Monday, January 31, 2011

Eleven Madison Park: Like a Well-Oiled Machine

Newly anointed James Beard Award winner Daniel Humm, and General Manager Will Guidara caused quite a stir when they closed Eleven Madison Park in September and made changes to the crown jewel in the Danny Meyer empire. First, the restaurant removed 34 seats, going from 113 to a more "intimate" 80. Next, the bar menu was dropped along with the restaurant's bargain $28 lunch. Clearly they hope to elevate their status from "just another one of Manhattan's great restaurants" to a world class culinary destination. Eater, Chowhound and eGullet boards were filled with comments ranging from curiosity to downright anger (who said people don't love 11-course menus?) regarding the restaurant's revamp, proving that even New Yorkers are afraid of change.

It was one change in particular that garnered perhaps the most attention. I'm speaking of course about their now "infamous" grid menu. Flying in the face of menu status quo, Eleven Madison Park's new menu lists only a single item on a 3x4 (lunch) or 4x4 (dinner) grid. This inevitably resulted in even more anger, shock and confusion. Did this mean that diners would now have to trust the chef? Or even worse, would shy patrons be forced to interact with the front of the house? Only time would tell. 

Soon, positive reports began to trickle in regarding the restaurants latest iteration, with some even blasphemously proclaiming it as even better than before - Oh, no he didn't! Suffice it to say, I was more than intrigued by all these recent events, and decided to take matters into my own hands by booking a lunch reservation on a rare day off, allowing me to see exactly what all the fuss was about.

After entering through the restaurant's rotating doors emblazoned with Eleven Madison Park's iconic four leaf emblem, I was immediately greeted by a hostess who checked my coat and led me to my table. Seated against the furthest wall of the dining room's second level, I was treated to a spectacular view of the revamped interior. While the dining room still retained many of its signature characteristics (art deco, massive centerpieces and large windows overlooking Madison Park), the reduced seating was apparent.

Shortly after, a server arrived with a warm towel-- somewhat surprising (at least for a non-Japanese restaurant)-- but an appreciated gesture on such a cold day. My captain, Kevin, whom I had the pleasure of having on my previous visit, informed me that my menu was underneath the folded napkin and asked if I had any questions. While I did, I decided instead to fully entrust my meal in the capable hands of Chef Humm. To drink, I ordered an Iced Tea, which was served alongside a Simple Syrup (religiously refilled throughout my meal).

As I mulled my menu options, I snacked on a bowl of Gourgès. Light and cheesy, while these weren't the best version I've had (French Laundry and Per Se were better), they were still very good and helped whet my appetite.

One of the restaurant's most noticeable and well-received changes was the parade of amuses. Whereas before you were given a plate with three to four bite-sized treats, the restaurant now sends out a volley of composed amuses. This was perhaps the most distinct difference food-wise. Joining the consensus, I too felt this was the one area that the restaurant improved upon the most.

The first amuse was presented as a duo: a Chicken Veloutè poured table side from a tea pot and served in a tea cup. Piping hot, the veloutè was rich and tasted intensely chickeny. A wonderful opening.

A piece of Toasted Brioche with Black Truffle Butter and Chives accompanied the soup. Light, buttery, and full of pungent truffle flavor, the brioche was a fine counterpart to Chef Humm's play off a soup and sandwich, even if the toast limited to a single piece.

Next, a Smoked Sturgeon Sabayon with diced Smoked Sturgeon and Chive Oil was 
presented inside a hollowed out egg shell. The chive oil was located at the very bottom, forcing you to dig in order for the flavors to mix into a special dish.

The final amuse was a Soft-Poached Egg with Maitake and Shimeiji Mushrooms and a Mushroom Sabayon. It seems that eggs have become the ingredient du jour in haute cuisine, and this version was no slouch. Resting in a pool of silky mushroom sabayon was a perfectly slow-poached egg with even more earthy mushrooms. A wonderful segue into my first course.

First came bread service. Another holdover from the original restaurant, they still offer two different selections: a mini Picholine Olive and a petite French Baguette. Eleven Madison Park still also offers two types of butter: a Salted Cow's Milk Butter from Beurremont, VT and a Salted Goat's Milk Butter from Meyenberg, CA. Both contain the restaurant's logo and are served with a small bowl of Fleur de Sel.

My first course, Foie Gras, was actually comprised of two separate preparations (how dare they give me more foie gras!). First was a torchon of Foie Gras with minced Pineapple, Pickled Pearl Onions, Pain d'épices and Sorrel. The combination of rich foie with the sweet pineapple and acidic pearl onions was just stunning, as all of the components seemed perfectly balanced.

