My journey to Eleven Madison Park started a month ago when I called the reservations line exactly 28 days in advance (the exact day they open their reservations for the relevant timeslot). I reach them at 11:03pm, which is 9:03am New York time (they open their reservations at 9:00am New York time). My slight delay leaves me on hold for ½ an hour until I finally get through. Due to that slight delay (3 minutes), dinner is fully booked out on the night of the 17th October 2013. (This place gets booked out on the day reservations open for that particular night).
I am so mad, I tell the reservationist what I think of the situation, she calms me down and assures me there is a lunch spot available. I hesitate; oh please tell me it’s not one of those casual dining lunch menus with no taste that panders to the “ladies who pretend to lunch” set. She reassured me the lunch menu is the same as the dinner menu. So I oblige and ask her to book in the lunch spot.
I take the short stroll from my hotel to the restaurant on a lovely Thursday afternoon. As I enter, the host greets me and eagerly welcomes me, saying they have been waiting for me. I take a seat at the bar until my table becomes available and sip on a lovely gin based cocktail.
I am then taken my table which overlooks the main dining room. The menu is explained and I gladly smile and ask them to proceed with the service. To start I am given a little gift box, he tells me it’s a savoury black and white cookie with apple and cheddar. It is paired with a Bereche & Fils, Brut Reserve, Ludes Champagne from France. The moist crumbly cookie is washed down by the lovely champagne which has tangy bite to it as the champagne leaves my tongue. Quite the perfect introduction to the menu.
Then we proceed to two additional introductions, the Oyster with grapes, bulgur wheat and sorrel. The sweet chilled grape granita and crunchy pieces of bulgur wheat complement the soft oyster. This is paired with the champagne of course.
Then we have the sea urchin, marinated with shrimp, foie gras and chervil. The dish is amazing and the butter texture of the foie gras adds that extra flavour to what is otherwise a perfect standalone dish.
When we speak of decadence, this second course is amazing. It is served in two portions. First we have a sabayon of sturgeon with chive oil served in a beautiful egg shell. As I scoop the sabayon from the shell and let the creamy broth line my tongue, I feel the simple flow of flavours (cream, soft sturgeon pieces), dancing across my tongue, I am truly in heaven.
The second part of the course is out of this world. There is smoked sturgeon, brought on the coals, bagel crumble, pickles and caviar. The mix of the sturgeon and caviar spread over the bagel crumble is purely divine. I close my eyes to feel the caviar bursting on my tongue releasing the salty taste of the sea, with sturgeon, so tender just falls apart on my tongue. I have a moment, I wish it was timeless, I wish I could take it with me forever… I then look at the empty tin which once contained the caviar and empty grill which had the pieces of sturgeon. They are gone and I am heartbroken. The best moments in your life make you, then break you.
While I recover from my moment, I am brought the next pairing. Foie gras terrine, with plum and bitter almond. The pure richness of the foie gras and juicy plum jam combine to produce an experience in itself. It is paired with a wine called Weinlaubenhof Kracher from Austria. The soft fruity aromas and the sugar in the wine pairs perfectly well with the chalky foie gras.
Next is an interesting course known as the Carrot Terrine. Two fresh carrots are brought to the table from a farm in Orange County. They are processed at the table and I have the pleasure of mixing them with a range of condiments at the table. This is paired with a Tatomer Riesling from California. The carrot is sweet and full of flavour, I add some other condiments to the tartare which add some spice to the dish. The sweet Riesling takes some of the bite out of the condiments and adds that extra kick to a simple dish.
Lobster poached with brussel sprouts and Guanciale. The dish is paired with a glass of Montrachet from Jean-Noel Ganard from Burgundy in France. It is made from 100% chardonnay grapes and the perfect clean taste of the does not interfere one bit with the pure fresh taste of the lobster. To be perfectly honest this dish is really is about produce, I am amazed that such a simple dish could be so full of flavour and paired with the wine which does not have to do any heavy lifting. It is about the lobster, if this is a movie, the credits at the end would only be the “Lobster”, it’s the star of the show.
Then the waiter brings whole Squash to my table he explains that this baked Squash will form the basis of the next dish. The whole Squash is roasted with a puree from the flesh scooped out and bits of cranberries, chanterelle and a sourdough crust which was used to reseal the Squash prior to baking. A simple dish but a form art through the way it is made. It is paired with a wine called Vallin form Santa Ynez Valley in California. These are Northern Rhone grapes which grown in California and provide the required additional flavour to what is a very simple dish. Sometimes in life we need simplicity to remind us that only in the calm do learn to deal with the storm.
