Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Avenue)
I fell in love with Danny Meyer before I even knew who he was. Still green to New York City and its myriad of restaurants, I'd never heard of the Union Square Hospitality Group. While I certainly had heard of Grammercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, and even the India-fused Tabla, it was the elevated street food of Shake Shack (the most casual and affordable of his establishments) with which I became initially infatuated.
During my years at DePauw University, an astonishingly large percentage of my fraternity hailed from St. Louis, Missouri. So when I traveled from Indiana to visit fraternity brothers during school breaks and holidays, I rapidly acquired a hankering for 'concretes' at the famous Ted Drewes (delicious frozen custard blended with a Willy Wonka array of mix-ins).
Now living in New York City a decade later, upon learning that St. Louis native Danny Meyer had created his own frozen custard stand in the middle of Manhattan, I immediately hopped on the N train to taste for myself.
The concretes are the real deal. And the burgers are arguably the best in the city (almost certainly the best deal). Did you say deep-fried, Meunster-filled portobello sandwich? Amazing. Vienna hot dogs on poppy seed buns with shaved cucumber, celery salt, sweet peppers, onions, and diced tomato? Are you kidding! Where else can you wash it all down with a half bottle of prosecco whilst dining in a city park, gazing up at one of the world's most famous skylines?
Danny Meyer's little shack had more than won me over. As I began blogging my way through the five boroughs, I held every intention of gradually tasting my way through his empire, slowly working my way up the ladder.
Until Daniel Humm, executive chef at his most refined restaurant, Eleven Madison Park, was recently honored with the James Beard Award for Best Chef in New York City. I went online and immediately placed my reservation.
It felt strange walking past the huge queue of customers and hyper french-fry-hungry squirrels in Madison Square Park, and though the tug for a shackburger was strong, I ultimately resisted. I hadn't thrown on my favorite jacket to simply nibble on beef brisket with a slice of cheese.
Approaching Eleven Madison Park (neighbor to Tabla, as well as Shake Shack) felt very much like walking to a Broadway Theater. I've never viewed meals as the mere consumption of food for fuel and energy, but dining at one of only six restaurants awarded four stars by the New York Times somehow transcends even what I consider a great meal. It's an experience, a world-class show, a rare pampering, and in some cases, an exhibition... exposure to some of the finest culinary art in the industry... in the world, actually.
Eleven Madison Park resides in the ground level of the old Metropolitan Life Building. Initially intended to be the largest building in the world, the Great Depression thwarted the efforts, leaving the final product only a 40 story stump of the initially intended skyscraper. And that's just what it looks like from the outside, an unfinished base of a larger building. Inside, however, the terrazzo floors, 20-ft windows, soaring ceilings, and art deco decor shine no less radiant than any of the city's taller counterparts.
Walking in, I was relieved to have Kinga on my arm. I met Kinga through one of my dearest friends, Pete, and instantly fell quite fond of her. Kinga moved to New York from Poland several years ago, and while very much a New Yorker (even if not native) she maintains an exquisitely exotic air about her, fancies great conversation almost as much as great food, and harbors a charisma and charm that magnetically draws in even strangers. She was the perfect date for such a special lunch. Not to mention that all eyes would be on her while being escorted to our seats, hopefully distracting any awareness that a pigeon had relieved itself on my sport coat just moments earlier.
As soon as we were seated, a server presented us with a dish of the most deliciously fluffy gougéres I have ever tasted. We were also presented wonderfully light sourdough dinner rolls, with ramekins of both sheep's milk and cow's milk butter. If they had simply kept bringing us tongs of bread and delicate and warm cheese puffs, I would have still walked away immensely satisfied. But they didn't stop there. In fact, the lunch we enjoyed that afternoon was, beyond any comparison, the single most luxurious, relaxing, and exquisite meal I have ever enjoyed, or even dreamt of enjoying.
My parents told me at a young age that if someone is genuinely great, excellent, or even rich that they won't have to broadcast it or tell you. Walking the walk always speaks decibels above talking the talk. While I have certainly found this to ring true in the people I have met in my life, I think the same applies for genuinely great restaurants. Too many fine dining establishments work so hard to convince their Amex-Black-carrying patrons of their elite affinity for grandeur that they often exclude almost everyone else in the suffocating snobbery and ceremony.
