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