Eleven Madison Park
Oh, the long-awaited much-anticipated Eleven Madison Park lunch! This was my first foray into the realm of Michelin restaurants and we aimed for the best. I've been on a roller coaster of emotions for the past month about this lunch reservation: anxious, freaking out, even in tears because of the huge expense and fanciness I thought I couldn't handle; eager, positively giddy, and happy to have the opportunity.
Our meal left us euphoric.
Eleven Madison Park is housed in the Credit Suisse building. The lofty dining room is illuminated by daylight from the tall windows facing the park. On the walls hang old photographs and art prints of New York City. It was very classy decor that was warm and welcoming and woodsy, not overly sleek, minimalist, or clinical. The ideological motif of the restaurant is to serve local, seasonal fare. The literal motif of the restaurant is the stenciled drawing of four leaves, probably to represent the different seasons. The menu and the whole restaurant's concept certainly paid an earnest, heartfelt homage to nature.
From the second we arrived, staff were on hand to greet us and provide the excellent service for which Eleven Madison Park is known. In fact, Alex contacted them in advance to tell them it was my birthday...so I got a few happy birthday wishes from the maitre d' and waiters!
Speaking of staff, our waiters were wonderfully attentive, knowledgeable, and strove for perfection from bringing out silverware to subtly push your chair in when you returned from the restroom. I am very especially grateful to Zach Fisher, the maitre d', and Stephen, our "captain": the person who guides us through our culinary conquest. They took a vested interest in our enjoyment of lunch and we could see the incredible care they put in every action. In fact, one of the oft-talked-about points at Eleven Madison Park is they take your food allergies and food preferences into account, and don't make you feel awkward about it at all. Alex told Stephen he'd prefer not to have truffles, and his menu was tailor-made to reflect this wish (in a more literal sense than we anticipated!). If we ever had the chance to return for a meal, it would be my honor to be greeted by Zach and seated in Stephen's section.
Onto the food! Our first course, a little amuse bouche, was on the table in a little rectangular box wrapped with the kind of twine you see at an old Italian bakery. Inside were two small cookies, a savory twist on the classic New York black and white cookie. A cheddar and apple puree was sandwiched between two small shortbread cookies, the top with the iconic black and white cookie design. These tasted like the classiest version of a Ritz cracker you've ever had!
Next was a pairing of oysters from Greenport, NY. Four oysters, two each, one hot and one cold. The cold oysters sat on a bed of ice and were topped with finely diced apples and chestnuts. The hot oysters sat on a bed of coals and were topped with fermented shaved chestnuts. I panicked a little because Alex doesn't like shellfish and forgot to name it in his food preferences. But, I'm very proud of him because I think a few ingredients during this whole meal were new to him and he faced them all bravely, and possibly even left with a greater appreciation of these foods. (He slurped down those oysters like a trooper! Apprehensively, but he did it!) The cold oyster was sweet and juicy, though not with the briny juice of the sea, but rather with the cold juice of apples. The hot oyster smelled very smoky and umami-ish (yes, I probably made that word up) from the fermented chestnuts shaved on top. This oyster had a bit more of a seafood quality to it.
The next course was a multi-dish preparation that spread out over the spacious table. Side bar: spacious tables and spacious seating at Eleven Madison Park, godsend. Definitely irritating when a restaurant is so crowded that you might as well be eating together with the strangers next to you since they're sitting so close. Waiters brought out a tall domed glass with smoke billowing within and many small dishes stacked on top of each other. They told us this was a tribute to traditional Jewish dairy and smoked fish. Oh boy, a tribute to Alex's heritage!
The first dish contained pickled mackerel with mayonnaise, pickled onion and fennel, and breadcrumbs. Another had beets with a creamy apple mixture and sprinkled with trout roe. Next was a whitefish potato salad topped with a perfect orb of a barely-cooked quail egg yolk and looking like a cute daisy flower. Then, there was a salmon lox with cucumbers and dill. A waiter lifted up the glass dome, letting all the smoke waft through the air and revealing four slivers of smoked sturgeon sitting on a grilled above smoking coals. Talk about presentation!
Finally, a can of caviar with the lid slightly askew glistened like a jewelry box of little black pearls. Lastly, the waiters introduced two wafer-thin slices of rye toast and we were off to our own devices. What to eat first? There was a lot going on! Each mini-dish had an element of creaminess to offset the fishy taste. There were also some pungent elements, like the pickled onions. What we found most interesting was that the caviar sat on top of a layer of cream cheese, subtly enhanced by the addition of gelatin (to make the texture more whipped and fluffy) and lemon zest. I also commend Alex for bravery in eating, because I know seafood is not his favorite genre but he tried everything. (I would have tattled to his Jewish mother if he didn't.) And then he remarked that smoked sturgeon tastes like smoked mozzarella, so I think it was a win-win situation.
