Mad Meal

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How bout a bite of… cocktail?

A trip to New York always yields a million things to write about: Sights, experiences, adventures that are just too numerous to recount in the detail they really deserve. I mean, I saw Phillip Seymour Hoffman play Willy Loman in the broadway production of Death of a Salesman AND brushed shoulders with Emma Stone in the same theater. Why aren’t I writing about that??

Well friends, it’s because I wanted (more like needed) to write about my last meal in Manhattan. I needed to commit it to paper while the memory is still fresh, before it fades into that ephemeral, warm recollection of something life-changing but long since passed. That last meal was at none other than Eleven Madison Park. It is indeed located on Madison Park in the flatiron district of Manhattan.

The dining room is a grand, high-ceilinged art deco lobby of a great, unfinished skyscraper, intended to be the headquarters of Metropolitan Life as well as the tallest building in New York before being cut short by the great depression. The restaurant began as a creation of the infamous Danny Meyer, it is now run by executive chef Daniel Humm. An impeccably executed farm-to-table blend of nouvelle cuisine and molecular gastronomy, it sets the standard for chef-owned restaurants.

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Goat butter, cow butter, sea salt.

Did I mention it has three Michelin stars? Oh, and it was also named among the top 10 restaurants in the world this year. Getting these accolades is no easy feat. Not only does the food have to be delicious, inventive (which basically means something “weird” needs to be in there nowadays, with the advent of molecular cuisine), and beautifully plated, but if you want to get that third star instead of just two, the service must be perfect. The staff needs to know the menu and wine list inside and out, the tablecloths must be spotless, and even the water holding the table’s flowers must be crystal clear. Aside from not having flowers on the table, Eleven Madison Park goes above and beyond these requirements.

The menu is beautiful in its simplicity. I mean just look at it:

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You get four courses, picking your dish based on its main ingredient while the prep on each remains a surprise. But if you ask me what to get at a place like this, I’ll tell you go big or go home. And that means the chef’s tasting menu.

No quantity of adjectives can convey the experience of a meal there. My most humble attempt will simply be to take you through the 13-course tasting menu that occupied a rapturous and unforgettable 3 hours:

Hors D’oeuvres

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The meal begins with a mystery: What’s in the box!? But faster than Brad Pitt at the end of Se7en, my curiosity got the better of me. Voraciously tearing into the neat package, I discovered our first course: black and white cookies. Although they looked like the classic New York bakery sweet, equal parts chocolate and vanilla, there’s a twist: these are a savory take on the pastry. The “black and white” are truffle and Parmesan, sandwiching a small dollop of goat butter over brioche. Savory, buttery, just a small bite to tease the palette and anticipate what’s to come.

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Apple

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Ahh, nothing like waking up to a nice, warm cup of tea with some eggs and toast. The next course was precisely that: neatly arranged little sunny-side-up quail eggs, no bigger than my thumbnail, on brioche with sea salt and bacon. To balance out the savory, the eggs are accompanied by a small cup of warm, herbal apple tea and a sprig of thyme.

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Yogurt and Chickpeas

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Ice-cold Greek yogurt lollipops with curry were sweet and a little tart, with crunchy shells dotted with fried lentils around a soft, creamy yogurt filling. For contrast, the chickpea panisse with a dab of yogurt were warm and savory.

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Smoked Sturgeon

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This was actually a smoked sturgeon “sabayon” (served in egg shells, no less). Know what sabayon is? It’s okay, I betray my own ignorance by admitting I didn’t know what it was either. Turns out its an italian custard made from egg yolks and whipped until light and fluffy. So this was a fish version of that dessert? Yes. Yes it was. It was the essence of smoked sturgeon in a warm, airy liquid that wasn’t quite foam but wasn’t quite soup either. With just a hint of chive oil, the flavor was breathtaking. This is the kind of dish which simply bears no comparison to anything else. The ingenuity of molecular gastronomy at its best is in this ability to produce completely new foods which manage to be bizarre in their originality while actually tasting delicious.

Clam

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Time for another surprise: a modern take on the New England clam bake! What you see is a pitcher of clam chowder surrounded by clam two ways (one with chorizo, another with apple), complemented by savory corn and potato cakes.

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Cocktail Hour

Our waiter tells us we’re invited back to the kitchen. Huh? Have they confused us for some important Manhattan real estate moguls? Has my blog really gotten that popular? Well, I don’t want to mess up what could be a fortuitous mistake by asking, so off to the kitchen we go. Inside there’s a small table (standing room only) set up for three, with a view of the entire kitchen. This is no mistake at all, but something Eleven Madison Park does for only a few customers! I guess they thought we were “cool,” or my constant picture-taking convinced them I would appreciate a little extra behind the scenes view.

