Eleven Madison Park bowled me over as soon as I walked in the door. A pleasant young woman greeted us, and when my boyfriend told her his name for the reservation, she said hello to him and then turned to me. “And you must be Katie,” she said. “I was especially excited to meet you because you’re from Ohio.” We chatted with her a bit about how we respectively ended up in NYC after growing up there, and then she passed us to a hostess to be shown our seats.
I began setting the white balance on my camera, remarking on the looming windows on each wall, musing about the trees native to Madison Square Park. “Listen, before you go on, let’s not gloss over the fact that the restaurant knew who you were,” my boyfriend said. “Oh, don’t even think that was lost on me,” I replied, “but let’s talk about it later; we’re probably being watched.”
And thus began our four-hour tasting menu at EMP. Bear in mind that the restaurant had been on my list basically since the start of this fine-dining blogging adventure lo those many (two) years ago. And that I was only being taken to it because I finally agreed to go to the doctor for the first time in seventeen years. My expectations were high not only because I’d given up so much dignity by agreeing to pee in a cup but also because EMP is the kind of place that shows up in every post on Chowhound; people recommend it out of nowhere when posters are inquiring about entirely unrelated restaurants.
As with most things you build up too much in your mind, in the end, I felt cheated. The more I thought about the meal in the hours and days afterward, the angrier I got. But we’ll start in the beginning, when I was still impressed.
The menu doesn’t contain any descriptions, just a word or two highlighting the main ingredient. They were words like lobster, foie gras, octopus, chevre. When we told our server we would be doing the tasting menu, she asked us if we had any allergies and if we were open to offal and organ meats. We eagerly said we were up for anything.
The highly-anticipated cheese poufs arrived and were just as cheddary and salty as we wanted them to be. They were fluffy on the inside and crusty on the outside with such a zing that my boyfriend said he was convinced they just stuck some Cheez-Its in a food processor to make the flour.
English pea and mint velouté
The cool, refreshing mint was such the perfect partner for the sweet pea that it only made sense for the whole shebang to be topped with buttermilk “snow” that had the actual texture of your favourite ski slope. The crunchy tuile was extra salty, and the fresh chai blossoms and freeze-dried peas balancing on it added neat texture elements.
fluke, basil mayonnaise, Meyer lemon sphere, rice cracker
I know seafood on a healthy rice cake doesn’t quite seem like my bag, but even I couldn’t resist the firm flesh of the fish and its citrus and floral notes.
scallop sashimi, yuzu gelee
Let me start by saying that we had no idea how to eat this thing. It makes more sense to slurp it off the rounded end, which is the same shape as your mouth, but the scallop was all at the sharp end, and the gelatinous yuzu dome over it meant that it couldn’t move anywhere. So we kind of tongued it off the closest edge and hoped no one was watching.
It was very acidic and bright, with orange and dill flavors and even a bit of fennel crunchiness to counteract the Jell-o-ness of the yuzu.
semolina-covered goat cheese croquettes
Clearly this is the cutest cheese to ever exist. The croquettes were creamy, warm, and just slightly goat-funky, and they had the tiniest bit of texture from the semolina. The zippy watercress and chive vinaigrette they were served with (one for each of us!) reminded me so much of tartar sauce, which I believe is the most underrated condiment.
goat cheese lollipops, beet and red wine powder
It’s goat cheese, covered in red wine, rolled in beet powder, and stuck on a stick. It’s entirely novelty, and that is why we loved it. It was soft and creamy but held its shape enough that I could make three bites out of it. I could’ve used twice the beet flavor, but the sweet goatiness of the cheese complimented the natural sweetness of the beet.
sea urchin cappuccino
With big crab chunks, little uni chunks, and the crunch from even littler brunoised apple chunks, this was an uni soup for people like me who only sort of want to taste its iron flavor. I loved finding the scallion slivers at the bottom of the bowl and wished I’d thought to mix it up sooner; the bowl was cute but didn’t allow for the last few slurps to be extracted because of its curved lip. We briefly considered other means of getting at it but figured we’d better play it cool after the earlier scallop incident.
Eggs as serving vessels never gets less interesting for me, and these were the most perfectly-cut ones we’ve seen. Too bad the kitchen’s spending all of its time on those and none of its time making sure both eggs are evenly filled, because Dr. Boyfriend got the more-full of the two, and I was jealous. The texture was like a very thin pudding, and the color reflected the flavor, which was pure butter. The smoky sturgeon bits and chive oil nestled in the bottom made the dish rich on one end and bright on the other. I loved it.
potato, lemon spheres, caviar
Citrusy, salty, and so perfectly cooked it was dying to be mashed, this little potato was one of the prettiest things we were served, if not the most flavorful. The sturgeon roe completely disappeared for me, and I didn’t get any chive, either. Ten points for presentation, though.
bread, cow butter with chai blossoms, goat butter with dill
We were wildly impressed that it took this long to get to the bread (an hour, by the timestamps on my photos); bringing it in the middle of the meal like this made it seem like a course of its own, and certainly it was deserving of one. The bread was flaky, hot, and airy. The butters had remarkably different tastes which can both be summed up in the word savory.
I know salad is objectively awful, but if you’re going to serve me a salad, it should look like this. The baby lettuces were so perfectly dressed as to seem like they weren’t dressed at all; the greens were tender and had the sheen of olive oil on them, but their natural flavor and freshness wasn’t overpowered. The almond and onion combination was perfection, the créme fraiche was subtle in a way I didn’t think possible, and the dish was small enough that I could enjoy it but then quickly put it aside in favor of some meat.
scallop, fermented potatoes, sweet shrimp
Scallops are quickly becoming one of the ingredients I most look forward to seeing on a menu, which is absolutely insane if you consider my staunch anti-seafood position of only two years ago. This one was salty, buttery, and just slightly pink in the center to juxtapose the perfectly-seared outer edge. The little disc of black garlic, so common in my Persian boyfriend’s house growing up, bridged the sweetness of the fennel and shrimp and the sourness of the potatoes.
