Friday, June 17, 2011

Eleven Madison Park, New York

Whoa, attack of the rainy season. Someone and I didn't have umbrellas, so when the minimal patter of raindrops in Brooklyn became a thuddingly heavy downpour in Manhattan, we were stuck in the subway exit with a hundred of our closest friends. A strolling umbrella vendor wandered through, but that was for suckers - rain that strong laughs at umbrellas. By the time he sold out his inventory, I knew it was safe to go out.

And on the way to the First National Bank of Eleven Madison Park. It's always nice to eat at one of the best restaurants in the world. I mean that with complete sincerity and no smugness - it's really a privilege to go to these places once in a while.

EMP had me a bit worried - it's just so big. The space feels like a former bank, the tables and chairs are very clubby, the service is very attentive and perfect...these are all great things, but it's hard to believe that a restaurant serving so many diners simultaneously can maintain the minute attention to quality that defines great food. Well, great food of a certain type - I still don't want anyone to think that I'm all about fussy food.

They do maintain the detail though. This is probably the best thing about EMP - while you never lose sight of 100 of your closest friends dining on similar food, ever plate you get looks a lot like a one-man kitchen slaved away at it like his whole reputation was going into your plate.

Getting back to matters at hand, I loved the menu. The standard is the 4-course menu, but all you get to pick is your main ingredient. Look at the 4th course, for example - would you like the eggplant, chicken, pork, or lamb? We must have spent too much time on planes this trip, because that sounds just like an airline greeting "Would you like the chicken or fish?" So you order your ingredients, briefly dialogue about any preferences ("Chef is famous for his foie preparations, but would you like a hot or cold one?") and then wait to be surprised.

Now, I was expecting to be hit with a parade of starters, so I wasn't surprised by this, but the pea soup with cheese (?) 'snow' and a ham cracker was great.

And the fact that the rain started hammering down again was absolutely fine.

I'll be making up the descriptions for most of the following. Sorry. As always, if it stuck in mind for the two weeks between dining and writing, you know how good it was. Also, the plates are so complex that I think it's overkill to identify every ingredient. The waitstaff is happy to do so for the obsessives among you, but it's nicer just to be surprised and enjoy the tastes and textures.

Long Island fluke sashimi on rice crackers, I think.

Scallops under citrus jelly. Probably yuzu, because I remember remembering, as usual, that I forgot to say "Please take it easy on the Japanese influences."

We diverged at this point - the 4th round of starter bites was geared toward our specific first courses. Someone had these two spoons, which I obviously had no chance to taste.

While I had a goat-cheese lollipop coated in beet something. I love both ingredients, and this was terrific.

Since there's a lot of space next to this photo, I'll just point out that we didn't drink wine. The list is pretty amazing, but it's all commensurate with the quality of the food, and I didn't want to double the bill. Sorry, staff.

While these fried goat-cheese puffs were 'etherally light'. No idea what the green sauce was, and I think it detracted from the perfection of the frying.

Nothing could detract from the perfection of the bread, a buttery, layered sort of roll, and the goat and cow butters to go with it. This is really can-we-have-more-to-take-home stuff, but we didn't even ask for seconds because we were scared of the volume to come.

Someone's first course - "Lettuce" - ordered purely out of the perverse but not misguided desire to see what the kitchen would do with the most boring-sounding ingredient. Assorted vegetables, cured ham, herbs, sauces.

While I got the foie after letting the server talk me out of something else, and answering the above question with 'cold'. Honestly, when someone offers me foie, I always think back to the magical first time I had foie, which was at Le Francais, at some points back then (1997) known as the best restaurant in Chicago. Cold terrine plus another perfectly seared puck with cranberries, served up by the funny German waiter? Hard to think of a better foie since then. So when the EMP server asked me 'hot or cold', all I could think was 'both!' but here's 'cold. It's terrine with strawberry jelly, dehydrated strawberries, re-hydrated strawberries, pickled onion slices, citrus jelly, and I think that's a sprig of red shiso. Top quality, gorgeous, complex without seeming too fussy, could have eaten 5 or 10 times the volume.

