Craig and I had our one year anniversary on Sunday. We thought about renting a zip car and going somewhere out of state; we thought of returning to the location of our first date–Lucien, in the East Village, where I had a cassoulet that made the rest of the date quite uncomfortable (all those beans). But, ultimately, a gift certificate given to me on my birthday for the Union Square Hospitality group led us to Eleven Madison Park:
I’d been to Eleven Madison Park once before with my parents. But that was before the arrival of Daniel Humm, the hot new chef who single-handedly elevated the restaurant from two-stars to three in the Book of Frank Bruni. Of all the Union Square Hospitality restaurants we could have chosen–Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Cafe, The Modern–Eleven Madison Park seemed the most exciting. And when you click “continue” you’ll see why.
We ordered the Gourmand menu. That’s the multi-course tasting menu on the right side of the page that timid diners might shy away from. But we were ready to celebrate (and we were using a gift certificate) so we decided to go all out and from the following picture, you can see we made the right choice:
That’s just the start of the meal–listed simply, on the menu, as “Hors d’oeuvres”–but culinary students everywhere might want to print out that picture and tape it to their locker: it’s a case study in how to excite a diner, get them revved for what’s to come. Look at the colors, the placement, the way you want to press your fingers to the screen and snatch a tiny morsel for yourself right now this instant. This is the way a fine dining experience should begin: with gusto and flair.
[And as far as I can remember, that's a goat cheese tower; cucumber-wrapped sashimi, and a truffle macaroon with foie gras. Yowza!]
Next up: “Maine Diver Scallop: Corolle with ‘La Ratte’ Potatoes, Leeks and Sterling Royal Caviar.”
This was a comforting first course. The potatoes were smooth and velvety; the scallop was fresh and tasted like it graduated first in its class. The caviar added the necessary ZIP.
But that course didn’t wow like this course:
This course made Craig swoon: “Provence Asparagus: Cappuccino with Oregon Morels and Quail Egg.”
It’s a study in texture: there’s asparagus forth and mushroom cream and the gooey egg yolk and then a morel buried within. You dig your spoon all the way down and you come up with mind-blogging globs of different colors and then you taste and you “Mmmmm.” It’s unmissable.
And I wish I were Robyn of The Girl Who Ate Everything because then I could do this next plate justice:
That’s “Cape Cod Bay Peekytoe Crab: Cannelloni with Daikon Radish and Madras Curry.”
Your enjoyment of this dish, through the screen, probably matches the enjoyment I had eating it: it was almost entirely visual. Sure the crab tasted nice, the radish was a nice touch, but those dots were pretty impractical. Every time I tried to eat one I didn’t really know what to do. They simply looked great.
Next up: “Elevages Perigord” Foie Gras Torchon with Venezuelan Cocoa and Rhubarb:
A well done dish–and thankfully, still legal. Rhubarb is the perfect complement to foie gras: tangy and just sweet enough, it serves foie gras well.
Craig liked the Mediterranean Loup de Mer “Slow Cooked with Saffron Endive Nage”:
But not as much as I loved the next dish: Scottish Langoustine, Crisped with Lemon Verbena and Bok Choy:
This is almost exactly the same dish Joel Robuchon made in The New York Times just a few weeks ago when he was interviewed. He described it as incredibly simple: a langoustine wrapped in an African dough (I forget the name) and then deep fried. When I read about it then, I didn’t really get what was so great about it.
But tasting this version–I imagine they taste the same–I couldn’t believe the beauty of what was happening. The langoustine is the Dali Lami of shellfish. It’s positively supernatural: sweet and salty, the fullest embodiment of all that we love about eating from the sea. Cooked the way it was, for whatever reason, enhanced its flavors–maybe sealed everything in. And the crunch of the shell and then the sauce: this was my dish of the night. I give this the gold medal.
This dish actually came in last place
That’s: Four Story Hill “Ris de Veau,” Herb Roasted with California Celery and Perigord Truffles.
We don’t fault the restaurant for this dish: I think something about “ris” (which I think is a sweetbread) didn’t appeal to us. Lovely presentation though.
Not as lovely as this, though, the grand finale (as far as the savory food): Vermont Farm Suckling Pig, Three Variations with Cipollini Onions, Dried Plum Chutney and Five Spice Jus:
You can’t serve a dish like this and NOT be at the top of your game. It’s basically a deconstructed pig, but look at the artistry there. It’s almost gallery worthy.