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Family in the kitchen

A very nice pastry chef named Becky makes apple cocktails with liquid nitrogen-hardened pomegranate foam as we watch over 50 staff members meticulously prepare food at their stations (on a peak night there are more employees than customers!) The cocktail is light and refreshing and the kitchen is amazing to behold. After this little treat, it’s time to return to the dining room for more.

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Becky and the nitrogen

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Voila!

Almond

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“Variations” on the almond, to be exact, mainly a crispy chip over a tangy cream. This is mixed among greens (mostly flowers) and a balsamic vinaigrette, as well as a salty cured Mangalista ham.

Foie Gras

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Often mispronounced, never unwelcome: fatty goose liver. No upscale meal would be complete without it. This one was thinly sliced and coiled, making for a unique presentation, with a dark, sweet black sesame sauce and duck prosciutto.

Whey

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Whey and I go whey back (see what I did there?). But this isn’t just a workout supplement. This is the liquid runoff of yogurt, served warm and (appropriately) with buttermilk “curds,” as well as gnocchi and spring herbs to cut the heaviness of the broth.

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Lobster

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7 courses and we’re only just now getting to the first entree! This is lobster claw poached in Meyer lemon butter. I think that’s worth repeating: POACHED IN MEYER LEMON BUTTER. Served with shellfish bisque and “burnt leek,” which very cleverly cakes the roots of a fresh leek taking on the appearance of dirt.

Beef

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And finally, the heavy stuff. This was no ordinary beef, but cured and aged ribeye (the best cut, if you ask me), roasted and served with wood sorrel and roasted potatoes. Need I say more?

Cheuflada

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As much as my auto-correct wanted to make that “chef lady,” Cheuflada is actually correct. What is it? Well, since it’s not quite dessert, it’s the cheese course, of course! It’s a fragrant (read: stinky) cheese which is actually a thick liquid at room temperature. To give it balance and even a little something to hang on to, it is adorned with pearl onions, potatoes, and pickled whole mustard seeds.

Egg Cream

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Dessert begins with another New York classic: Egg Cream. This classy beverage transports you back to the soda fountains of yore, and Eleven Madison even uses an antique bottle to make seltzer. In a fun table-side presentation, I learn their egg cream uses orange oil (where the original used chocolate syrup) with the essence of cocoa nib. Mixed with milk and seltzer and stirred to frothy magnificence, the drink is a sweet and refreshing palette cleanser for what will be an incredible dessert.

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Cheesecake

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New York style cheesecake made with goat cheese. Sound good? Well, it is, especially topped with orange sorbet and a chilled vanilla “snow.”

Chocolate

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And now the grand finale: could it be anything other than chocolate? This most beloved ingredient still gets special treatment. The plate is a mountain of crispy flakes of “caramelized coco puffs,” and soft, frozen “chocolate snow” (think Dipping’ Dots). All of this is bordered by a sea of Meyer lemon cream sauce and just a touch of olive oil.

In a final touch of poetic creativity, the end is in the beginning. Another box appears before you containing the sweet black and white cookies which had been so successfully quoted at the outset. They’re at the same time unexpected, self-referential, and an ode to classic New York City food. I can think of no better metaphor for the restaurant itself, and the once-in-a-lifetime experience of its food.

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Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Dinner at Dinner

Heston Blumenthal

It’s a stroke of luck that allows me to start this blog with one of the best meals I’ve had in recent memory. To clarify, it’s not the best. If I’m ever asked what that might be, the answer is easy: The Fat Duck. It’s located in Bray, a town about an hour’s train ride outside of London, in an unassuming little cottage on a quiet street (Exotic restaurants like these have a funny way of popping up in quaint spots in the middle of nowhere. Look up “El Bulli” and “The Three Chimneys” if you don’t believe me). For what it’s worth, this place has three Michelin stars and was named Restaurant magazine’s best restaurant in the world in 2005, before being supplanted later by El Bulli.

