Tuesday, August 26, 2014

1MB Travels: New York: Eleven Madison Park and Remembrance

Maybe it's just me, as I do often prefer the fictional world...

But you know how sometimes, you can spend years, over a decade even, day in day out with someone - and amass a moonbeam's-abundance of memories, shared experiences, life...

And it not have the supernova-like intensity and power to reach your very core, of an interaction spanning a single day (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), or relatively brief moments in time and space (Doctor Who)?

And yet even as you know that you can never take another breath without being conscious of the other, you wonder if they feel the same - if they passed you someday in the future, if they would even remember your face, your name - or if they would just have a flitting notion that you may be someone they might have known before.

In relationship terms (albeit much more one-sided in their favor), Eleven Madison Park never has to worry about that.

The 3-Michelin-Starred EMP has been on my bucket list for a long time.  And on a recent trip to NYC, I was excited to finally get to experience it.

It was going to be my biggest splurge of the trip - between my schedule and the more 'affordable' $175 menu (vs dinner at least - def still a meal I needed to save for!) - I decided to go for lunch on my final day in the city.

I fell immediately for the elegant, yet approachable vaulted space flooded with beautiful natural light - formal, but the tables were set up in different sections that gave some privacy - such that you get the 3 star vibe, without being uncomfortable, especially when dining solo.
An immediately intriguing envelope lay, loudly silent under a knife at the table when I arrived. Inside was a punch card: a sort of culinary 'Choose Your Own Adventure' start to the meal - offering four paths: cherry, strawberry, celery and coffee. I was to select the flavor that most appeals to me, and punch that symbol out.

This chosen flavor would then influence elements of the dishes that were to come in the tasting menu: I'd been forewarned the meal would span three and a half hours. 

And there was still one more choice to make, for my entree: I chose duck.
The first bite that arrived was a NY classic with a twist: Cheddar Black & White Cookie but made with with cheddar, apple and vegetable ash.  The mixing of tradition with creativity, invoking of time and place (and reversal of it by serving an item typically associated with the end of a meal, as an amuse at the start), of sweet, savory and tart was a great preview of the care that would be put into the rest of the menu.

Then a bit of delicate, palate-prepping elegance to balance the playfulness: Caviar, Creme Fraiche Baked Potato Ice Cream with garlic flowers and chives.

Followed by a solitary, perfectly chilled Oyster with mignonette snow, buckwheat, sorrel.
From ocean to earth, the first hot course was Morel Custard with Maine Sea Trout Roe: delicious, rich umami served piping hot from a hand crafted ceramic bowl.
Every course seemed a carefully choreographed part of a masterpiece: earthy, rich smooth hot custard sprung gracefully into perfect English Peas warmed, brightened by meyer lemon gelee and shaved cured egg yolk.
To ensure I was engaging with my food, the next course was a semi-DIY activity.  Several platters were presented: on a wooden board was rye bread, with dots of mustard, pea puree, ramps.
On a silver platter were beautiful cuts of Beef Pastrami. Your mission should you choose to accept it, is to finish the chef's thought and put the elements together to create a bite-sized open face pastrami sandwich.  This was EMP's take on another NY staple - the deli sandwich - elevated.  And it was the best pastrami I'd ever had: the texture of the meat was like wagyu filet.
Then came the first element incorporating my chosen flavor: cherry soda.  Housemade, fresh, and delicious with the pastrami on rye.

Usually, rolls would arrive before your meal - but EMP serves theirs several courses in.  And, they were one of the best rolls I've ever had - beautifully flaky, buttery, yet airy and served fresh out of the oven with two types of butter: cow milk with sea salt, and duck fat (the second type of butter is tied to your chosen main course).

And, a food love story would be remiss without Foie Gras.  I chose to have it seared, as this method best retains the lovely, rich, creamy, fatty texture than any other.  EMP served this up with a fava bean horseradish marmalade, sorrels, and chopped lemon rind for acidity to cut through the fat.
As another homage to the city that serves as home, and the storied salad that was invented there: there was the tableside, very entertaining preparation of Apple Waldorf salad with apple, celery, rhubarb, candied walnuts, lemon mayo, and Winnimere blue cheese.  My server transformed into storyteller, taking us back to the legend of the invention of the dish.  And the artisan-craftsmanship, with the hand cored and shredded apple helped transport us back in time.
The final mix was served on a giant, very tall wooden bowl that just had a very shallow dip in the top to act as plate.  At first, I just chalked this up to showmanship and another conceptual way to perhaps evoke the orchard in presentation.
But a surprise actually lies below!  When I finished with the salad, my server gave the top of the giant bowl a quick twist, and off came the top lid/plate to reveal gazpacho, using flavors from the preceding salad, and a spoonful of fun toppings for textural interest including spherified celery root, celery chip.
From the 'fruits of the earth' course, we progressed to a 'fruits de mer' course of Lobster poached with beets, ginger and nasturtium.  I would have liked the lobster to have a softer (though still structured) less robust texture, and more pronounced sweetness - and the 'sheets' of beets lost a bit of the pleasing quality of that tender crunch that makes it one of few vegetables of which I can be a fan. 
Then came the show stopper: Asparagus braised in pig bladder with pork broth, tableside - slow cooking the veggies inside the ballooned bladder has the same effect as sous vide: the spears were incredibly tender and flavorful throughout...

