Eleven Madison Park
Feb. 26, 2013
11 Madison Avenue, New York – http://www.elevenmadisonpark.com
When we initially decided to go on our NYC culinary adventure, Camille and I emailed Scott Weingart, the only person we knew in New York. In addition to being a famous medicine podcaster over at EMCrit, Scott is also a big time foodie. A little known fact is that Scott did a few years of culinary school prior to medicine. We first met Scott in Las Vegas at Essentials of EM, when we went out to Lotus of Siam with Scott and a slew of other famous bloggers/podcasters. He is a hilarious and down to earth dude who likes to have a good time, eat great food, and make dirty jokes. Pretty much the same as us.
On this occasion we had the pleasure of meeting his wife, who is a double boarded Pediatrician and Peds Anesthetist. In keeping with the typical anesthetist, she is a little calmer and less ADD than Scott, and overall just a super nice person.
After discussing a few possible restaurants, we decided on Eleven Madison Park (EMP), one of three Michelin 3-star restaurants on this trip, along with Per Se (review here) and Jean-Georges.
First some background on EMP. Situated on the main floor of the Metropolitan Life North Building, EMP has a massive amount of space (much of it kitchen) because the Met Life building was originally intended to be 100 stories tall. Designed by Corbett and Waid in the 1920s, the Met Life building would have been the world’s tallest building at the time, were it not for the stock market crash of 1929. Looking at it from the outside, you can see the original intent to be a monstrosity towering over Manhattan. Unfortunately, it looks a little stumpy next to the South Met Life Tower.
To start the evening we had a bottle of 1996 Fleury Champagne. Fleury is a biodynamic producer making a small amount of predominantly Pinot Noir Champagne. Coming from the legendary 1996 vintage, this 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay Cuvee was fantastic with baked apple, lemon, toast and cinnamon on the nose. There was also an oxidative quality on the nose and palate, somewhat like the 1986 Krug Clos de Mesnil we had at Richard’s birthday. The most striking characteristic was the intense acidity, almost at the level of an extra brut. Fermented in stainless steel, this was like pure malic acid, which gave it a medium-plus finish. In a good spot right now, this versatile Champagne could be paired with anything from fish to pork.
Onto the food.
A primary theme of our menu at EMP was “New York”. How novel.
We would both start and finish the meal with a traditional NYC snack, the black and white cookie. Typically, the “half and half” is a sweet cookie composed of half vanilla fondant and half chocolate fondant. In this meal, we would begin with a savory black and white cookie, and complete the meal with the sweet version.
Cheddar – Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple
A delicate cookie with ample cheddar flavor and soft crunch, these were filled with crab apple chutney. Having had the Per Se gruyere gougere a few days earlier, I wished for a bit more richness and depth of flavour. Akin to a glorified Goldfish cracker, this was a decent palate cleanser to begin the meal.
Oyster – Sorrel, Buckwheat, and Mignonette
The next course was presented beautifully, a Duxbury oyster topped with Champagne vinegar mignonette, puffed buckwheat and sorrel. While a lovely presentation, this dish was a total miss for Camille and I, for different reasons. Camille’s oyster was too heavy on the mignonette, while mine was ridiculously over peppered. In both cases, the entire mouthful was overwhelmed by a single flavour, acid for Camille and black pepper for me. In hindsight, this was the single biggest miss of any dish during the trip, which encompassed well over 100 individual dishes during the 7 days. Harsh words to be sure, but this dish really failed due to its lack of balance.
Shrimp – Marinated with Olive Oil, Horseradish, and Fennel
Next up was a taste of sweet Maine shrimp, with fennel and horseradish used to highlight the natural flavour of the shrimp. Creamy and rich, the shrimp was good, though a bit gelatinous in texture from having multiple pieces so close together. Reminiscent of a Chinese shrimp dumpling in texture, if you like those, you would enjoy this. For me a good, but not great dish.
At this point you’re probably like “Wow, this meal sucked”! In hindsight, the first three courses were pretty weak, though it would improve from here.
At this point we opened a Riesling alongside the Fleury, to pair with subsequent courses. At the suggestion of our Sommelier, I went with a 2002 Schlossgut Diel Dorsheimer Goldloch Riesling Kabinett. Pure kerosene on the nose initially, with honey and lemon notes, this was on the sweeter side for a Kabinett, and a bit lacking in acidity. Overall a solid wine, but more acidity would have added balance and improved it immensely. For the same price point, I should have gone with the 2002 Karthauserhof Kabinett, a far superior wine.
Note: The 2002 vintage in Germany is vastly underrated, and wines can be had at bargain prices from this vintage. The Germans are meticulous about their viticulture, and almost always make great wines, even in the toughest vintages.
Sea Urchin – Custard with Apple Gelée and Scallop
This dish was light and balanced, the softness of the panna cotta and uni contrasting with the firmer scallop texture. Lemon juice and tart apple gelee provided acidity and brightened the fish flavour. While very good, this was nowhere near the caliber of a similar Uni dish we would have at Bouley later in the week.