We then proceed to main dish which is the highlight of the menu, the Venison. The beautiful venison is grilled with onion and Chanterelle, roasted with pears and Sunchokes. They show me how the venison is cooked and the steps taken to preserve the characteristics through the cooking process.
When the venison is served it is beautiful, I am just lost for words. The gamey flavour is there is all its fullness and the sides work as an accompaniment to main orchestra all marching to one beat and tune. The dish is paired with a light fruity Domaine Monier Perreol from the Rhone Valley. The wine is full of fragrance and has an amazing earthy and smoky taste in addition to the fruitiness. A typical paring, in life one must return to basics sometimes.
We are also provided with a venison sausage and sweetbreads on charcoal grill at the table for extra taste.
Then we have what I call the picnic dish – done to recreate picnic in Central Park. I am brought a picnic basket with everything I need. I unpack the basket to find a pretzel, mustard and grapes with some Greensward cheese and a beer called the Picnic Basket Ale brewed by the Ithaca Beer Company in New York. This very different style of cheese course shows you how creative EMP is! The cheese with the pretzel is simple but still an amazing culinary experience. The sun starts to shine through the windows, I actually feel like I am somewhere in central park having a picnic.
Before my dessert courses, the host comes to my table and requests my company to tour the kitchen. They have noticed my inquisitiveness on the menu and wanted to show me around. They take me on the tour and highlight at any one time there 35 chefs in the kitchen and over 100 staff which look over the small group of select diners which dine at this amazing restaurant. The kitchen is open 23 hours to prepare for the Lunch and Dinner sittings with a lot of preparation for each of the dishes. I am also given a treat, a cocktail made in front of me using liquid nitrogen.
I start chatting to girl making the drink, she’s quite the charmer. I also notice the tattoos on her arm, I have never been a tattoo person but they take my fancy. Maybe I should get a tattoo, what would it say? Hmm, well that’s a topic for another time.
It’s amazing, I speak to the head host, the executive chef and have such an amazing tour of the facilities.
Back at my table I am about to start dessert. I an old time Egg Cream (egg cream, vanilla and seltzer) mixed at my table.
I have an Apple sorbet with bayleaf crème brulee and hibiscus which is paired with a lovely wine, Tirecul la Graviere from Southwest France. The dish is about textures, cold icy sorbet, warm creamy crumbly brulee, and the hibiscus.
Then we have a Sweet Potato Cheesecake with honey and Chestnut, amazing textures and flavours again. The softness of the sweet potato, crumble of the cake base with the sweetness of honey are perfect. The soft sweetness of both the sweet potato and chestnuts also make an interesting paring for the dish.
Then the host does an interesting card trick where I pick a card from a deck and it matches a chocolate hidden under my dessert.
PRETZEL AND CHOCOLATE
Then we have a couple of extra desserts to finish; a chocolate covered pretzel with sea salt and black and white cookie with cinnamon.
Alas my time at Eleven Madison Park draws to a close. I am sad, it has truly been a wonderful experience. The service was first class; the produce was fresh, epitomized by quality and cooked to perfection. The wine pairings did not miss a tune. It was like being at a concert where not a note was out of place, where every instrument was finely tuned and everyone played their part from the conductor to the violinist. This was how dining was meant to be, I was so taken back by the experience, I actually am almost moved to tears.
As I sit at my table waiting for the bill, I realise this is one of those moments in life that give you some perspective on life. Things that did bother my prior to my trip, such as that girl in building that never smiles at me when I see her in the elevator, the inconsistency in the quality of my morning coffee, the “lets save the trees” girl on my facebook who updates her status with greenpeace slogans. These fade into insignificance once I have finished my meal. I am content, happy and feel complete. Nothing bothers me.
I only want the best food, but when places are that overrun, it totally puts me off.
Did you feel it was too gimmicky?
I have been to EMP a couple of times, once before it was completely booked out all the time and I found no deterioration service levels were the same (top quality) and it is actually value for money.
They tick the boxes when it comes to culinary creativity, presentation, produce and service, so I suspect that’s why they are overrun as not too many top-end restaurants tick all those boxes.
I’ll take your word for it. For me, it just takes away from the joy in eating.