I harbored a little regret in eating the pickled onions from the mackerel dish, which left a sharp raw onion taste in my mouth, when we moved onto the next course: turnip three ways. Raw turnips from Tivoli, NY, were sliced thin and placed on top of braised turnip slices, which in turn were placed on top of pickled turnip chunks. These turnip pieces were bathed table-side in a dark vegetable broth that reminded me of miso soup. At first, I was finding it a little hard to get enthusiastic about turnips. So I had one of the braised slices and my mind was subsequently blown. Wow, what flavor! It was infused full of umami flavor, and even more interestingly, had a texture like an al dente potato. The pickled turnip had a funny wrinkled shape, and a taste that reminded me of Asian pickled daikon.
Bread was introduced next. I thought it was kind of funny not to start off with bread, but I realized the bread goes with the course that follows. These house-baked rolls were of half white and half whole wheat flour. It smelled like a croissant and looked like a croissant, but when pulled apart revealed very fluffy soft bread. We had two pats of butter for the bread, one with duck renderings...because the bread was the introduction to the foie gras course!!!
At the start of lunch, we were given the choice of foie gras: hot or cold. We decided to go halfsies and try both. Presentation goes to the cold, taste goes to the hot. The cold foie gras preparation was a wedge from a larger dome of foie gras. The top layer was a glossy dark purple, sprinkled with sea salt. Underneath, there were squiggly layers of foie gras mousse striated with dark purple cabbage. Across the plate from this striking, totally weird-looking but absolutely beautiful slice of foie gras cake was a magenta puddle of cabbage puree. I was in love with the puree, but not as big a fan of the foie gras cold. On the other hand, the foie gras hot preparation looked like a random bunch of brown chunks on a plate, but tasted heavenly. A thick slab of seared foie gras sat in the middle of the plate, surrounded by a few slices of pears, a cube of roasted potato, and some purees of sunchoke and mushrooms and possibly some other things. The foie gras was sprinkled with hazelnuts on top and crispy fried onions on the bottom. One bite of this foie gras was like a symphony in my mouth. First, I had the sensation of hot fat oozing onto my tongue. Then, there was the rich foie gras that was meaty and salty. Then, there was the nutty flavor from the crushed hazelnuts. Pete Wells, New York Times food critic, recently poked fun at people who swoon at Eleven Madison Park...and I think I'm proudly one of them.
Onward to a very interactive table-side preparation of lobster Newburg. Stephen rolled out a trolley with a metal wire rack cooktop and a few glass decanters with a full raw lobster head shell-on, sprigs of thyme, clarified butter, a funny orange smoothie, and a weird concrete-colored smoothie. He spun a tale of the old days of restaurants in New York and their transformation from plain inns that served food to glitzy hotels that innovated famous dishes like Waldorf salad and clams Rockefeller, all the while cutting up a lobster head and pouring all the ingredients deftly in the pan for a sear. First went the butter, lobster meat, and thyme. Then went some lobster bisque-like sauce, and the concrete-colored smoothie, which turned out to be the lobster tomalley ("guts," yum; also not spelled "tamale" like I thought before I Googled it). A little splash of brandy, a big theatrical singe-your-eyebrows-off flambe, and we had a beautiful lobster sauce to pour on top of a plate of lobster that materialized on our tables while were entranced with the live show. A perfect ring of potato puree encircled a chunk of lobster knuckle and lobster tail, braised bibb lettuce, and the TEENSIEST TINIEST CUTEST LITTLE BUTTON MUSHROOMS. I was seriously so excited about these mushrooms, and the impossibly thin slivers of also teensy tiny white mushrooms shaved on top. So Stephen poured the bright orange sauce within the potato moat, submerging the whole circle. It was all very fabulous, and the dish was absolutely delicious too. The lobster meat was so fresh and cooked to perfection.
I was still floating on the high of seeing this little live show when Zach, the maitre d', came over and started chatting with us. He wished me a happy birthday and asked if we were bloggers, since Alex was taking photos diligently and I was writing in a notebook all throughout the meal. Why yes, as a matter of fact, we are bloggers! And then he invited us on a tour of the kitchen and a surprise extra course and I think my jaw was on the floor and my heart was pounding up in my brain somewhere. Whaaaaaaaa?! Talk about best dining experience of my life!
Zach brought us to the prep stations, where waiters apply the final touches before plates go out. It was so thoughtfully decorated that it could have passed for a fancy lobby. Then, we entered the kitchen, which was quiet and orderly and pristine unlike the kitchens of perhaps less-organized restaurants. The walls were decorated with huge art prints of jazz musicians. The only noise we heard was every once in a while, a loud "Oui!" in acknowledgement of the chef de cuisine. We stood behind a station where a chef prepared us an open-faced pastrami sandwich with mayo, mustard, and black garlic aioli. The pastrami was nice and meaty, and they also gave us bottles of celery soda, an ode to the Jewish deli Cel-Ray soda. I was stunned and starstruck and flustered the entire time, so I don't think I heard a word of what was being said, but I just stared around this haven for a good while, taking it all in and appreciating my first time in a professional - not to mention THREE MICHELIN STAR - restaurant kitchen. Incredible, really an honor.
