Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dinner at Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park! Currently rated fifth best restaurant in the world, #1in America, #1 in NYC (Well.. according to The World's 50 Best Restaurants as sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Hey, if its anyone I trust, its Pellegrino!) It's an all-star restaurant no matter who you ask. And I got to go this past weekend. 

Everyone says EMP is "the best" or, at least, "among the best." And it got me thinking, what makes a restaurant good? Is it the level of prestige that follows the chef through their career, is it the size of their resume? Is it the level of service? Is it the quality of the menu? Does it need to have foie and lobster and truffles, maybe some caviar for old times' sake, all the ingredient staples of a luxury resto? Is it the amount of creativity each dish encompasses? Is it the visual appeal of the plating? Maybe, is it even the price tag itself? 

EMP has all of the above. There is no denying any of that. But I'm wondering, does anyone ever consider crave-ability? How often you think of a particular dish later? If you even want to try it for yourself at home? Or is it just something to consider and appreciate and then move on, like a painting in a museum? 

Restaurants of this caliber are rarely super memorable by the properties of flavor. It's more of an appreciation, a tasting, a fleeting moment of palette-ial (palletial?) pleasure. It's not usually something you remember vividly for long (with the exception of that half-seared salmon at Le Bernadin... years later and I'm still drooling over that dish and its perfect pinot noir wine pairing). But I digress. EMP is fantastic, the service is impeccable, the ceilings are soaring, the chef is a celebrity, the kitchen is spotless. And all 15 dishes of the tasting menu are beautiful and spectacular. But I do have to admit, this kind of fine dining makes me want to go home and whip up big pots of hearty dishes with handfuls of salt and approximations of garlic for the rest of the week.

The 15-course meal at 11 Madison Park is bookended by mini black and white cookies. Savory to start, sweet to finish. The first taste is a Cheddar. Each menu item is titled by an ingredient, as though that's all it is. Don't by coy, EMP. The consistency was like shortbread, there was a taste of tangy cheddar, like an awesome Cheezit (please forgive me for saying that) and a hint of apple. 

While I didn't think the wine pairings were as precise as Le Bernadin, I think the wines were more memorable here. This champagne -- Bereche & Fils, Reflet d'Antan, from France -- had this rich, deep flavor that sang between the bubbles like a wise old mermaid. 

Next dish: Sea Urchin.
The description says "Snow with Smoked Cantaloupe and conch." My notes include "yogurt." I'll be honest, I didn't know what was what here. There was the smoky melon flavor with a fishy undertone. But was the kibbly thing the melon? Or the sea urchin? The dish name is cute because I don't think many people would have any idea uni was even involved here. 

Next, Asparagus.
It looks like white asparagus on a shallow pink petre dish. But beneath the rhubarb-y front is a gelatinous core filled with caviar. This is where the creativity comes into play well at EMP. Little moments of surprise like this. 

Surf Clam, from maine. It's a creamy foamy bite. The description includes fava bean, pickled meyer lemon, green garlic. It's a divine bite, a little fishy, a little bright. It's poetry.

Time for a new kind of clam: Littleneck. This course mimicked a clam bake on the beach, something that brought back sweet memories for my dining partners. There's also whelk with couscous, parker house rolls, and, of course,...

... a smoky pot of clam chowder, which is milky and thin instead of thick and soupy. You drink it like a little cappuccino. 

They never count the bread and butter as a course, but, it's often something I really look forward to (because its familiar, its constant?)

To the left is cow's milk butter, and on the right, duck's milk butter. I know, I would never have thought that was a thing, either. It's thick and rich and fatty.

Now the token Foie Gras course. It was among my favorites, the cold terrine melting better than the butter itself, the heady hint of black truffle that plays alongside the earthy asparagus. This was really one of the most impressive dishes of the night. 

Then they came and affixed a meat grinder to the end of the table for the Carrot dish. I know, it's kind of blasphemy, right? But the carrot tartare -- with rye bread and condiments -- was arguably the most creative dish of the night, and definitely the most fun.

As he grinds the carrot he talks about the farm in Upstate NY the carrot came from, how it was harvested, the happy life it lived with its happy carrot friends.

We each got a dollop of carrot puree and tiny dishes of small condiments. There's carrot oil and mustard in tiny squirt bottles. There's a pickled raw quail egg and fish and ginger and pea and wasabi. 

The waiter recommended we did one row at a time and tasted as we went to see how the integration of new ingredients slowly transforms the tartare to a mature, finalized taste.

Now the Lobster dish, which might have been the bset of the night. It was the most tender, flavorful bits of lobster I've ever tried, poached with snap peas, served with crispy sweetbreads that offset the buttery texture, and morels that are completely saturated in what tasted like butter and lobster stock. And the sauce... wow. You'd be amazed at how much the bottom of a fork can scrape up before calling in the bread for Italian-style backup.

I have to admit that the wine parings have caught up to me for the Nettles dish. I remember the strong taste of spinach, not so much the nettles creamed with fingerling potatoes or the goat cheese foam (goat cheese foam? It sounds like the punchline to a hipster joke).

There was only one choice we had for the night: duck for three, or lamb for three? We went with the duck, of course, but we wound up feeling a bit confused when they showed us the entire duck breast and then brought it back to us in small bits that coulodn't have possibly added up to that entire breast. 

Especially not with the first of two duck courses, since it was duck prosciutto. The charcuterie was nice and salty; I don't remember the foie gras and pickled lettuce.

I DO remember the wine this course was big and fat and funky and tasted like horses that trampled into a sheep's barn and I couldn't get enough of it. 

When the Duck came, I remembered every bite. This was the only thing we had where I really pined for more. And rightfully so, because where's the rest of that duck? It's glazed with a fragrant, herbal honey lavendar topping. The skin is crispy, the meat is juicy, it is perfectly cooked. There are hints of rhubarb, pistachio and fennel. I could eat this every day and never get sick of it. 

Now back to the fun, but instead of clambake, its Greensward Picnic. There's a picnic basket with prezel, mustard, pickled strawberries, cheese. There's beer from Ithaca. The ceramic plates look like bent, misshapen picnic ware. I feel like I'm in Central Park on a half day Friday.

There will be another post for the desserts, but first let me make room for the Malt. I think it was made tableside. I don't remember the preparation as much as I do the surprise of that first sip, it's mellow egg cream with sweet vanilla and poppy seltzer. I don't usually like malted drinks, but this egg cream's for the books.

And so there it is, the first 12 courses in what is ultimately 16. It's fun, it's whimsical, it's luxurious. Add in a card trick at the table and it's theatrical dining at its best. What else can I say?

I really want to know what they did with the rest of that duck, though.

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