If the staff at Eleven Madison Park was aware that my shirt had not been custom tailored for today's luncheon, they certainly did not let on. Never before have I been treated so graciously, and made to feel so welcome... even if my own income annually adds up to less than even one of the lighting fixtures around me.
While we looked over the menu and discussed drinks, we were treated to an amuse bouche that actually followed through on its intention, by definition. The baby carrot marshmallows, and foie gras with asparagus gelée on black pepper sablé (a classic french cookie, sablé translates to "sand", so named because of it's crumbly texture) certainly tempted our palates, and offered a teasing glimpse at the chef's culinary philosophy. I think that if I'd first been introduced to carrots this way, I'd have eaten far more over the course of my lifetime (I ordinarily rather dislike them, truth be told). The natural sweetness just seemed perfect in this playful orange cloud that disintegrated on my tongue, leaving a kiss of carrot that vanished entirely too quickly, and piquing my excitement for more.
Daniel Humm is known for his expertise in molecular gastronomy, an artistically scientific approach to cuisine that focuses on the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking. One of Humm's perfected approaches is a process known as sous vide ("under vacuum") which involves sealing many of the proteins in air tight plastic bags, and then cooking them over longer periods of time submerged in water at temperatures below boiling. The result? An intensity and purity of flavor in his meats. Imagine no grill marks, no sauté burns, and no charred tiny brown bits. The lobster, for example, tasted so pure and fresh that it seemed as if the ocean itself had warmed to just below boiling before tossing us a platter with the most beautifully plump steamed lumps, untainted by skillets, grills or even utensils.
Choosing the menu was a simple task. They offer two courses for $28 or three for $42, so you could certainly tailor a meal to a reasonable price point (especially considering the cuisine and all of the additional touches). As I didn't know when or if we'd be dining here again, or how to even begin to choose two or three courses, we simply selected the Gourmand, a six-course sampling of the menu for $78.
Wine pairings were offered for an additional cost, but as we were dining at noon on a weekday, opted simply to enjoy a glass or two... or so we intended. I began with a cocktail (pictured above), the Event Horizon. Our server took all of my requests into consideration (sweet, fruity, not too sweet, and no grapefruit) and the result was one of the most refreshing martinis I've enjoyed. Comprised of Pisco Acholado (a Chilean brandy blended from three grapes), lemon juice, kaffir lime syrup (a particularly tangy lime from southeast Asia), and Gomme Arabic (basically, a sophisticated simple syrup that offers a silky texture to the cocktail, and cuts the bite of the alcohol), the result was something I'd liken to a velvety, crisp, gimlet, tasting very much like a gentle spring citrus breeze.
When Kinga hinted that she might be contemplating a glass of bubbly, the sommelier instantly appeared with a brass cart filled with ice and bottles of champagne. As she raised each selection from the frozen crystals, she gave us the story of the vineyard, as well as a basic flavor profile. I saw Kinga's eyes twinkle as we listened to the description of Un Jour de 1911, a pinot noir blend of three different vintages, aptly named A Day in 1911 as it reflects the champagne style of that time. It came as no surprise that Kinga chose the one with the most elaborate back story.
The first course was certainly an overture to the meal, and a gorgeous porthole into the chef's incomparable abilities. A tiny egg arrived on a pedestal sitting on a terrace of three plate liners. The presentation was simple and dramatic, and I absolutely loved it. Inside was a custard of sea urchin roe, along with a shellfish ragout, all topped with a green apple foam. The almost citrusy and sweet foam made the flavors pop, and spotlighted the tiny troupe of shrimp and crustaceans with lavishly creamy uni.
Next came yet another "additional course" not listed on the tasting menu. The boyishly handsome manager, Dan, introduced himself to Kinga and me (with a lavishly thick and proper English accent), and presented us with a silver flower pot of "spring lollipops" (the words bounced on his British lilt like gum balls onto our table). Each contained a frosty puree of either garden pea with mint or carrot with kasha. The disc of filling had been dipped in brown butter, he explained, and then solidified in a bath of liquid nitrogen.
Dan watched for our initial expressions as if presenting us with Christmas presents he had lovingly selected specifically for us. I bit first into the green one. Tiny crystals of fleur de sel tickled my tongue awake, before giving way to a buttery ribbon of green peas just kissed with a hint of mint. I couldn't do anything else but laugh. The texture of a dessert, the pageantry of a holiday gift giving, and the savory notes of the most wonderful spring side dish.