...elevated by black truffle and potato puree.

EMP understands that visuals are a critical part of the dining experience: every course presented reflected the care they put into letting the diner in to their cooking process, like the asparagus, or in the case of the entree: what your dish looked like before they plated.  In this, a vision of beauty: herb and spice crusted honey rubbed lavender scented roasted Duck, presented in a copper pan.  I devoured it whole first with my eyes, but alas stuffing it whole into my mouth was not in the cards for me.
Before they brought the plated duck out, there was a little teaser snack, a bite that reminded me of asian shrimp chips, topped with a gelee and bonito.

Thoughtfully weaving a coherent thread through the meal, the elegant sliver of duck was accompanied by cherry puree.
I couldn't resist a close up shot of the gorgeous herb / spice crust (menu says duck is roasted with rhubarb, shallots and scallions and served with broth with cured duck and watercress).
Putting the elements of surprise and fun into a fine dining meal in a non-pretentious way - the next course came as one of 'self-discovery', in a mysterious picnic basket.  Where the preceding courses were always presented with an introduction to the ingredients, preparation and/or inspiration behind the dish - this one was just listed as Fresh Cheese pretzel, parsley, and strawberries. And it simply arrived with just a hint of glee in my server's eyes, like a grownup who had just placed the first present in a child's hands Christmas morning, and couldn't wait to see the child's reaction when they've made their way to what's inside.   Except, this adult considerately walked away and gave me space to explore and enjoy on my own.
And it was indeed a treasure trove of everything you need for an indoor picnic, at the white-linened table of one of the finest restaurants in the country.

The edible contents were delightfully creative - there was a chevre-style cow's milk cheese (a beautifully dense, spreadable yet structured and smooth consistency, minus the funk of actual goat cheese), honey and parsley spread in an adorable mason jar (I would have never thought to put the two together, but I couldn't stop eating), pickled unripe strawberries, fresh pretzel bread made with the pale wheat beer brewed exclusively for EMP (and they included the full bottle in the basket! I don't normally like beer - but this one was incredibly refreshing, well balanced and a perfect pairing for everything in the basket).

This is hands down one of my favorite fine dining experiences of all time, because every element was so thoughtful and meticulously orchestrated.  Every taste, every look and feel of every piece in the basket all worked in perfect harmony.  I wish I could have ordered 10 of these to take home!

For dessert, they had created a sorbet using the Whey from when they made the cheese for the picnic basket! Served with a smear of caramelized milk, and freeze dried milk foam that then crunches like the lightest shrimp chip! But, I think I liked the concept of this dish more than the taste - the textures were a little too thick and dense for me.

And in another lovely tableside entertainment piece, the second dessert was an Almond Baked Alaska: I grew up loving these as a kid, that perfect and dramatic meeting of ice cream, cake, and mesmerizing show when blue flames lick the mountain / iceberg of meringue.  Unfortunately these had gone out of fashion for a very long time, and were hard to find on restaurant menus.

So it was exciting to see EMP doing their take on the 'classic' dessert.  With almond cake and caramel ice cream.  Again, optics matter, so they brought out the whole thing first, ladled rum over it, lit it on fire (though in daytime, it's harder to see the flames) - then took it back to the kitchen for 'cutting' and returned with this plate.

Again, my chosen flavor, cherry, make an appearance here to add pops of color and sweet-tartness.

By the end of this 3.5 hour lunch, and so many courses later (I'd lost count just about a quarter of the way through), the fresh mint tea helped soothe the over-satiated stomach.  

But this wasn't the end...there was still the Pretzel that was chocolate covered with sea salt, served with apple brandy (which serves as sort of a mnemonic to the delicious apples in the Waldorf salad).  All you can drink, not kidding.  They literally leave the bottle at your table.  Too bad I'm a total lightweight - and can't handle that much liquer straight.  But it was tasty.
And, like any fantastic host, EMP left me with treats to take away - as a lovely reminder of the meal.  In the box, was another Black and White cookie, but this time, subtly sweet with chocolate and mint.

I also got a Ball jar filled with housemade granola!  In a handy little shopping bag embossed with the symbols for the four flavors from which I made my selection at the beginning of the meal.  A nice way to bookend the experience.

Although it was a singular encounter, a very long lunch yet very brief moment at the same time, it was decidedly one of the most artful, cerebral yet very accessible meals I've had the pleasure of experiencing in the country, and one that I will remember, always.

I was actually sad to have crossed this off the bucket list - and would relish the excitement of a return visit if I ever get another chance.


New York

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave New York NY 10010

Ph: 212.889.0905

Look for reservations (and OpenTable points!) here.  


Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon


  1. Mmmm, my thoughts exactly - what you said about Baked Alaska! I'm so fond of this dessert from the past too. What a nice twist they do for this dessert! Love your coverage of this visit there!

    1. Thanks MJC! Yes, gotta love a dessert that's also part entertainment!

  2. Wow! Those are some decadent dishes. How I wish I was there that very instant. I would love to take a bite of the lavender-scented roasted duck. It looks so heavenly, in fact everything does. Hahaha! Thank you so much for sharing your EMP experience with us! Wishing you all the best!

    Alexis Webb @ 7 West Bistro



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