Santa Barbara Sea Urchins
Eleven Madison Park, New York
The sidereal has turned. The stars have aligned.
In almost every respect, Eleven Madison Park is the new kid on the constellation.
In the months since my last visit in May, Eleven Madison Park has been awarded four stars from Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic of the New York Times, and picked up its first Michelin star.
So, I’m not going to tell you anything here that you can’t learn from many other sources, including this blog: Eleven Madison Park is great.
Is it perfect?
But the restaurant that Executive Chef Daniel Humm has created with restaurateur Danny Meyer and a team of young, upbeat, and hard-working restaurant staff members has, over the last three years, proven itself worthy of joining the most elite circle of New York restaurants.
Regular readers of this blog know that I have been somewhat of an Eleven Madison Park cheerleader over the years. I’ve had two very good meals there. And I had a very enjoyable one there a few weeks ago.
But before I tell you more about my latest dinner, some disclosures need to be made.
First, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have become familiar with a number of the members of their staff. Does this make a difference? Inevitably. Do these acquaintances enhance my meal? Yes, I suspect they do.
Second, and more notably, my hosts for the evening – Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid and Mr. RBI – have developed a relationship with the staff over the past three-plus years as regulars. They are enthusiastic supporters of the entire enterprise. I think at last count, the two have dined at Eleven Madison Park totaling in the upper teens this year alone. I have no doubt they’ll make it to twenty by year end. (Read Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid’s account of this dinner at The Wizard of Roz)
Add to that the fact that our dinner together was a celebration of Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid’s birthday, and you’ve got yourself one pretty special dinner, something which the kitchen and the staff acknowledged with ado.
We ordered the 11-course Gourmand menu. With the addition of a supplemented duck course and some sweet gifts from the kitchen, our meal augmented to 14 courses, plus pre and post nibbles.
CLICK HERE to see the entire photo set or on the course titles for the individual photos.
Sterling Royal Caviar
Smoked Columbia River sturgeon, panna cotta.
Kumomoto Oyster Sundae
Celery sorbet with yuzu and toasted peanuts.
Santa Barbara Sea Urchins
Cappucino with peekytoe crab.
Poached with cauliflower, Marcona almonds, and rum-raisins.
Four Story Hill Sweetbreads
Seared with fregola sarda, Parmegiano-Reggiano and white truffles.
Kagoshima Wagyu Beef
Herb-roasted with saffron soubise and braised shallots.
Foie Gras-Potato Cream
10th Course (Supplement)
Grimaud Farms Muscovy Duck
Honey Lavender Glazed with Florence Fennel, Black Mission Figs and Spices.
Domaine Font de Michelle, Cuvee Etienne Gonnet Chateauneuf du Pape, 2004
A selection of cheeses from the cart.
Black Mission Figs
Carpaccio with ricotta ice cread and candied pistachios.
Flavors of Autumn
Amedai chocolate, Piedmontese hazelnuts, espresso.
Mint Chocolate Chip
Ice cream sandwich with araguani chocolate.
Even with the wonderful service and food we received, this review of Eleven Madison Park won’t be a rubber-stamped encomium. Our meal was not without its flaws.
Some have criticized the staff for being too happy. I don’t know what they’re talking about; I’ll let those Scrooges stew in their own misery on that subject.
I like the service at Eleven Madison Park. Whereas eating at per se is like attending Her Majesty’s Privy Council meeting, Daniel like attending mass (in Latin), and masa like attending an open heart surgery, I’m not sure I can object to four-star service with a smile and a wink.
Next to Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park has, perhaps, the most agreeable service I’ve experienced in the city. Indoctrinated by the Meyer brand of hospitality, the staff is attentive, responsive, and informed. Most importantly, they don’t take themselves too seriously. I hope they never do.
But no staff is perfect all the time and on this evening there were a few minor fumbles. A couple of the courses were inadvertently switched (there were some dietary restrictions in our party*). Tap water was accidentally poured into our sparkling water (since it was near the very end of the meal, it really didn’t make much of a difference). A few questions were submitted (admittedly pedantic ones) without followed up (I asked other staff members later on and got the answers quickly). And minor memory lapses at the cheese cart were noticed, though not unforgiven.