Now that the looking’s over, though, we need to talk about the lower right. Sure, on the upper right you have a piece of the loin; in the middle you have braised shoulder, I think. But on the bottom right you have bacon wrapped sausage. Sounds great, right? But it tasted raw.
“This is raw!” I said to Craig as I bit in.
“No it’s not,” he said, eating his. “It’s just cooked that way.”
What way? The no heat way? I think this was some kind of pate-like preparation; it didn’t really appeal to me. But I quickly got over that when I ate the cippollini onion (which you see at the center at the top). If you could sneak into the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park and grab one thing for yourself, grab that. It’s more packed with flavor than the entire Time Warner Center.
Now on to cheese: Lynnhaven “Chevre Frais” with Heirloom Beets, Laudemio Olive Oil and Fleur de Sel:
Very nice. Not as nice as this, though:
That’s a pistachio macaroon with ruby grapefruit and strawberries. I loved it. Perfectly refreshing and happy and artfully presented, as you can see.
The meal ended with the obligatory chocolate dessert: Bittersweet Chocoalte Moelleux with passion Fruit Bourbon Sour.
Nicely done, if a bit predictable. Here’s Craig enjoying his:
And here, finally, is a trio of “lollipops”: a passion fruit filled doughnut, a chocolate peanut butter cookie and some kind of macaroon.
You may think we were stuffed out of our minds after eating all this food, but we really weren’t. The meal was paced well enough and the portions were reasonable enough that we left feeling perfectly happy and sated.
We did leave, however, not entirely in love with our meal. Well Craig loved it. I had some quibbles. Here they are:
1. Service. Craig agreed with this point, that our waiter was WAY too formal. I know Danny Meyer wrote the book on service (literally, he has a book, go Google it), but our waiter made us more and more uncomfortable the more we interacted with him. “How is everything?” he would ask as we ate each course. “Great,” we’d say. “Please,” he’d say and walk away. That was a weird response.
He just wasn’t human, he wasn’t natural. I hate unnatural service. I love a waiter who says something like, “Isn’t that langoustine awesome? I snuck three in the back when the chef wasn’t looking.” I like feeling like the waiter is a real human being, not a drone pretending to care about our meal while secretly plotting our deaths.
The sommelier/host guy was very friendly and we enjoyed talking to him. But we wished our waiter loosened up a bit.
We went on Easter at 9 PM and the place was dead. Daniel Humm wasn’t cooking that night and call me crazy, but I could feel it. Despite all the beauty of the dishes, and the precision with which they were executed, they weren’t electric. I wanted to know the artist himself was in the kitchen demanding an extra squirt of vinegar here, a dash of salt there. But that could all be in my head. Craig doesn’t agree with this point.
Our table was in the back left corner which, at first, we thought we’d love because we could overlook the whole giant restaurant (Craig compared it to Grand Central Station.) But, I quickly discovered, we were next to the waiter station, where the waiters congregated to enter orders into the computer and commiserate. It made me self-conscious as I talked to Craig, I always felt like our waiter was listening when he was there by himself. So that took a way, a bit, from the enjoyment.
4. Menu Quibble
It’s a brilliant menu, as you can see above, but it’s a static menu. Blue Hill serves equally complex, equally glorious food and changes their menu quite frequently. The fact that Eleven Madison Park has a static menu means that a lot of the components are sitting there already, only waiting to be assembled. The first five dishes were all cold dishes and that’s something I never really think about, but since Daniel Humm wasn’t there I just imagined a crew of dutiful chefs staring at assembly instructions and squirting dots here and painting stripes there. It wasn’t until the first hot dish came out (the loup de mer) that I felt like I was being COOKED for. It’s the same argument that Tom Collicchio used to eliminate Sam on Season Two of Top Chef.
These are minor quibbles. One of my screenwriting professors has an expression for seeing a good movie and not liking it: “bad viewing experience.” That can happen sometimes: you can be sitting in front of a talky couple, you could have gotten a speeding ticket on the way to the theater. Here, it was Easter Sunday and the place was dead. If we were there on a buzzy Friday night, maybe our experience would’ve been more electric.
And yet, the night was lovely and we rode our horse and carriage home clinking champagne glasses celebrating not only a great meal, but a great year together. Craig’s been a great sport, hasn’t he, letting me blog about him all year? Or maybe HE hit the jackpot: he says he ate better this year than he’s eaten his whole life. Either way, we’re both incredibly lucky to have found each other. He’s the best thing in my life—better than a langoustine.
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