A Fat Duck Presentation

What’s so special about it? It’s an experience. My family and I spent four or five hours there and had tastes, textures, even sounds in a meal unlike anything I’ve experienced. For those who have heard of molecular gastronomy, that’s what this place is all about. It’s experimental, doing things with food that have never been done before. A sushi dish that feels like sand and seafoam in the mouth? Sure. A tea jelly which is simultaneously hot and cold? Check. How about ending the many-course meal with “breakfast,” which includes candied bacon and egg ice-cream made by whipping eggs in liquid nitrogen table-side? Actually, more than one dish used the liquid nitrogen. How cool is that?

Liquid Nitrogen!

And Eggs!

And Oh My God!

While this all might seem a bit artsy and over-the-top, what’s great about this food, and the genius of chef Heston Blumenthal, is that it’s not weird for the sake of being weird. His food tastes good. It’s all about breaking things down to their component parts, capturing their essences and flavors. It’s playing with familiar experience in a way that makes it completely new. As just another example, we were handed conch shells with the seafood dish that contained headphones, so we could listen to the sounds of the sea as we ate. It’s all about the experience.

Sounds of Seashores in the Seashell

Just last week, I got to experience the genius of Heston Blumenthal yet again. For our anniversary dinner, Cornelia and I went to his new London restaurant, Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. And what a night it was.

Located in the posh Knightsbridge in the middle of London, Dinner is not quite as avant garde as The Fat Duck. Nothing is dripped on your plate from a pipette or whipped in liquid nitrogen. But the concept is just as unique. You notice upon first looking at the menu that there are dates listed next to each dish.

Meat Fruit (c. 1500)

Roast Marrowbone (c. 1790)

Savoury Porridge (c. 1600)

The idea here is that everything on the menu is traditional English food. For us foodies, we don’t encounter much “traditional English food,” unless you’re talking about fish and chips and gin. But what Heston has done is resurrect the English food most of us don’t know about, to prove that it can be just as diverse and flavorful as French, or any other cuisine we usually associate with fine dining. On the reverse side of the menu are a list of sources for each of the recipes. I can’t imagine the research Heston put into finding these old, obscure dishes. One even dates as far back as 1390, the Rice and Flesh, from “The Forme of Cury The Master Cooks of King Richard II.”

Lamb Broth with Hen Egg

For the most part, the presentation is pretty straightforward: Meat is served on a plate, with little (if any) sauce, and no sides unless ordered separately. My appetizer, the Meat Fruit, was served on a block of dark wood with grilled toast. But there’s more to the meat fruit than meets the eye. It’s one of the dishes where Heston’s touch is really apparent, a modern twist on the old recipe. What I was served looks identical to a little mandarin orange: it’s shiny, has pores, etc. But cutting into it, what’s revealed is a delicious chicken liver pate encased in a very thin layer of mandarin orange jelly, everything edible but the stem. Cornelia started with the Broth of Lamb, which would surely be good on its own, but was phenomenal with a poached hen egg and sweetbreads.

Meat Fruit

Each menu is bound by a slip printed with a historical fact about England’s food. Mine talked about the old French nickname for the English, “Beefeaters,” as they were known for centuries as having the highest quality beef. After reading this, how could I not order the Hereford Ribeye (c. 1830)? It was a beautifully tender cut of meat with a delicate marbling of fat, served with red wine sauce, chips (read: fries), and a mushroom ketchup. Cornelia had the Spiced Pigeon (c. 1780), served with an ale sauce and artichokes. Is anything more evocative of medieval cookery and mead halls of yore than pigeon, spices and ale? Why yes, actually, my dessert. While Cornelia finished with a Taffety Tart and blackcurrant sorbet, I had the Brown Bread Ice Cream (c. 1830) with salted caramel and malted yeast syrup. Just typing it makes me want to abandon any pretensions of a low-carb diet.

But beyond all of the delicious, fascinating, satisfying food, beyond the beautiful wine (Shaw and Smith Shiraz, highly recommended), the highlight of the night was that Mr. Blumenthal himself was in the house. Yes, Heston Blumenthal was eating dinner only two tables away from us. And to top it all off, I got a brief moment to speak to him as we were leaving the restaurant.

So all in all, pretty good night. It was the one year anniversary with my girlfriend, it was some of the best food I’ve ever had, and I got to meet a hero, the man behind it all. It was one of those rare, always-going-to-remember-it experiences, which I can only hope I’ve managed to capture a glimmer of in this blog.

*A note about photos: This food all looked wonderful, and I do wish I could share photos of all of it with you. But alas, it was dark and my poor iPhone camera just couldn’t keep up. Meat fruit picture is not my own, but definitely worth seeing.

 Dinner by Heston Blumenthal on Urbanspoon