There were also missteps with the food, though I note that most of the issues fell in that grey area between preference and correctness.
Was that sea urchin “cappucino” – a frothy sea urchin cream with pieces of sea urchin about – supposed to be served tepid? Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid, who has had the dish more than a couple of times, says that she has never encountered it at any other temperature. I think it should have been hotter. And I think it could have been hotter without jeopardizing the texture of the sea urchin. But the flavor was fantastic, though I found the accompanying soldier toast, which was spangled with herbs, a bit too herbacious and a touch stale in flavor.
Was my sole purposely undercooked? It was tepid too. Actually, the inside was cool. Rolled into a cigar, the alabaster-like bar had a pink streak running through its core that was nearly uncuttable with my fish knife.
Interestingly, the night before at Daniel, my Dover sole – done in a very similar fashion – was overcooked.
Maybe I was spoiled by the Dover sole I had at Alex at the Wynn this summer – a soft, delicate, and moist piece of fish. That may have been the most fantastic piece of fish I have ever had. These two more recent sole experiences were disappointing. This one was especially disheartening because the attending palette of matsutake – which included a mushroom sabayon, a grilled mushroom, and shaved mushrooms – was fantastic.
And were the fregola sarda, the pearly pasta coated in a rich, creamy, white truffle-spiked Parmesan cream sauce that accompanied the sweetbreads, intentionally troppo al dente? I like a little resistance to my pasta. But these were too hard for me.
Otherwise, the meal was executed without a flaw.
Of course, I preferred some dishes over others.
The “Grimauds Farm Muscovy Duck” still tops my charts.
The bird, flocked with spices, was presented table-side with lavender plumage flaring out its back end. We dispensed with the table-side carving (though I got an excellent view of an expert service for another table), which they’ve now begun to offer. I joked that they probably got sick of blokes like me asking whether they really carved the duck presented, or if it was just a show piece.
I really can’t say enough good things about this duck. The skin was crackling crisp with a nicely rendered layer of fat between it and the rosy, moist breast meat. Sided by a small block of pulled leg confit, this duck course was served with fresh, ripe figs and softened pieces of fennel.
The other highlight for me was the course that preceded the duck – the “Kagoshima Wagyu Beef.” Also presented table-side, this raw cut of meat looked a little too red (i.e. not enough marbling) to be at the A5-11 grade level. But the taste was nothing short of A5 quality. This was excellent beef that was prepared very well. A wonderfully roasted shallot, a silky and creamy saffron onion soubise, and a luscious jus enriched with bone marrow completed the dish marvelously – both in flavor and color.
À la mode, this plate was sided by a bowl of braised oxtail meat enrobed in a rich demi-glace-like sauce and topped with a smooth, frothy layer of potato crema enriched with foie gras. It was triple bypass in the making. But it was delicious.
Had it not been for the undercooked fregola sarda, the “Four Story Hill Sweetbread” might have bested them all. The breaded nugget, slightly larger than a golf ball, was warm and creamy within and surrounded by a wonderfully crunchy shell. And as if the lily needed much gilding, a generous layer of freshly shaved Alba white truffles blanketed the creamy mass of pasta. The aroma and flavors – bolstered by the Parmesan cream sauce – were amazing.
Some have accused Daniel Humm of cribbing from other chefs.
The puck of foie gras – our fourth course – which spilled a core of golden maple syrup, recalled Wylie Dufresne’s famous beet gel-oozing version.
Our seventh course, a slice of applewood “smoked” pork belly in a bell (or cloche) – the smoke released at the table for dramatic and olfactory effect – has been done by many chefs before Humm, including Jonathan Benno at per se, who “smoked” wagyu instead of pork belly. And let’s face it, our first course, the “Sterling Royal Caviar” was too similar to Robuchon’s version (which I had this summer at The Mansion) to escape comparison. Served in a caviar tin, Humm’s version nearly matched Robuchon’s, layer for layer: lobster gelée topped with cauliflower custard paved with caviar.
Whether he’s done so intentionally or unintentionally, surely Chef Humm is smart enough to realize that his restaurant is frequented by food geeks who will make the connections (even if there are no connections to make).
