We all have a list, somewhere in our brains, of things we mean to do–of places we want to eat, things we want to cook, people we want to kill. Sometimes we forget what’s on those lists so that when mom calls and says, “I’m coming to New York with dad for that cruise we booked” (they’re going on a Fall Foliage cruise) “where should we go to lunch?” I really have no idea what to suggest. But then mom says, “Have you heard of 11 Madison Park?” and suddenly the list illuminates in your brain and you say, “Oh yes! That’s on my list!” And mom says: “What list?” and she locks you up in an asylum.
And so it was that I met mom and dad on Friday for lunch at 11 Madison Park, right near my apartment:
I arrived early and held my ears as men outside the restaurant jackhammered the sidewalk. Across the street a cell phone commercial was being shot. Once arrived, mom, dad and I made our way in and announced our arrival. Heads turned. “Maybe we should tell the maitre’d and not the entire restaurant,” I suggested.
The room was spacious and pretty:
We were shown to a table in a crappy section on the third tier and mom, never one to accept a crappy table, asked for a table in the middle VIP section. “One second,” said the host, who slipped away and came back and reported we could have a middle VIP table. We did a VIP jig.
So 11 Madison Park is owned by Danny Meyer who owns The Union Square Cafe and Shake Shack and other well known dining institutions. In addition to being a great chef, Mr. Meyer is also a great business man: he creates brand identities with his restaurants that burrow their way into your brain so that unlike the generic Italian joint you visit in the theater district, a Danny Meyer restaurant stands singular and strong in your memory. Take, for example, the butter:
The butter, as you can see, is shaped like a maple leaf. That same maple leaf design is reflected on the menu and, if you study the first picture at top, there’s a maple leaf over the menu display. These are subtle (or not so subtle?) business school tactics that seem to work. 11 Madison Park and The Union Square Cafe are two of the most popular restaurants in New York.
Well. For my money, 11 Madison Park doesn’t come anywhere near the Union Square Cafe. If you remember, we were at…
[Whoah, I just did my usual Google search “Amateur Gourmet Union Square Cafe” and nothing came up. Then I did a bunch of “Molly Union Square Cafe” because Molly’s name was in the title of that post and still nothing. And now I realize that my site isn’t Googleable any more. What’s happening? Why doesn’t my site come up at all when you do Google searches? Have I been ousted from Google?!?!?]
…The Union Square Cafe a few weeks ago and we had an awesome experience. Granted, my friend was our waitress but, still, the rest of the service was impeccable and the food was awesome. At 11 Madison Park we had a crappy waiter. He had very little to say when it came to what we should order. He rarely visited our table and we had to work very hard to get his attention for coffee. And it’s not like the room was wildly busy, it was only 3/4s full. So that was frustrating.
But some of the food was, indeed, fantastic. Check out this appetizer: “Heirloom Tomato Salad with Black Truffle Panna Cotta and Chianti-Basil Vinaigrette.”
This is Danny Meyer at his best: fresh, seasonal ingredients (heirloom tomatoes) with a highly unusual and highly delicious complement (black truffle panna cotta) and a slightly familiar, slightly strange condiment (chianti-basil vinaigrette). With that picture above I can truly say it’s really as good as it looks.
But with our entrees, we felt a bit cheated. I had “one-side seared tuna tartare with avocado, fried capers and lemon vinaigrette”:
It was tasty, yes, but guess how much it cost? Are you ready? $24!
That’s way too much money for this amount of food. This is an appetizer portion. It’s innovative, yes, but it’s barely an entree and certainly not worth the price. So that’s a mark-down for Mr. Meyer
And mom and dad really didn’t love their entrees.
Mom had “Cripsy Cod Cakes with Linguica Sausage and Spicy Tomato Vinaigrette” and dad had “Cocoa-Spiced Atlantic Salmon with Parsnips, Yellow Chive and Fresh Bay Leaf Broth.”
“Why is this in a soup bowl?” dad inquired.
“Because of the fresh bay leaf broth?” I suggested.
“Oh, of course,” he replied.
To dad, this place had the credibility of a shrunken head museum or a Tom Cruise marriage. He wasn’t buying it. [Well, technically he WAS buying it, but you get what I mean.]
Mom had heard exciting things about the french fries, so we ordered those too:
They were tasty. They came with marjoram aioli. They were $8.
Dessert resucitated our dying love affair with 11 Madison Park. Meet the Dark Chocolate Dome with Caramel Cream and Pistachio crunch Ice Cream:
If you were a cartoon character, you might say: “GADZOOKS!”
And this was right up to par with the heirloom tomato salad we started with. It’s really only the entrees in between and the service that disappointed. But when you’re paying as much as you are at 11 Madison Park, stuff like that matters.
In conclusion, then, go for the heirloom, stay for the dome, but don’t let the Maple Leaf Butter pattern fool you. When it comes to Danny Meyer greatness, Union Square Cafe reigns supreme.