The first time my boyfriend and I dined at Eleven Madison Park, I gave the tasting menu a four-star rating. I went in with the expectation that it might be the best meal I’d ever have and came out feeling underwhelmed. The food we had was five-star, but it was the food we didn’t have that left an impression on me. I felt like we hadn’t been served any of the most interesting dishes on the menu, and in all of the moments where we could have been made to feel special, we were reminded that we weren’t. Still, I thought it was a better-than-average experience overall and was happy to have been to the restaurant once.
Well, the day after my review went up, the head maitre d’ called my boyfriend for my phone number and then called me to discuss what I’d said and to invite us back for a second try. Of course I said I couldn’t accept such an extravagant offer, but she said they had a better idea of what we were expecting this time and took it personally that they didn’t impress us the first go around. I accepted but felt awful about it. I didn’t want to be seen as an ingrate, and I had these horrible thoughts that I might be viewed as someone who wrote a negative review just to get the restaurant to react. I was excited about returning to EMP, but I was so nervous that it would be the most awkward dinner of my life.
In fact, it was the very opposite of that and one of the finest meals we’ve ever had. It was almost as if the restaurant was trying to embarrass me for that first review.
“Cheez-Its!” we whispered to each other when we ate these. Just as good as the first time, they were the perfect little cheesy, crispy, pillowy, warm bread bites.
tomato tea, thyme
Regular readers will know that despite working on it for a couple of years now, tomatoes are the one major mindblock I have leftover from childhood. Regular readers will also know that one of my favourite things in the world is eating an ingredient I expect to be disgusted by and finding it transformed into something delicious.
Not only was this tea herbal and lemony, but the tomato flavor was so delicate that I found myself actually enjoying it. The presentation with the bouquet of thyme that we seeped in the broth couldn’t have been lovelier.
Complimenting the tea was the accompanying Parmesan crisp, which mirrored the tea’s subtlety with translucent brittleness. There was an undercurrent of spice to the lavash to match the tomato’s brightness.
Claude Genet, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Chouilly, Cote des Blancs, Champagne, France
fluke, basil, Meyer lemon
Getting to taste this a second time gave me a much greater appreciation for the little lemon spheres encrusting the fish. And for the texture of the dish, which ranged from liquid lemon to pleasantly fibrous fish to crisp, light rice cracker. This was such a complete bite.
scallop ceviche, tangerine
We had quite a bit of trouble figuring out how to eat this the first time, and either they remembered that from my review or remembered to give us a little fork this time that we were supposed to have had the first time. Whether it was because I got to taste more of the scallop this time thanks to the fork or because our sommelier had read our minds and decided to do some more interesting pairings that included sake, I liked this even better the second time, too. It was so refreshing, and I appreciated the way the gelatinous citrus piece mirrored the texture of the scallop.
Dewazakura, Oka, Ginjo, Yamagata Prefecture, Japan
beet and goat cheese lollipop
Don’t get tired of me saying this, but I thought the beet lollipops were better the second time, too. They were a little crunchier, the texture of the shell a little more pronounced to juxtapose the creamy cheese interior.
goat cheese croquettes, watercress vinaigrette
These little orbs of semolina-coated cheese are the sort of things you could pop into your mouth by the handful if you’re not careful. I forced myself to dip them one by one into the tartar-sauce-tasting vinaigrette, though, just to be able to savor each one with a sip of the wine. I’m not sure we would’ve liked this particular glass on its own, but it couldn’t have been more perfectly paired to bring out the natural flavors of the cheese.
Yves Martin, Chavignol, Sancerre, Loire Valley, France 2010
sea urchin cappuccino, crab, apple
So, so buttery and with extra-chunky chunks of crab. Our wonderful server, Kevin, tried to convince us that it’s perfectly possible to fetch all of the broth out of the special locally-sourced bowls with the little spoons they provide, but we still failed miserably on our second attempt. I still loved this.
