NEW YORK, NY
This was a much anticipated restaurant visit for me so much so that I gave up on waiting for a reservation to eat in the dining room in favor of a walk in for a seat at the bar. I had been trying for close to a year to get a reservation for a single diner but those do not seem to be readily available here. No matter though, the food and experience was just as astounding. To be honest, this was probably the best bar dining experience that I have ever had. From attentive bar tenders to equivalent table style presentation of dishes, I really did not feel that I missed out on much of the experience of eating in the dining room. That said, I still want that experience as EMP for me is a classic dining institution that I feel must be experienced in its completeness… at least once in my lifetime.
For a restaurant that holds so many accolades and awards from Michelin to 50 best and countless mentions in between, I was surprised by how approachable they were upon entering the space. They had recently gone through a renovation and quite a few things had moved around including the location of the bar and the trademark Eleven Madison Park sign at the front. The location of the maitre’d had also changed but I recognized the signature icons above the entry way. I still asked the bartender to be sure I was in the right space though. It is just a very simple, clean and understated dining room that it becomes very easy to forget how lauded a restaurant it is given the above qualities that I just mentioned.
For dining, at the bar, there is the offering of an abbreviated 5-course tasting menu where you have a choice between appetizers and savory dishes. The menu is not printed but instead is a part of the conversation with the bartender. I have mentioned in the past that when I get a lot of information all it once, it is a bit hard for me to remember and process but they were kind enough to repeat for me and additionally, I got a copy of my menu selections at the end of the night so… all well and good. A friendly note about eating at the bar is that it is a very small space now. Only about eight (8) seats, so if you plan on walking in, probably go at a time when there will be low to no wait. I went the day after thanksgiving and I still had to share the bar though. I had no wait for a seat there but you get the point. By the end of my dining selections with the bartender, I settled on caviar with souffle, foie gras with pear, poached lobster and venison.
Starting with the first dish, we have caviar served with a clam, leek and potato souffle. The caviar was heaped on a spoon atop a clam sauce I believe. The recommended eating sequence was to put the entire caviar mound in the souffle, mix it up and eat the combination… almost as though you would eat yogurt with crunchy toppings i.e. pour atop, mix and eat. I followed that mostly but not before I had a nice bite of the caviar on its own. Perfectly salty but I forget what kind of caviar this was. Eaten with the light and unbelievably fluffy souffle, there was the combined rich and full flavor of the potato and leeks paired with the salt of the caviar… divine. The texture of the souffle was bordering between cloud and mousse like but still with enough body that it is not easily forgotten. It also firmed up as it cooled but I have have no preference between eating it warm vs cool, they were both equally sensational. I forgot to mention that when they presented this dish, they said chef likes to think of this as the chocolate souffle you get at the end of the meal with its richness except that this was presented and the beginning and it is savory. The caviar and the souffle were pretty large servings for tastings (not that I am complaining) so there was a little overflow / messiness when eating, but for once I quite appreciated that. Any less of the portion size would have been criminal punishment for teasing me with such deliciousness. Another interesting thing on the souffle was that there was a bit of a sweet flavor… could have been brown sugar or maybe cinnamon but that was an unexpected addition to the plate. From this one dish, in its simplicity, I could see the mastery in their balance of flavors. They certainly have those awards for a reason. I have to confess, I cried inside my head when it was over. Yeah, even with my bowl scraped (I probably ate some metal while I was at it), I still did not have enough of that and I shed a little mental tear. I had already decided to come back again once I walked in the door but this bite solidified that thought. The menu is seasonal with the next change coming at the beginning of January for any that are interested.
Next up, is the foie gras with pear and mushrooms. It seems to be mushroom season as there was an overflow of different kinds of mushrooms at Whole Foods this past week, some that I have never heard of. It is only befitting then that they have incorporated that seasonal ingredient into their menu. I will be honest, I am not sure what kind of mushroom they used for this dish. The pear flavor was very present and its crunch added a much needed texture to the dish. I mean it is foie gras, it needs something to cut through its richness and this did the trick. I should mention that they brought the bread out before this dish and they passed the test with flying colors. The bread was warm and buttery with the texture leaning more towards a croissant but still held the firmness of the dinner roll. It is made of half-white and half-wheat organic flour. The butter was salty topped with smoked seaweed. There was additional salt which while I found it unnecessary to enjoy the bread still brought about another flavor dimension to the simple test of bread and butter. Back to the foie gras, it is savory and rich, the pear adds crunch and as I ate further, I noticed a black crumble at the bottom and I suspect that that was where the mushroom was used but I still do not know what kind of mushrooms were used. So to take stock of everything on this plate, there is rich and savory, mild fruit sweetness and meaty vegetable flavor… genius.
