Sea Salt
Lemon and Basil Parfait with Strawberries and Meringue
French Apple Tart
Vanilla Ice Cream
Mint Chocolate Chip
Ice Cream Sandwich with Araguani Chocolate
Moelleux with Meyer Lemon, Olive Oil and Vanilla Malt Sorbet
There is no “pastry chef,” per se, at Eleven Madison Park.
They don’t need one.
In addition to being an extremely talented cook, Chef Humm is also a consummate confectioner. He oversees both the savory and sweet sides of the restaurant’s repertoire.
At heart, Daniel Humm is classically French. He anchors his innovation, wit, and creativity in that tradition.
The Vacherin for example, captured the essence of the original – a dainty assembly of meringue (both soft and hard) painted with strawberries, lemon, and basil – in a different form. It was a pretty little romp through the herb and berry patch.
The “French Apple Tart,” sided by a dollop of vanilla bean ice cream, sported a textbook crust – flaky, yet sturdy – but featured a slightly non-traditional filling. The familiar tumble of apple chunks were paved over with barely softened apple slices that contributed a crisper texture. I’m not sure what kind of apples they were, but they didn’t appear to be “baking apples”; these were sweeter and softer.
Humm’s desserts not only demonstrate his command over the fundamentals – a fluffy cloud, his Tahitian Vanilla Soufflé stood proud and tall, ready to take on a shot of passion fruit syrup – they are also far from predictable.
He lightens cheesecake by encapsulating cream cheese custard and strawberries in wobbly yolk-like rounds and dusting them with graham cracker crumbles. This “spherephized” Strawberry Cheesecake was a clever and judicious use of molecular gastronomy. It was delicious too.
Of course, there’s chocolate. But the “Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2” – an elegantly thin wedge of dark bitter ganache – was anything but ordinary. Offset by rich caramel and dusting of crunchy Maldon salt, this slice of sin was sophisticated.
There’s also “Mint Chocolate Chip,” an over-sized mint patty involving fluffy, garden-fresh mint ice cream sandwiched between two discs of high-grade dark chocolate. It’s intense flavor convinced me that mint and chocolate – neither my first nor fourteenth pick off a dessert menu – is a couple I could love. It was far superior to any other of its kind I’ve had.
Thoughtfully done, Humm’s desserts are more than obligatory, post-prandial insulin shots.
He handily destroyed my long-held prejudice against malt by cutting its dull, oft-cloying flavor with sweet-tart Meyer lemon curd in “Jivara Chocolate.”
The true impetus behind my visit to Eleven Madison Park wasn’t the desserts at all. It was their macarons.
They brought out seven types and among the three of us, we tried every one. I can only recall six of the seven flavors: hazelnut-brown butter, peanut butter-chocolate, black olive-white chocolate, candied violet, rose-chocolate, and toasted sesame.
I couldn’t name a favorite. Suffice it to say, I couldn’t find fault with any of them. The meringue cookies were crisp and light with a soft crumb, and the fillings were creamy and flavorful.
From head to toe, Eleven Madison Park fires on all cylinders. The workmanship, thought, creativity and, most importantly, consistency, are at such a high level that it’s hard for me to believe that the restaurant doesn’t captivate the critics as much as it does me.
Will Bruni dispatch Humm’s appointment to that top constellation? Or will Eleven Madison Park be the Marbury of Bruni’s tenure?
To me, Bruni’s opinion on the subject is really inconsequential. Eleven Madison Park has earned my respect and praise.
To the chef and staff of Eleven Madison Park: keep up your good work. I look forward to my return.
* As it stands, four of the five New York Times four-starred restaurants – per se, masa Jean Georges, and le Bernardin – have achieved the highest grade by the Michelin Guide Rouge New York. They each have been awarded three stars under that regime. The remaining New York Times four-star restaurant, Daniel, holds two Michelin stars. Presently, Michelin has not awarded Eleven Madison Park a single star. If Eleven Madison Park earns four stars from the New York Times, the restaurant will stand, in my opinion, as yet another judgment against the reliability and legitimacy of the Michelin Guide Rouge. Bibendum, get with the program!
Edited on 08/12/2009 to add: Frank Bruni did review Eleven Madison Park. Read more about it here.