Clam – Surf Clam with Morcilla Sausage and Celery Root
The first “wow” course of the meal, the crumbled morcilla sausage provided depth and richness, while the light and airy celery root espuma was a perfect foil to the heavier sausage. There were also sweet tiny pieces of pear, celery root and chive to complement the clam. An excellent course.
Top left: Hot water poured over the rocks and kelp releasing the aroma of the ocean. Top right: Sliced raw whelk with shaved fennel, couscous, and lemon vinaigrette. Bottom left: Littleneck clam with radicchio and pear Bottom right: Clam chowder
Clam – Clambake with Whelk, Parker House Roll, and Chowder.
One of several elaborate multi-part courses of the dinner, this began with the great aroma of the hot water poured over the rocks to ignite the senses. The whelk (snail) was light and balanced by the freshness of lemon and fennel, with a slight crunch from the couscous. The radicchio and pear were a classic pairing to match with the clam, and again were fresh and vibrant. The best part was the clam chowder. Rich and deep, this was the essence of clam.
Parker House rolls: Rich, buttery and delicious and topped with great finishing salt. Nuff said.
Bread and Butter
The second bread course was a light, flaky roll paired with two different butters. The first was from the Chef’s favorite creamery, while the second contained some of the beef fat from out upcoming rib eye course. Both were superb.
Scallop – Seared with Radish, Caviar, and Apple
Creme fraiche, caviar and scallop, how can you go wrong? This was an elegant presentation and had clean flavours with multiple textures of scallop (fresh and steamed). The apple and radish provided crunch, sweetness and heat. A well composed and balanced dish.
Carrot – Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments
The next course would be another interactive and memorable one. A play on the traditional tartare course, lightly blanched carrots were ground tableside and served with a variety of garnishes including (from top left): apple mustard, sunflower seeds, pickled quail egg yolk, smoked bluefish, chives and broccoli flower, pickled mustard seed, grated horseradish, pickled apple, and Amagansett sea salt. There were also two squeeze bottles which contained spicy carrot and mustard oil, respectively.
Mixing all of the accompaniments with the carrot, this dish was a spectacular success, with huge depth of flavour and balance. The sweetness of the carrot was offset by the spicy oils and horseradish, acidity of the pickled apple and mustard seed, with all the flavours tempered by the rich egg yolk. This had all the components of a 5/5 dish, great flavour, originality and creativity, while simultaneously being visually impressive and interactive.
Lobster – Poached with Citrus, Tarragon, and Daikon
Another beautifully presented course, the sweet lobster was elevated by subtle flavours of daikon radish, dehydrated citrus (grapefruit and blood orange) and tarragon. Licorice from the fennel, acidity from the citrus and a touch of heat from the daikon, this was a well executed and balanced dish.
1999 AR. Pe. Pe Sassella Rocce Rosso Riserva
From Valtellina in the Northern province of Lombardy, this 100% Nebbiolo (known as Chiavannesca in Valtellina) was chosen to pair with the upcoming beef and cheese courses, though it would do fine with many fishes as well. Garnet in color, a traditional Nebbiolo nose of cherry, tar, and mushroom, this had racy acidity on the palate and improved over the evening. A great, less expensive alternative to Barolo/Barbaresco.
140 Day Aged Rib Eye
The piece de resistance of the meal at EMP, the 140 day aged rib eye was the oldest I’ve ever tried. Brought out two courses before it would be served, it was fascinating to see the extent of the mold development after almost 5 months of hanging. The mold extended at least 3/4 of an inch deep around the cap, and probably a good 1/4-1/2 inch around the bone. The marbling of the rib eye was impressive as well, though it has to be in order to be capable of dry aging for this long.
Potato – Baked with Bonito Cream, Shallot, and Pike Roe
A contrast of textures, this course included smashed fingerling potatoes, a crispy russet skin and a potato cup. This was effectively still a fish course, with the strong Bonito cream and black shellfish sauce being tempered by the velvety potatoes. Another very good course.
Beef – Beef Broth
The multi-part beef course began with beef broth made from the delicious 140 day aged rib eye. Deep, rich, and closer to a demi glace than a jus, this was unctuous and amazing. A perfect broth.
Beef – Grilled with Mushrooms, Amaranth, and Bone Marrow
This was another of the standout courses at EMP, and typically we find beef courses to be overrated. The grilled beef was perfectly cooked over charcoal, and amazingly deep in flavour due to the extended dry aging. There was also an exquisitely tender morsel (beside the hen of woods mushroom in the photo) which may have come from the cap, though I’m not sure. It was sublime. The accompanying bone marrow was soft and rich, while the amaranth and black garlic were a crispy contrast. The Hen of Woods mushroom was charred nicely and the dish was reminiscent of the “burnt forest mushroom” course from Alinea last year.
Beef – Braised Oxtail with Foie Gras and Potato
The final part of the beef course was similarly excellent. The ultimate custard, this was a perfect dish of deep oxtail, rich foie gras and topped with potato foam. I could eat a vat of this.
Greensward – Pretzel, Mustard, and Grapes
Another playful course, we were next presented with a picnic basket containing everything we would need for our “Picnic in Central Park”. The cheese was a soft, nutty, cow’s milk with a washed rind. There was also a pretzel bread, mustard, grapes and a craft beer from Ithaca Brewery. The beer was a high acid, “food beer”, much like the Jolly Pumpkin or Jose Andres ales, and paired awesomely with the bread, cheese and mustard.