Another nod to the bartender here, the next course to be brought out was the poached lobster but I was running a little bit low on my glass of Sancerre. He filled up my glass without hesitation and that one simple act brought me back to Portugal when I ate at Fortaleza do Guincho. The dining service that I experienced there is still incomparable to others that I have experienced but this is a very close second. As I mentioned prior though, they are number one for a bar service so I guess it all balances itself out. It was during this “refill” that I asked about the menu changing frequency and this is when I was told explicitly four times a year. I love the simple and direct response there. So many times, I’ve gotten something along the lines of “our menu evolves fluidly” aka “Come back in and pay only to find out that maybe one ingredient has changed”. But there was absolutely no fluidity in his response, I guess this is why I also love Gunteer Seeger and L’Appart so much, they both gave the exact same direct response, theirs been daily and monthly respectively. As I looked around waiting for the lobster to be brought out, I mentally noted how perfect a restaurant this is for a first date…. Just thought I would share that.
On to the next dish, we have butter poached Maine lobster wrapped in pumpkin. There was an accompanying jus that was made of what I think was lobster or some other seafood base. The lobster is cooked perfectly being just the right texture of tender and juicy. Too many times restaurants over cook lobster and this gets overlooked but that is not the case here. The butter on the lobster is understated and quite frankly, almost not tasted because the pumpkin is the standout in accompanying flavors here. You almost have to “look for the taste” of butter but it only accentuates the flavor of the pumpkin more. The pumpkin is another nod to seasonal ingredients in case you missed that. I feel a little bad saying this but EMP just destroyed the lobster that I had at Jean Georges by far. The lobster was great at Jean Georges but there are really no words for this one. I plan of visiting both early next year for their menu changes so I guess they will have the chance to battle it out again.
Wine is another thing of note here, I had two glasses, a Sancerre from Loire Valley I think and a blend from the South of France. The Sancerre, I felt was perfect as it blended in with all the dishes that I had had thus far. There was no distinctive change in flavor of my dishes when I sipped on it which I found that I was surprisingly grateful for. I really do not want to have to rely on wine to bring out the best in a dish. For the red, I asked for a recommendation and my bartender hit it right on the mark with a bottle from the South of France that has been declassified by the AOC since it has an “illegal” blend of Carbarnet and Syrah. It was earthy, smooth and flavorful. Leaning more oaky, rich and full than fruit forward and a perfect pairing with the venison which came up next.
My next and final savory dish was the venison loin with black trumpet mushroom, chestnuts and a mushroom venison jus. I tasted the jus first and there was a flavor of unparalleled richness. The chestnut and mushroom topping had a peppery aftertaste almost like a dash of cayenne or something. I decided to go with Venison versus duck (I forget but I think that was the other option) because it is something that I have never been able to cook and I figured if anyone can do this justice, they could and they most definitely did not disappoint. The texture was tender and juicy, almost like a medium rare steak on juiciness and a filet mignon on tenderness. The meat and the jus were equally salted but somehow, one did not overwhelm the other with its salt. They balanced each other out and I have no idea how. In general, I have experienced the sauce being used to “season” the meat or the opposite as a contrasting bystander but never having both as equals without one overpowering the other. Very interesting achievement on this plate. The only thing that I was disappointed with on this dish was that it did not photograph well but that is certainly not a deterrent for most people.
The first dessert was a chocolate with malt and barley ice cream. The ice cream is quite creamy and tasted like it could have been house made. The chocolate though is what is interesting as it has an earthy flavor, maybe coming from the malt. The last dessert was a chocolate covered pretzel which I think was really just chocolate shaped like a pretzel as it melted quite a bit as I ate it and there was no salty pretzel crunch that I was expecting.
At the end of the meal, the ceremony of my bill was provided, and I was shocked by the price. This was by far the cheapest that I have ever spent in a fine dining institution and it was the best experience that was well worth the wait ESPECIALLY since I was at the bar. Service is included in the bill and I got two jars of granola as a parting gift. Well, it was really only one jar that I was supposed to get but my amazing bartenders (again) offered to give me another one and I obliged.
So what is the summary here, Eleven Madison Park is an experience to be had by all, at least once in a lifetime. It is an approachable restaurant with accolades that are very much deserved and I cannot wait to go back to try their new menu. Go at least once but in truth, my recommendation is to go as many times as you can.