Someone had halibut (interestingly, this is called 'big flounder' in Japanese, 大鮃 おひょう. I've never heard of it in Japan.) No further information on this plate is forthcoming, so please enjoy the glossiness of the glaze.

And I got the lobster, because after the foie it seemed right to continue the luxury path. How good does this look? I'm going to say the orange paste was carrot, while the tan one was a little curried and contrasted with the sweetened toasted meusli on top. There was a softly-poached lobster tail in there too. Actually I extrapolate - I don't know if it was steamed or poached. I would guess poached because of the softness and pliability of the finished product. Who cares.

Still looks good, doesn't it?

This is 'Pork', and looking at it again I'm thinking more of a painting. Aren't you? No, I know nothing looks as good in a photo as it does when it's actually deposited in front of you. I'm not offended if you don't find this poetic.

Obviously a nice chop at left, love the way they trimmed it to a minimum but left a bit of fat. The crispy-skinned belly was terrific. The sauce, the cherries, the lard, the onions.

Yeah, the picture kinda looks like a mess. I promise it looked great when I saw it.

Someone's lamb looks better, doesn't it? Less complicated. In the back is a cube of shredded meat, then obviously the roast bit, and I'd like to say a mustard-based sauce, but why don't you just the diner? The chanterelles were a disappointment, honestly, compared to the down-market ones at Bibou last week.

Pre-dessert vanilla malt soda with a touch of olive oil. Mixed and seltzered at the table. Very old-fashioned, very civilized, very sweet, very filling.

Crap, wasn't there a secret ingredient? I forget what it was, if it was. It might just be the malt, which was pretty strong.

It's nice how all the tableware and paper goods have the EMP logo too.

A chocolate assortment for someone. I avoid these now, much like I avoid duck confit - a phase I went through and am now out of. One day I hope to break free of phases and be truly omnivorous. Although that might require a dice-based approach.

The standout here was the cylinders of fresh chocolate, the ones between the ice creams. Just soft and smooth and dense and chocolate. Single-origin, no-additive, smug chocolate can take a flyer.
Fly right over here. What was this? It's 'Apple', with several textures of cooked apple, the curried brioche rounds, and various sauces. Did you notice how the form and inclusion of curry mimic the lobster I had? I didn't until now. It's quite amazing if the kitchen is customizing the individual plates to fit your chosen course, but as well as this is put together, I wouldn't put it past them.

Peanut butter and jelly macaron (haha), uhhhh...coconut meringue? and chamomile filled cookie. The one that I can't remember was easily the most delicious, but they were great right across.

Finishing with a cube of olive oil jelly and a chocolate covered bread slice seems like an unneccessary touch (especially since the texture of the bread said 'stale' to me. I'm not saying they didn't mean it to be that way, it was just weird) and also too reminiscent of the red-and-black bites that start and finish meals at Manresa (or did. And I haven't been.).

But awwww, hell, they brought us a nice bottle of sparkling cider to finish the meal - maybe pity because we weren't drinking. I wonder if we would have gotten wine in this slot otherwise.

And to make you feel even better, a jar of granola (with EMP logo) "for breakfast tomorrow". We transported this all the way back to Japan, where I can report that it was excellently roasted, very diverse, and quite sweet. The kind of thing that you feel you should be able to make yourself, but know in the back of your mind you can't.

It freaks me out to start eating when it's light, and even worse to finish eating when it's light. Is that a phallus in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me? Obviously I'd go back to EMP any time, even at the price.

Wait, let me think about that again...yeah, OK.

Incidentally, I booked on OpenTable rather than struggle through the time zone difference.

1 comment:

  1. This all looks tremendous. It turns out that the chef at EMP, Daniel Humm, used to cook at Campton Place in San Francisco. He was only there for a short time, but while he was there the restaurant earned one of the very few 4 star ratings from the local newspaper. I wish I would have tried his cooking at Campton Place when I had the chance.