Malt – Egg Cream with Vanilla and Seltzer
Another New York tradition, this was our first experience with egg cream, a carbonated vanilla drink. This was good, but nothing special.
Maple – Bourbon Barrel Aged with Milk and Shaved Ice
The first of two plated desserts, this was like the French-Canadian tradition of shaved ice with maple syrup. Except that was picked up with popsicle sticks instead of a spoon. The bourbon gave it a little extra oak and spiciness, and this was a delicious, if somewhat nostalgic course.
Earl Grey – Sheep’s Milk Cheesecake, Honey, and Lemon
This was a well balanced dessert with a rich but not overly heavy cheesecake, loads of bergamot from the Earl Grey, and some nice acidity from the lemon and creme fraiche. Very enjoyable.
At this point our server came out with a deck of cards and performed a magic trick, in which we selected a point in the deck and she then flipped four cards, each with an ingredient symbol upon it. They lifted an upside down cup previously placed on our table to reveal the exact chocolates we had selected (different for each person). The server did a good job from the illusion standpoint, though Camille didn’t listen to her spiel at all, and watched for the obligate deck switch during the trick. Overall, I thought it was well done, and about as good an incorporation of magic as could be expected.
The chocolate itself had a thin crispy outside and creamy hazelnut center.
Tea Service – Oolong
Quite simply, this was the best tea service we’ve ever had.
EMP offers a tableside Manhattan cart to begin the meal, and optional tableside coffee/tea at the end. Being major tea lovers, we opted for an Oolong from The Pursuit of Tea.
This was served Gongfu cha style, with a rinse followed by three steepings. We asked for a fourth steeping, preferring the delicate flavors of later steepings. A separate server came to do the tea service, he was caring, meticulous, and timed each steeping.
It was a high quality Oolong with medium oxidation and still fairly green. The first two steepings were earthy, spicy and had good astringency/tannin, while the third and fourth steepings were subtle, with delicate floral notes and virtually devoid of tannin. A fantastic tea service, something we should adopt at home.
Pretzel – Chocolate covered with sea salt
The penultimate dessert was a large chocolate pretzel. We love pretzels, and these were great.
Chocolate – Sweet Black and White Cookie with Apricot
The final dessert brought us back to where we started, with a sweet black and white cookie. This time a butter cookie filled with apricot chutney, these were more enjoyable than the savory version at the start of the meal.
Apple Brandy Eau de Vie
If you need an after dinner drink, their Eau de Vie is complimentary.
The EMP-Alinea Connection
In September 2012, Alinea and Eleven Madison Park traded locations for 1 week each. A crazy idea, it was apparently conceived by Chefs Grant Achatz of Alinea and Daniel Humm of EMP over a few drinks one night. And thus, Grant Achatz brought his team to EMP and Daniel Humm’s staff traveled to Chicago. Video footage of this monumental event can be seen here on YouTube.
This meal had a definite Alinea feel to it, particularly with the interactive courses, opening of boxes and baskets to see what was inside, and the presentation/flavors of the rib eye and clam dishes. I am not sure if these were conceived before or after the Alinea exchange, but in any case, they were the highlights of the meal at EMP. I am curious what techniques were adopted over at Alinea.
After our dinner, Camille and I toured the EMP kitchen and had a nice 5-10 minute chat with the Chef de Cuisine. The most notable things about EMP’s kitchen were:
1)It is massive. Being the base floor of a proposed 100 storey building allows for a huge amount of space.
2)The atmosphere is happy. Most kitchens of this caliber are very business-like. At Per Se and Alinea, the kitchens are nearly silent, save for the voice of one person at a time. EMP actually had a few people talking, joking, and they seemed to be genuinely enjoying themselves.
The Chef de Cuisine gave us some insight into the EMP/Alinea exchange, and apparently the kitchen environment at Alinea is just a tad more militant than it is at EMP. That’s putting it mildly. If you read Achatz’s autobiography, I think you’ll get a sense of how things run at Alinea.
Only gripe was that they did not tell us what was in the course a few times because we were talking amongst ourselves. This is a matter of personal preference, but I like to be gently interrupted when a course arrives so that I can hear the details. A few times they just put it down and walked off, without waiting for even a second for us to stop talking. Eventually we decided to shut ourselves up whenever they came with a new course.
EMP had several spectacular courses, and has the potential to be a 5/5 meal. The carrot tartare, clam espuma and rib eye courses were memorable and were “wow” dishes in conception and execution. The playfulness and interaction also added to the overall experience. Unfortunately, the first 4 courses underperformed, and the oyster with mignonentte was a huge miss. Because of this, based on this meal, EMP does not fall into the pantheon of our greatest meals, and I’m unsure that I would re-visit on my next NYC trip.
Special thanks to Fooder from Chowhound and ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot.com for many of the pictures for this dinner. You can read his take on the same meal at his blog, linked above. It was very dark in EMP, and some of my photos did not turn out that great.
Thanks for reading,