I’m more concerned with whether or not his reproductions (or food in its own right) are any good.
That foie gras, served with a warm round of spice-swirled brioche was very good. The overall effect was something akin to a collision between French toast and cheesecake, the spiced (pain d’epices!) crumbles playing a graham cracker crust-like role.
For all the gimmickry involved in the table-side “smoking,” the smoked pork belly was also very good. But I found the quality of the cooking of the belly to be far more compelling than the novelty of the smoke treatment. The accompanying black truffle vinaigrette, however, was outstanding. Earthy, tangy, and thick, it gave this dish an unexpected zing that helped cut through the fat. It was a filthy rich man’s A-1 sauce.
The caviar dish, our first course, was a slight disappointment. The smoked sturgeon added to the lobster gelée interfered too much with the otherwise unadulterated pleasure of eating caviar. I wanted to taste the caviar, a flavor I really enjoy. Instead, I got mostly smoke. I prefer Robuchon’s version more.
My least favorite course of the evening was the “Kumomoto Oyster Sundae.” While interesting, the flavors didn’t quite come together for me. Perhaps this was my mistake, as I probably should have mixed up the ingredients a bit more with my spoon. I got one spoonful of oyster. Another spoonful of celery sorbet with chopped peanuts (this was the best bite). And a final, bracing, spoonful of yuzu. I think those components would have worked much better in concert. But this is a fundamental flaw of dishes that contain separate and rather indivisible components that should all be taken together, yet can’t be had in one go.
Though it appears from the menus we received after our meal that the kitchen had composed a cheese course for us (a souffle!), we unknowingly sabotaged their plans by asking for the cheese cart.
It has groomed a handsome one, Eleven Madison Park.
They’ve augmented and refined their selection. It’s still not the most well-appointed cart in the city (but, no one will ever surpass the greatness of the cheese service at Picholine). But it is now a very good one, with a decent sampling, both domestic and foreign.
I chose five – covering cow, sheep, and goat dairy; representing America and imports; and favoring Chef Humm’s homeland with two Swiss cheeses.
What is especially pleasing about the cheese service here is that the bread is served warm, toasted, and tucked in a napkin. A simple exercise that makes the experience considerably better (for me anyway), it’s a practice surprisingly few restaurants do.
While some are beyond predictable, desserts at Eleven Madison Park have never been dazzlers for me. Mostly, they’re just extremely refined and very well-made. Based in classical French technique, Daniel Humm has run a very staid and steady pastry program.
Now, he has a dedicated pastry chef, Angela Pinkerton, who joined the crew in September.
Regardless, the “Black Mission Figs” may have been the most memorable dish of the night for me. Sexy, sophisticated, and subtle, it was an absolute dream.
Fresh slivers of black mission figs and a quenelle of ricotta ice cream (which was milky and wonderful) atop a hillock of candied pistachios sat on a blushing carpet of fig flesh and seeds. The candied piece of bacon perched on top of the ricotta ice cream sealed this dessert’s success with a sweet-savory crunch.
Eleven Madison Park has always had the rhythm of a four-star restaurant.
The gougeres arrive, puffy and warm, just as you settle in. The hors d’ouevres land just as your menus are taken. And those macarons are quickly becoming Eleven Madison Park’s answer to Daniel’s madeleines – signature petits fours. I’m not sure how many flavors they have on hand at any one time, but we were presented with four different kinds. A bonus gold-dusted (chocolate and raspberry) birthday macaron was given to the birthday celebrants .
But, since my last meal in June, 2008, the restaurant has adopted some more of the familiar trappings and trimmings of a four-star operation. There are table purse hooks (which I’ve never noticed before). There are door prizes at the end of the night (customized boxes of pâtés des fruits; Gourmand diners are given fold-out menus in a caviar tin). And there are table-side carvings and presentations.
While Chef Humm’s food ably stands up on its own, I wonder how much different or better it is with John Ragan’s wine pairings? Having only eaten the Gourmande before with a full set of pairings, this was my first time having the tasting menu without wine.** While I’m tempted to say that the food this time was one dimension short of magical, I can’t be sure.