Weingut Alfred Merkelbach, Urzinger Wurzgarten, Riesling Spatlese, Mosel, Germany 2009
potato, creme fraiche, caviar
Last time, I complained that though this was one of the prettiest presentations I’d ever seen, I couldn’t taste a lot of the individual ingredients. This time, I tasted everything, including the subtle potato. The wine was especially helpful in bringing out the flavor of the caviar, which was entirely lacking for me in my first tasting.
smoked sturgeon sabayon, chive
Still inexplicably one of my favourite of the amuses. For some reason, that smoky sturgeon and chive oil just hits me in the right spot, and I love the creaminess of the sabayon.
Gaia, Thalassitis, Assyrtico, Santorini, Cyclades, Greece 2010
A very apropos presentation for such a warm, flaky, buttery bread.
rabbit rillette, cherries, pistachio, pickled onion
Of course the very first appetizer would blow me away. We had seen this on the lounge menu while waiting for our table to open up and were interested (were they listening in on our conversation?), but the actual plate was miles more impressive than any description.
The pistachio puree was thick and grainy, the caramelized pistachios sweet and crunchy. The smooth pate of rabbit was complimented by the pistachio crisp, and the bright cherries and onions made sure the very rich dish didn’t feel heavy.
It’s the little things that matter to me most, you know, and I just couldn’t help but love this single leaf, placed so deliberately at the plate’s edge.
But most exciting was that what we thought was a pistachio-encrusted cherry was actually a hollow sphere of pistachio crumbs with a viscous cherry center. It was the kind of thing you’d see at wd~50, and none of the effect was wasted on us.
Gustave Lorentz, Altenberg de Bergheim, Grand Cru, Alsace, France 2004
Our server, Kevin, was a master of drama. He walks over with a shallow bowl of hot rocks draped in seaweed and other ocean accoutrements, a kettle perched atop them. He pours water over the rocks, and they begin to steam. The smell of the beach wafts toward us and envelops the table as I furiously try to capture everything on camera. Kevin folds his hands behind his back and walks silently away, leaving us flabbergasted and overwhelmed. “What is all this? What do we do with it?” Just as the initial excitement wears off, Kevin returns to explain the course and to pour a bowl of clam velouté from the kettle for each of us.
Like clam chowder but perfectly smooth, extra thick, and ready to form a skin on its surface any time I left it alone for a second.
clam with corn, corn and chorizo madeleine
I love corn. I love chorizo. I love cake. And I love them all together. For me, both of these bites were a tasty union between land and sea. I’ve previously declaimed clams, but these were perfectly delicious–light but meaty and well-accented with all the brininess of the caviar.
clam with melon, lobster croquette
The melon preparation was my favourite, and of course it’s the one I forgot to take a photo of in my hurry to suck down a bunch of clam. With honeydew and watermelon, it was a light compliment to the natural fresh flavor of the bivalve. The lobster croquette was akin to eating lobster French fries. Need I say more?
South Hampton, Saison Deluxe, South Hampton, Long Island
ricotta gnocchi, black truffle, artichoke
When this was placed in front of us, my boyfriend and I called it a cheap shot at winning our love. It’s gnocchi, which is already the most delicious thing on Earth, topped with the hugest slices of black truffle, which is the most delicious thing on Earth made out of fungus. It was almost criminally unfair.
Naturally, it was heavenly. The kind of dish where you have to hold your head upright while you chew to keep it from lolling around and drooling all over the linens. The gnocchi were big, cherry-tomato-sized fluffs, the truffle was dirt-y and rich, with the little crunch you get from a fresh sliver of radish, and together, they were the most effortlessly luxurious dish possible. If they had sprinkled a little caviar on top, my little farmgirl heart might have exploded.
Monastero Soure Cistercensi, Coenobium, Lazio, Italy 2009
scallop, fennel, tomato confit, tarragon
Another tomato on the plate, and another preparation I enjoyed. This one was sweet and cooked almost to the point of turning into a sauce, nicely juxtaposing the bitterness of the tarragon and fennel. As with our first dinner at EMP, the scallop was seared so perfectly, and its tenderness was a welcome companion to the crunch of the fennel.
Hirsch, Lamm, Gruner Veltliner, Kamptal, Austria 2003
lobster lasagna, zucchini, lemon verbena
Hidden underneath this pile of summer squash and lobster oil was a large, lovely lobster tail piece. The zucchini made for perfectly-cooked pasta, and the overall effect was a much lighter take on lasagna.