This dish made me feel like an adult. Not only did it used all parts of the chard, but I was required to cut the leaves so as to not look like an idiot trying to stuff the whole things in my mouth. Only adults eat things like that. I loved the smoky, crunchy, salty bacon and the fried chard, but overall, the dish was way too vinegary for me. I know the roots are supposed to be more delicious than the leaves, but I thought them too bitter, and adding the vinegar to that just made me wrinkle my nose to the sourness.
As soon as Dr. Boyfriend got up to use the restroom during this course, a server came right over with a domed silver serving dish cover. I can’t remember that ever happening at another restaurant and was pleased that EMP cares so much about the integrity of their food, even if I didn’t like that particular plate.
Unsurprisingly amidst this pathetic display of non-meaty dishes, the pork was one of the highlights of the night for me. The bing cherries weren’t actually that flavorful on their own, but when combined with a bite of pork rack, their natural sweetness just exploded. The skin on the belly couldn’t have been crispier and was like eating a piece of toffee. The pickled mustard seed added a bit of sourness, and the jus, which was broken with the Italian bacon Guanciale, or jowl meat, was extra rich and porky.
It’s unusual for anything to outshine beef in a dish for me, but I thought the best part of this was actually the green beans, which were firm and snappy, like they’d just come out of the garden. The white beans were a perfectly creamy compliment. The sweetbreads were crisp and sticky, like chicken nuggets dipped in barbeque sauce. (“Nature’s chicken nuggets”, Dr. Boyfriend called them.) The beef was just okay. After the noticeably-different Wagyu at Asiate the week before, it was going to take a lot to impress me.
I’d had one egg cream prior to this. An egg cream, despite it’s slightly scary name, is just chocolate syrup, milk, and seltzer. It originated in Brooklyn, and I guess I tried one in my early days in NYC in an attempt to assimilate myself but quickly decided I’d rather just accept that I don’t belong here. This egg cream was way better than that one, which just tasted like watered-down chocolate milk. It used a dash of olive oil and a lot of vanilla and had three inches of foam on top (that had disappeared by the time I snapped this photo, but as you know, beauty is fleeting, especially in egg creams).
Very few upscale restaurant desserts actually satisfy me. I give good marks to the ones that try really hard, and I usually judge them based on how they compare to each other versus how they compare to my own expectations. But this was a dessert that actually impressed me and fulfilled me and everything else. I’ve actually referred to it as “perfect” since eating it, but seeing as it lacked peanut butter, I’ll refrain from calling it that here.
Even still, it was a phenomenal dessert. Served with warmed silverware, it was the thinnest chocolate wafer cannelloni surrounding the smoothest chocolate mousse over a sticky caramel, with crunchy espresso bits and vanilla ice cream with a sour yogurt topping. I loved it. Unfortunately, Dr. Boyfriend neither cares for coffee-flavored foods nor bitter chocolate, so it was a near-total miss for him. And that wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except that it was the only dessert we were served.
mignardises (I was clearly a little bit mad here and forgot how to use my camera)
We were given a bottle of cognac and told to have as much as we wanted with these petit fours. There was a cookie with strawberry and broccoli, an apricot and chocolate pate de fruits with an overwhelming rosemary essence, an Earl Grey French macaron that was overwhelmed by the intensity of the liquor, and a chamomile and lemon cookie.
Here’s the thing: the food was excellent. It was five-donut food. Anyone who can make me “mmm” for sturgeon is doing something right. In terms of value, though, EMP was a major disappointment. The meal was $195 each, which is very similar to what you’ll pay at Per Se, Daniel, or Momofuku Ko. At all of those restaurants, though, you feel special. Per Se overloaded us with so many desserts we were literally stuffing hard candy into Dr. Boyfriend’s suit jacket pocket at the end just to not waste so much of it. Daniel fed us almost every kind of protein I can think of, served us our favourite kind of cheese, and brought us extra madeleines without being asked when we allowed ours to get cold. Both of those restaurants offered us tours of the kitchen as if it was promised on the menu, and Momofuku Ko seats you at a counter right in front of your chef. Even much less expensive restaurants like Tocqueville and wd~50 have made us feel like kings.
We don’t really care what you’re charging us, but make us feel like we’re getting a deal at whatever your price point. It’s not just that EMP served us both the same dessert and that one of us didn’t even like it, although in my experience, that’s almost unimagineable for a tasting menu. It’s not just that our server barely spoke to us nor that we weren’t given the kitchen tour nor that we weren’t offered a copy of our menu and wine pairings, although those are certainly all things other restaurants are doing better.
When I think about the one thing that really, really gets my goat, it’s the sheer unimpressiveness of the ingredients we were served. Two of our main courses were vegetables. One of those was an assortment of lettuces. And this was on a menu full of things like foie gras, lobster, and octopus. When my boyfriend is shelling out $195 for me and the restaurant knows I’m from Ohio, I expect to see one ingredient I didn’t grow up eating there. Where was my freaky shellfish?! For heaven’s sake, where was the cheese-with-an-unpronounceable-name course?! Why did our server ask us if we were okay with eating offal, and why didn’t someone tell us we would be served the most boring things on the menu if we didn’t speak up?!
I know other diners’ experiences have been better, but it’s clear to me why this is a one-Michelin-star kind of joint.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010 (map)