Sunday, September 13, 2009

Travel Dish: Eleven Madison Park

This is the last “The Single Guy and The City” post as I blog about my epic dinner while on vacation in New York. But don’t worry, there are more travel reports to come. Return this week for “The Single Guy Goes to Washington” as I post about my week in the Washington, D.C. area.

Going All the Way in Manhattan
11 Madison Ave. (at 24th), New York
Flatiron District
PH: 212.889.0905
Lunch, Mon.–Fri., noon to 2 p.m.; dinner, Mon.–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m. (Closed Sunday)
Reservations, major credit cards accepted


When heading to New York in August, I didn’t feel like any fancy dinners because I knew it would be hot and humid. I didn’t want to go anywhere that required a suit and tie.

So as I got my list of casual restaurants together, I kept seeing references to Eleven Madison Park as having one of the best meals in town. Then people told me that the fine-dining restaurant is an elegant room but that people could even wear jeans to dinner. The final push that made me make a reservation for dinner was when Frank Bruni, in one of his final reviews for the New York Times, gave Eleven Madison Park four stars just two weeks before I was to arrive in town. (Four stars = extraordinary)

My dinner at Eleven Madison was early in my vacation, as I arrived for my Tuesday night reservations. I did end up bringing a coat with me, but I wore jeans so I could be comfortable.

As I sat at my table, I scanned the expansive room with high ceilings and towering flower arrangements when it struck me that the space reminded me a lot of an episode of “Sex and The City.” Later on that night when I brought it up to my waiter, he confirmed that the restaurant was featured in the crucial episode when Carrie met Big for lunch and he told her that he was engaged and she stumbles down the steps of the dining room as she tries to leave. This was the closest “Sex and The City” moment I was going to experience on this trip.

Everyone around me were dressed in business attire (and many of them were much older), but even though the servers were also dressed in suits, when they spoke they were so natural and friendly that I didn’t feel any formality.

Don’t get me wrong. All the servers followed very choreographed routines in taking orders and delivering dishes to the table. For example, every time food arrives to a table, it usually comes with three people: 1) your main server who leads the parade, 2) a server carrying the dish, and 3) another server who’s carrying accompaniments. (In the beginning when the group of men arrived at my table, I always felt a slight sweat starting like I was going to be escorted to the principal’s office.)

As for the menu, you have a variety of ways to have dinner but it has to be some kind of prix fixe or tasting menu. The minimum is the three-course prix fixe menu for $88, then there are the seasonal and special tasting menus.

But since I was at Eleven Madison and it was the restaurant’s 11th anniversary this year, I went with the “Gourmand” tasting menu of 11 courses ($175). So let the epic eating begin! (Side note: The restaurant, despite the grand windows, became very dark and the only light I had at my table was a votive candle. So not all the courses are adequately featured in this post.)

The actual dishes aren’t spelled out in the menu so you’re left to the creative surprises from Chef Daniel Humm, who joined this landmark restaurant in 2006 from San Francisco’s Campton Place. Humm presents a very French influenced repertoire with California influences such as the emphasis on local and seasonal sourcing.

Even before I ordered, a small bowl of cheese puffs were brought to my table. (Sorry, there was a fancy French word for them but I didn’t write it down.) These were so light and airy, but they’re the type of puffs that had to be eaten warm and fresh. When I tried to save some for later, they didn’t have that same freshness like when it first arrived at the table.

Then there was a platter of amuse bouches: four cute little bites. They included a crunchy bite that looked like a little tomato but was crunchy like a cucumber, a foie gras cube with tomato essence, a smoked salmon topped bite and a little tart. Each bite provided a different texture and was an exciting preview of the innovation of Humm’s approach to dining.

Once the actual Gourmand tasting menu began, it went like this:

1. First up was sturgeon caviar over panna cotta served with warm blinis. The panna cotta was served inside the same tiny container that the caviar came with, so the plate had the caviar lid still on, which I removed and saw all the luscious caviar (locally sourced), which sat on the creamy panna cotta. As I dug deeper, there was a lobster gelee that added another element. The warm blinis were light and fluffy. I got about six tiny pieces and I also felt full eating this and the earlier amuse bouches, but they were so good and I wanted to eat every bite. Luckily, the meal is paced to allow you to appreciate each dish and digest, which is why this epic meal lasted nearly four hours.

2. This wasn’t a course, but it was a precursor to the next course. Two spoons of globes came as an insalata caprese. One milky globe was mozzarella and the other was tomato and basil. The clear globe of tomato and basil tasted exactly like tomato and basil, and both of the globes together were refreshing.

3. The reason why the insalata caprese globes came before was the next course was tomato prepared three ways. There was a roasted heirloom tomato, a tomato cream that was also in an orange-colored globe and then a fluffy white cloud. The white cloud was the most interesting because as I broke into it, there were tiny grape tomatoes that had been roasted.

4. Next came a beautiful saffron-colored soup in an interesting little bowl that looked like a white shell. Inside, the soup was made with Monterey sea urchin with peekytoe crab meat. The soup was tasty but slightly on the salty side. In fact, several of the courses so far had been slightly salty and that created the feel of the flavoring being one dimensional although the presentations were very creative.

5. I generally don’t eat foie gras, but in a tasting menu it’s usually just a small bite so my cholesterol can’t really protest. The slab of foie gras was beautifully plated with summer melon and the foie gras tasted like caramel, almost candy-like.