The second part was a Foie Gras Crème Brûlée served with a Rum Raisin Brioche. Unlike the one at Jean-Georges, which was more of a 
brûléed torchon, Eleven Madison Park's version was soft and creamy, more reminiscent of the namesake dessert. The brûlée was incredible by itself and the inclusion of the sweet and buttery brioche almost seemed like overkill!

My second course, Lobster, consisted of a Butter Poached Lobster Tail with Pear, Butternut Squash, Glazed Chestnuts, Plum Preserves and a Spiced Jus that was poured table side. Perhaps the one minor flaw in an otherwise incredible meal, the lobster was a bit tough, not what you tend to associate with properly butter poached seafood. However, the flavor profiles did mesh well, as the sweetness of the fruit and vegetables was a great pairing to the milder tail meat.

Although there were several worthy choices, ever since my initial taste of Chef Humm's fabulous Pork Confit, I've been entranced by his ability to work wonders with pork. So in hindsight, it was fairly obvious that I selected Pork as my final savory course. The dish featured Roasted Pork Loin and Confit Belly with Pickled Pearl Onion, Mustard Seed, Poached Pear and a Port Jus that was poured table side. Also included on the plate, but not in the description, were purple Peruvian potatoes, sauerkraut and morcia (a type of blood sausage). The pork belly was prepared sous vide, which helped keep it incredibly moist. The confit of belly meat was as good as I remembered-- only a smaller portion! Again, I was impressed with the overall balance of this dish as the pickled onion and sauerkraut provided just the right amount of acidity to help cut the unctuous pork.

Transitioning from savory to sweet, a server arrived with a pre-dessert entitled "Kir Royale." Eleven Madison Park's take on the classic cocktail containing cassis and champagne. This version contained a Cassis Sorbet with a Champagne Foam, Lemon Meringue Crumble and a Grape Tweedle. This playful course used the sweetness of the cassis sorbet to nicely counterbalance the tart and shockingly effervescent, champagne foam, while the tweedle and crumble provided some texture. Unlike many pre-desserts which appear to be little more than a throw away, this was a well-thought out and executed course that appealed to the senses as well as cleansing the palate.

Wanting something lighter (and not being a huge fan of chocolate) I chose Lemon as my dessert course. It was comprised of a Lemon Poppy Seed Cake with a Lemon Frozen Yogurt, Poppy Seed Crumble and Candied Olives. This dessert read like a study of lemon, presenting the flavor in various forms, textures and temperatures. In addition to its modern plating, the dessert also toed the line between sweet and savory, as the cold yogurt was light but bursting with lemon flavor. Meanwhile the salty poppy seed cake crumble and candied olives enhanced the natural sweetness of the fruit.

To finish the meal I was presented with a selection of petits fours: a Frozen Chocolate Banana Lollipop with Marcona Almonds and a thin version of Peanut Brittle. The frozen banana lollipop was cool and refreshing while the peanut brittle was sweet and far more brittle than more traditional versions.

Expecting the check, much to my surprise, Kevin arrived by my table and asked if I would like a kitchen tour. I was particularly interested since my only previous kitchen tour was before the revamp. I was taken into the kitchen and thanked Chef Humm for a memorable lunch then was led to a station on the side of the kitchen, where a pastry chef created a nitro cocktail for me. The "cocktails" change monthly and I was treated to what the restaurant called a Hemmingway Daiquiri. Typically consisting of Rum, Grapefruit Juice, Maraschino and Lime, the chef first created a rum sorbet with liquid nitrogen before making a grapefruit sour meringue, also with the help of some liquid nitrogen. To finish the cocktail, grapefruit segments and pop rocks were added for a touch of sweetness. The cocktail itself was tasty and fun and an ingenious way to add an interactive element to the standard kitchen tour.

With my check paid and coat retrieved, I couldn't help but reflect upon the last three hours I spent enjoying some truly amazing food and impeccable service. Rest assured, from the hostess who initially greeted me, to Kevin, my spectacular captain, and the countless others (both front and back of the house) who served my food, refilled my beverages and answered all of my questions, service was just as impressive as it has always been. Danny Meyer's Union Square Hospitality Group is certainly not slacking off when it comes to training some of the city's best servers.

To all the doubters and those on the fence worried about an inevitable decline resulting from the restaurant's revamp, please fear not. Eleven Madison Park is even more beautiful, with a more spacious dining room. Service is still stellar and Chef Humm continues to produce some of the best executed food in all of New York. This lunch alone quickly put to rest all of my fears of any drop off and only reaffirmed that Eleven Madison Park continues to operate like a well-oiled machine.

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010
(212) 889-0905

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

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