Thierry Germain, Domaine des Roches Neuves, l’Insolite, Saumer, Loire Valley, France 2008
pork, apricots, bacon, spinach
This was execution by tasting menu, and although Dr. Boyfriend succumbed to the drink pairings during the lobster, I felt like I was still going strong well into the night. This picture would prove otherwise. Don’t let my terrible photography skills make you think any less of this suckling pig, though, because it was beautiful.
The pistachio crumble with the apricot jus was like eating candy, the top layer of the pork was so crunchy while the bottom could have been cooked for hours, and the cocktail flavors mirrored the caramelization of the pork.
Repossesion Cocktail: Reposado Tequila, Amontillao Sherry, Mezcal, Apricot Liqueur, Cane Syrup, Lemon
duck, lavender honey, sweet corn, blueberries
In the middle of this course, my boyfriend said, “You gave them four out of five stars, and they invited us back to humiliate you.” That’s how good this was.
Our server came to the table and presented us with an entire duck, crisped brown and stuffed with a bouquet of lavender. He then took it back to the kitchen and returned with this tiny sliver of duck that made me picture the entire kitchen staff devouring the rest of the carcass and laughing maniacally at their good fortune.
Tiny portion or not, this duck was incredible. The skin was herbal and crusty, overwhelming salty in the very best way. The flavors of the duck paired so well with both the apricot and blueberry. A side of duck leg on a creamy potato mousseline came served in a separate bowl and must have contained an entire pound of butter. Again, I’m not complaining.
Whatever they’re charging for this thing, it’s worth it.
Marcel Juge, Cornas, Rhone Valley, France 2006
At this point, we were escorted to the kitchen, and while I thought this might be the most uncomfortable part of the evening since I had specifically whined about not being offered a kitchen tour in my first review and forced the restaurant into it the second time around, our tour guide (Megan, I think) made it wonderful.
While we watched food being plated all around us, one of the staff came to make us a liquid nitrogen cocktail. Here are our raspberry ice domes floating in midair:
And here’s the finished product, melting within moments:
berry salad, buttermilk sorbet, balsamic meringue
There was a time in my life where I thought meringue was kind of dumb. When you’re the kind of girl who could eat a steak for every meal and follow it up with a chocolate bar of 90% cacao, fluffy, airy foods don’t really cut the mustard. This was different, though, because this dessert was all about texture. There was the smooth sorbet against the stiff iceberg-like meringue pieces, the crunchy crumble against the ripe berries. The berries were so tart, the meringue so sweet.
Georg Mosbacher, Forster Ungeheuer, Riesling, Auslese, Pfalz, Germany 2007
pistachio sundae, granola, cherry sorbet
On first glance, this dessert was too similar to the first one. Same textures, same presentation, same lack of chocolate. Upon first bite, though, I was so glad they’d served us both. The cherry sorbet was borderline cough syrup, and I loved it. The pile of caramelized nuts seemed to never end, and I loved that, too. The pistachio and the one beautiful poached cherry harkened back to the first of our main courses, the rabbit rillette, creating a perfect circle.
Istvan Svepsy, 6 Puttonyos, Tokaji, Hungary 1996
The tiny treats at the end were the same as those of our first visit, save an extra spoonful of an anise-flavored hyssop dessert. Once again, we were barely able to touch the cognac at all, which I think the staff who pulled the table out for us every time we had to use the restroom were glad for.
From the menus they sent us home with to the many Rieslings they served us after we mentioned that we love them to the way they changed the tablecloth for us while we were in the kitchen to keep us from having to look at the lobster broth we’d splashed all over it earlier, nothing about this dinner could have been better. Except, of course, if it had been served to us on our first visit.
Our menu was so perfect, so overwhelmingly excessive, that I was almost inclined to add a 6th donut to my ratings system just for this meal, but I know not everyone’s getting an experience like this one. I guess the key is to go in and asked to be impressed. It’s clear that the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park is capable of putting out the most incredible food; they just need to be asked to.
Thanks to EMP for the best time possible. We are now officially fans and repeat customers.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010 (map)