Waiting nervously as if my opinion alone would determine the success of this playful tidbit, Dan asked with an air of genuine sincerity, "So... what do you think...?"
"This is outrageously delicious and fun!" I almost yelled without thinking.
Apparently satisfied with our reactions, he winked at us and smiled. "Oh good, I'm so glad you enjoy it!" And he left Kinga and I to enjoy our treats and discuss the clever play on textures, images, and flavors.
I ordered just one more cocktail, while Kinga, beautifully seduced by the entire experience, continued tastings of wines paired with each course. Before each new dish was presented, the sommelier came again to our table to discuss Kinga's options and preferences without a hint of snobbery or pretense. The star of my cocktail, the Madison Park Smash, was Royal Combier (a blended elixir of triple sec, cognac, aloe, nutmeg, myrrh, and cinnamon, just to name a few ingredients) blended over crushed ice with lemon, turbinado sugar (crushed freshly cut sugar cane spun in a centrifuge), angostura bitters, and a stunning bouquet of fresh mint.
Our next course was a refreshing spring asparagus salad with grapefruit and a poached egg yolk. Though I had snubbed this pink citrus in my cocktail selection, in this dish, it won me over for the first time in my life. I've savored several fried soft-centered eggs, but never before have I enjoyed a breaded soft egg yolk. I can't even begin to fathom the technique involved. And with the citrusy salad to liven it, it was a refreshing role reversal for the yolk to enjoy center stage, without the egg whites.
Never have I seen or tasted such a beautiful foie gras torchon, filled with tete de cochon and crowned with horseradish, amidst a kaleidoscope of pickled spring vegetables and little pork-kissed gelatin orbs from the cochon juices. It actually reminded me of the iconic pointillist masterpiece by Georges Suerat, "Sunday on la Grande Jatte". The entire plate was as stunning as an afternoon in the park, yet if you focused in on one or two individual dots of color (or flavor) you may find a parasol, a bouquet, or even a sailboat... all ultimately beautifully unified in the greater piece.
Served with grilled toast points, I couldn't help pairing various vegetables, gels, and foie gras for endlessly enjoyable combinations.
When presented with the first main dish (pictured more clearly at the heading of this post) both Kinga and I could only stare at its beauty and carefully savor the curious blend of both excitingly new and comfortably familiar aromas. Glistening ruby medallions of gorgeous nova scotia lobster were painstakingly poised atop a silky puree of young carrots, scarfed with ribbons of ginger and a dusting of Vadouvan (somewhat like a French curry) granola. Our server then presented a charged metal canister, with which he proceeded to lightly blanket the lobster in a mildly orange sabayon (somewhat like an airy and decadent whipped italian custard with citrus zest). Buttery poached lobster and crisp granola flakes simultaneously soft-shoed and tap danced on my tongue with smooth egg custard, flashes of aromatic onion curry, and then a bit of orange... each flavor enjoying its own solo within the greater harmony of an utterly superb plate.
As if we had not already been absolutely swept off of our feet in pure culinary bliss, next came a medley of herb-roasted Colorado lamb, braised shank, crispy sweetbreads (the insides more tender and delicious than I ever knew they could be), and even including a single tortellini of lamb shoulder with goat cheese and mint (had it not come so late in the pacing, I would surely have ordered an entire bowl of these pasta pillows on their own). Though I neglected to ask, I'm again assuming Daniel Humm's sous vide technique, which would explain why this was the most delicious and tender, evenly roasted lamb I have tasted, beautifully garnished with garden peas, sucrine lettuce (a sweet romaine with bitter end notes to help balance the lamb's richness), and hearty but tender Oregon morels.
It was just as the server was inquiring if we would like coffee with our final course that I first glanced at the time.
Was it actually 3:30?
For three and a half hours we had enjoyed an almost unexplainably glorious lunch, along with conversations and stories I will not soon forget. Having Kinga as a dining companion certainly reminds me that the company you choose is even more important than the dishes you order. I couldn't imagine a more perfect lunch date to have shared this experience.