So we brought our very-celery-tasting sodas back to the dining room, where I'm sure everyone was like, "Ooooh, where'd they get those from?" The next course was also quite a spectacle: celery root braised in a pig bladder. A chef even brought a copper pot with a big ol' bladder floating around in it, and bathed it in the stock to demonstrate the cooking method. It was a little awkward and a little hilarious, seeing a weird yellow oblong balloon bumping around in a copper pot, and everyone bent over it in hushed voices like it was a delicate souffle or something. Turns out this was the truffle/no-truffle divide that Alex opted out of earlier. The celery root was a perfect little sphere doused in a black truffle jus and served with celery root puree. Alex's no-truffle option was braised fennel stuffed with chopped meat and apple. My celery root was divine (words I've never spoken before and never will henceforth): again, the texture of a boiled potato, but with the earthy flavor of truffle. The puree next to it offered some sweet creaminess to pair with the savory/umami going on with the truffle jus.
Finally, it was time for the main meat course. We were allowed to choose between duck or pork, and we chose duck. Chef brought out a copper pot that housed a roasted duck with a huge bunch of lavender...where its tail might have been. The ducks are from the Fingerlakes region of NY, and they dry-age them for 14 days in the kitchen. Most interestingly was the spice crust, which was made up of lavender, Szechuan peppercorns, honey, coriander, caraway seeds, and probably lots of other spices. The duck looked like a loaf of whole grain bread! The final preparation on the plate looked like an elegant slice of duck cake (cooked to slightly pink in the middle), topped with the array of spices, and served next to hen-of-the-wood mushrooms. These funky-shaped mushrooms were roasted until the edges were slightly crispy, and they tasted divine. They could have been the main entree and I would have been equally thrilled. How do you make mushrooms taste like butter and potato chips and mushrooms and the same time!? I was baffled, and I was also in love. The duck was also a unique eating experience. The duck meat was great, but the spice crust gave huge bursts of all different flavors every time I bit down. A little sweet from the honey, a little floral from the lavender, something like I'd get at an Indian restaurant from another mystery spice. So much depth, so much care from the aging to the duck to the careful selection of flavors.
Are you hungry yet?
Starting to wind down now, we had our cheese course. This was a Harbison cheese fondue in a carved-out squash. The dipping implements were long house-baked pretzels. The fondue also had chunks of squash sunken down, so once in a while you could spear a piece of squash with the pointy end of a pretzel. I didn't find the actual taste of the cheese all that unique, but the pretzels were marvelous.
Now for a few dessert courses! First, there was the Botrytis wine with bitter almond and raisin sorbet and crumbled gingersnap cookies. WTF is Botrytis wine? It's probably better if you didn't hear all the details (has to do with a fungus...and grapes...), but somehow it creates a deliciously sweet, viscous wine. We got a small glass spoonful to sip on while carving away at this oddball yet tasty scoop of ice cream. I couldn't place the flavors as being almond or raisin exactly, but I loved the cardamom/cinnamon flavor from the gingersnap.
Then, there was a maple syrup dessert, dedicated to the maple syrup tradition of upstate NY and New England. This took the shape of a mound of shaved ice, which concealed a scoop of creme fraiche ice cream and some shards of cookies and possibly some other ingredients. The waiter drizzled maple syrup atop the shaved ice, and as messy as it looks and weird as it sounds, everything came together harmoniously. There was the sweetness from the maple syrup, the creaminess from milk ice and creme fraiche, and some texture from the cookies. I honestly did not expect to like this dessert, but I found myself wanting to dive into a big bowl of it.
Lastly, but still not lastly, was a shot of apple eau de vie (also henceforth known as freakin' rocket fuel, not to be taken lightly) with reconstructed chocolate-covered pretzels: pretzels, pulverized, mixed with white chocolate, piped back into a pretzel shape, dipped in Valrhona chocolate, and sprinkled with sea salt. Just when you thought they were done, they sent you home with a mason jar of granola, two more black and white cookies, and for me, a special rendition of an Almond Joy candy bar for my birthday! We also got uniquely printed menus (tailored exactly to all the meal choices we made earlier). Besides doggie bags, I don't think I've ever left a restaurant with so much more than when I entered.
I think it goes without saying and by just seeing this long blog post that we enjoyed ourselves immensely. The food was delicious and creative: it made us step out of our comfort zones, but by taking steps not too far from our own backyards in terms of the local sourcing of ingredients. The service was top-notch: everyone was dedicated to treating us like a king and queen for a day. Not only was the service excellent, but each server also brought a story along with every dish that told the inspiration of the course or the farm where some ingredient came from. I didn't know one could be rhapsodic and romantic about turnips, but Stephen had me feeling entranced. The behind-the-scenes kitchen tour was a fantastic surprise and an unparalleled experience that I will remember forever.