6. Seared halibut came with dehydrated corn sprinkled on top. The halibut was nicely cooked, but I didn’t get the dehydrated corn. It was like the kind of corn you’d find in a Cup of Noodles. I didn’t see how it enhanced the dish, which also was plated with some trumpet mushrooms that tasted like they were pickled. This was my least favorite dish.

7. A small piece of poached lobster was served with a ratatouille. The lobster was meaty and subtle in taste, and the ratatouille was a nice sprinkling of the roasted red peppers, zucchini and eggplant. (Yes, I ate eggplant, but only because the pieces were so small I didn’t realize it was eggplant when I ate it.) This dish came with clarified butter that was poured by the server at the table.

8. I didn’t get a good picture of the course that was also the tastiest. It was frog leg meat in a sabayon inside an egg shell. This nice little break between courses was creamy and beautiful with the gold leaf on top. I’m also a big fan of frog legs, so it was nice to eat it with the bones removed and just left with the tender frog meat.

9. Next came an apple smoked pork belly, but it was brought to the plate under a dome that was filled with smoke. The server purposely removed the dome and forced the smoke to blow into your face, so you can get the smoky essence. It was a bit dramatic. Again, the pork belly tasted a bit salty but it was tender.

10. Lamb with haricot verts and olive globes. I couldn’t get a clean shot of the lamb pieces, which were nicely cooked. The olive globes were like eating olives but without the hard texture and instead just drinking olives (these would be great in martinis). The dish was also served with a goat cheese panna cotta that was creamy. I started to feel at this point that the flavoring was starting to be more diverse and less one note and the creative presentations were definitely keeping things interesting.

11. This was the cheese course, and the waiter pulled over the cheese cart allowing me to choose three types of cheese (many of which were from California). I chose an Andante blue cheese because it was supposedly made just for Eleven Madison, and I tried a goat cheese from New York and then a gruyere recommended by the waiter. The waiter then plated the selection beautifully on a platter with apple butter, marzano almonds and jam. Everything was so interesting to eat and mix together.

12. Next came this plate with a tiny white square in the center. The waiter came out and poured a soup of lemon verbena. The tiny white square bloomed like a blossom and unfolded into a napkin. I was told this was to wash my hands. It’s a good thing my waiter told me to wash my hands with it because I would have eaten it.

13. Next was dessert, but a strawberry champagne foam soup came as an amuse first. It was served on a white ceramic bowl that looked like a pillow. This was refreshing and really cleansed my palate.

14. Finally, my dessert course was a chocolate mousse with silver leaf and raspberries with balsamic vinegar. There was a spoon of pink sorbet and that “dirt” cereal I ate earlier in my trip at Momofuku Ssam Bar (you know, the ones made from granola or cereal).

15. As an end to my meal, the sommelier delivered a glass of French cognac. She left me the bottle so I could pour myself “as many glasses as I wished” but she probably knew I could only drink one because it was sooo strong in alcohol taste. But I liked it and it really did help me digest the meal I just had.

This was an epic and well-thought-out dinner with amazing service. While I found some of the dishes innovative and beautiful, I wasn’t as won over by the flavors. Some like the sea urchin foam, insalata caprese globes, and frog leg sabayon were wonderful, but others were mostly savory and one note. Still, this was a splurge dinner that really set a high standard for the rest of my trip and really made me feel like it was going to be a special week. And as it turned out, it was.

Side note: As a parting gift, Eleven Madison presented me with a box of pate de fruit and a canister of the same caviar I had earlier in one of the courses. I brought the caviar back home with me to save for a special dinner, but I ate the pate de fruit that night and over the week since they were freshly made and had no preservatives. There were some great flavors like blood orange, plum and cherry. It was an elegant memento of a very classy restaurant.

Single guy rating: 4.5 stars (Feel pampered)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Travel here too:
La Vineria de Gualterio Bolivar (Buenos Aires)


lilly said...

it looks as though there is a piece of pate de fruit on the mousse as well...was it?

the whole meal looks gorgeous & delicious!! Especially that tomato course...and pork belly! I looove pork belly...*sighs* I will have to go there next time I am in Manhattan :)

p.s. the cheese puffs are called gougeres...they are highly addictive!! when we made them in class, I must've had 15 of them right then! And you're right, they do not stay yummy for later :'(

Carolyn Jung said...

My gawd, what a feast! And they give you candy AND caviar to take home with you? If only more places were so generous. Ahh, it's no wonder Frank Bruni gave Eleven Madison four stars in his final review as the NY Times' restaurant critic.

foodhoe said...

dang... 11 courses... sounds like a very interesting meal, especially all of those globe things, well except for the dried corn. i was thinking the same thing and i don't like them in cuppa noodles either. i love it when you get party favors!

Single Guy Ben said...

Lilly, thanks! I love it when my readers help me out. Those gougeres were good!

Carolyn, it really is a deal for the meal when you think of everything you get. Bruni calls it a value deal and I agree.

Foodhoe, 11 courses plus all the amuses! I feel bad for the dishwasher! ;-)

Carbon Dogg said...

Have you opened the caviar yet? I suspect you'll be a bit surprised!

Single Guy Ben said...

Carbon Dog, I haven't opened the cannister yet. Are you saying I'll have a good surprise or a bad one?

Carbon Dogg said...

Well, we were in town that same week and had almost the exact same menu -- and I agree, it was absolutely sublime.

But at least in our case, the caviar tin contained a souvenier menu, not fish eggs!

Single Guy Ben said...

You were right Carbon Dog! It was a tiny menu in the caviar canister. I guess it would have been too good to have been real caviar. Oh well, I did enjoy the pate de fruit (they were the best I had) and now I have something to remember what I ate. ;-)