Would Ragan’s wine pairing have made more sense out of the “Scottish Langoustine“? Each component was exquisite in itself, but together, the familiar, rich shellfish broth, chestnut honey, and boozy rum raisins required a leap that my mind, nose, and taste buds weren’t able to make in concert. The flavor and scent interaction confused my brain – like what happens to me when vanilla is paired with seafood (or vanilla and eggs).
Or, could Ragan have rounded out the sharp, acidic edge on that “Kumomoto Oyster Sundae” with the right wine? Or tamed the smoke and highlighted the briny flavor of the caviar in our first course?
I guess the only way to find out is to have the same Gourmande twice – once with wine and once without. That’s an experiment I’d gladly do, had I the time or resources.
Where will Humm and his food go from here? That is the question I’m most interested in answering.
His food seems to have only slightly evolved over the past three years. I’m starting to see a carousel of ideas recycle on a consistent basis. I’ve seen Humm’s bisque-like shellfish stock three times now. And, as I noted, quite a few dishes seemed familiar and interchangeable with ideas and presentations elsewhere.
Perhaps, he’s arrested by his audience- that is, he can’t risk losing his core customers with too many off-beat experiments. Eleven Madison Park isn’t that kind of restaurant. Perhaps, more significantly, Danny Meyer isn’t that type of restaurateur. And to be sure, I’m not sure I want it to be that kind of restaurant.
What remains without doubt is that Humm has established himself as a brilliant (and knowledgeable) cook, a capable pastry chef, and certainly an artful presenter. Where will his strong classical training take him? Will he retreat more into classic cuisine – a discipline that is becoming increasingly rare these days and seemingly more prevalent at Eleven Madison Park? Or will he progressively grow more modern? How will he innovate?
I’m no advocate for foams and chemicals. But a diversity of ideas and flavors would be welcomed.
What will be Humm’s legacy?
Vongerichten has his “Egg Caviar,” turbot with Chateau Chalons sauce, and “Molten Chocolate Cake,” among many others; Ripert fathered escolar with red wine Bearnaise and hosts more; Boulud nailed his fortune and fame on the now-famous paupiette of sea bass; Takayama slayed with his sea urchin risotto and tuna tartare with caviar; and of course, Thomas Keller has his litany of “signatures.”
It amazes me how much Humm has already accomplished at his age (I don’t think he’s more than a year older than I). But I’m not sure Humm has fully developed his voice yet. In fact, I hope he hasn’t. And perhaps he won’t until he hangs his own shingle.
For now, the chance to experience and witness Humm finding his footing among the starry elite has been and is, perhaps, what makes Eleven Madison Park one of the most exciting restaurants in New York right now.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10010
* Smiley, one of the diners at our table, is gluten-intolerant. Chef Humm’s kitchen had no problem adapting the food to meet his dietary restrictions. Freshly-baked gluten-free bread was served and replenished throughout the meal. I had a nibble – it was quite good.
** I note that I did taste a couple of wines poured for Mr. RBI. While I didn’t get to taste it with the food, I will note that I could easily have made a meal (or at least a course) out of the glass of Giuseppe Quintarelli “Rosso Ca’ de Merlo” he poured with the cheese course. Other than a complimentary glass of champagne (Claude Genet, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Côte des Blancs) poured at the start of our meal, I stuck to a non-alcoholic creation called the “Madison Park Eastsider” (my memory is faulty here, so if someone at Eleven Madison Park would like to correct me, you know where to reach me). This frothy drink, shaken with egg white, had a mellow, autumnal sweetness that reminded me of the flavor of graham crackers. The most distinct spice was star anise. A relative neophyte to cocktails, I only recall that they attributed this drink to a well-known one with the word “Westsider” in the name – something to do with tobacco and cigars. Forgive my haplessness here. Ms. Toidy Toid and Toid revisited a favorite of hers – “Devlin’s Delight,” so named after the first member of the restaurant’s staff to taste the cocktail, who squealed with delight. This drink was light and tropical. Working off of memory, the flavors consisted primarily coconut, lemongrass, and ginger. I can’t say that the drink was ill-named.