Dessert was breathtaking, and even left Kinga momentarily stunned and speechless. A cocoa-dusted dome of bittersweet chocolate crémeux with a quenelle of banana ice cream on a light brushing of black sesame (a touch that reminded me instantly of the grapefruit tart at Momofuku Ssam Bar, this rendition sans the cream cheese of David Chang's divination, allowing the sesame here to really catapult the sweetness of the banana and the tang of the yuzu). The crémeux is then crowned with a paper thin spiced banana tapioca tuile. Tiny caramelized marbles boasted a thin and crunchy outer shell that give way to a sweet and subtly sour banana inside, with teardrops of yuzu caramel and miniature specks of citrus gelée. So playful, so gorgeous, and so delicious.
Next came what we erroneously assumed to be the final "additional surprise", a long boat of macarons, apparently all the rage at any prominent Manhattan restaurant, as I have enjoyed these following nearly every meal this past month. It is without hesitation that I proclaim Eleven Madison Park to deliver the most wonderful macaron I have ever tasted. The egg-shell delicate outside succumbs to an airy cloud of fillings, and in this array, the most delicious pastes perhaps ever to have graced the inside of a pastry. From left to right, we enjoyed peanut butter & jelly, white sesame with honey, cocoa nib and mint, mango, fennel grapefruit, pink peppercorn caramel, and vanilla rhubarb.
Kinga and I must have savored these tiny cookie clouds for at least twenty minutes (taste just one, and you will immediately understand), each triggering a sensory memory from our past. Kinga recalled the first time she had a PB&J in the suburbs of Chicago, and we both agreed the fennel grapefruit tasted like Paris. As Kinga pointed out, each macaron was packed with just the right intensity of flavor... any more, and they would have been outrageous... any less, and they might have tasted like chalk. But somehow balancing that high wire of perfection, we ended up with a complimentary ending course that left us smiling perhaps greater than any of the aforementioned dishes had.
Maybe they do it for everyone. I honestly paid no regard to any guest around us during that perfect meal. Maybe they loved seeing us love the food so much. But when the server presented us with a complimentary bottle of cognac to pour at our discretion, it was a ribbon on the package that put us over the top. For an entire afternoon, we had been pampered like royalty, and allowed to forget everything beyond the walls of the Metropolitan Life Building, bonding as two cherished friends over exquisite food, drink, and hospitality.
Just when we believed the level of hospitality and generosity had reached its pinnacle, a humidor was wheeled to our table, and we were invited to choose two cigars for our post-dinner recreation. Our server even brought us an embossed portfolio to take with us, filled with individual cards explaining each of the wines Kinga had enjoyed, so that we could refer for our future enjoyment.
For those who wrinkle their nose at a $78 price tag for a lunch tasting, I can't tell you I've enjoyed or even received so much for that amount. Though we had a few other beverages, a few of Kinga's wines were complimentary, and the ones on the bill were charged at a reduced tasting price, not to mention the extra courses, cognac, and cigar.
I am no critic for an esteemed newspaper. I simply write this homemade blog sharing my adventures in New York City, funded by my own dollar. However, on that day, more than anything, we were simply two friends enjoying laughter and life. But the team at Eleven Madison Park made us feel as though we were the most important patrons to have ever stepped foot on their marble floors.
When we finally exited after nearly five hours, the entire cast that had served us bid us a kind farewell. When Dan approached, Kinga couldn't help but ask if he was Russian. Despite his eloquent speech, she was baffled, wondering if his blonde hair and striking features placed him further east. "But he has a British accent, Bradley..." she had said earlier, to which I had replied, "so does Madonna sometimes... but it doesn't make her English!"
After assuring Kinga that he was, in fact, from England, he smiled coyly and said, "but you are most certainly from Poland, am I correct?" Kinga wilted a little bit, and replied, "is my accent that obvious?"
"Not at all... I hadn't even noticed it. I've just always been told the most beautiful women in the world are from Poland..." He winked again, and we both sighed, before walking through the glass doorway into the sunshine.
As we smoked our cigars in Madison Square Park, we were at a near loss for words to describe what had just transpired. Instead, we simply hugged each other, laughed, and found a park bench to relax and unwind. When we were finished, we exchanged grateful hugs and kisses, knowing this was a meal we would both remember for a long time.
And then we parted ways to head home for a long nap.