About a month ago, I decided that I wanted to do something special for Ryan. I mean, it seemed only fair considering that it was him who treated me to tasting menus at both Per Se and wd~50 less than a week apart.
My immediate restaurant of choice was Eleven Madison Park, the winner of this year’s Outstanding Restaurant Award from the James Beard Foundation. We had a tremendous dinner there prior, so I couldn’t imagine it being much better, but we’ve both known for awhile that a return visit was in order.
From the moment we stepped through the door last night and were greeted by Stephanie, the fabulous maître d’, until the moment we left, we were treated to the most satisfying experience I’ve ever had—both personally and gastronomically—in my fine dining life. Yes, even better than the do-no-wrong Per Se (which was fantastic in its own right).
We were first treated to their signature gougères—a delightfully airy choux pastry, made with cheese. These were served piping hot out of the oven and presented their own enticing aroma the second they were sat upon our table.
From there, we each ordered our first cocktail. I ordered the Monferrato, a balanced blend of Cocchi Americano (similar to Lillet Blanc, and a substitute for the now-extinct Kina Lillet), Triple Sec, Angostura bitters, Peychaud’s bitters, and champagne. Ryan tried the Madison Park Smash, a potent drink of cognac, Royal Combier, lemon, turbinado sugar, Angostura bitters and mint.
We knew from the beginning that we wanted to do the tasting menu rather than the four-course prix fixe, but we weren’t sure what exactly we wanted to drink. After speaking with a sommelier, we elected to do wine pairings, but with a twist—we wanted beer and cocktails as appropriate too, and we were also thrilled to try more unique wines, rather than traditional pairings.
From there, we were off!
The cavalcade of amuse-bouche begin immediately, opening with a chilled pea soup with buttermilk snow a ham crisp.
The next amuse was a fluke, served on a crispy rice cake with basil and Meyer lemon, accompanied by a scallop ceviche with tangerine. The scallop, which was beautifully presented in a scallop shell, was so good that I briefly had to close my eyes and simply absorb the overwhelming wash of flavors.
But no time to waste—our third amuse was waiting! The third amuse was a goat cheese lollipop with beets, served with goat cheese croquettes with watercress and chive. The last time at Eleven Madison, we absolutely adored our heirloom tomato lollipop, but dare I say that the goat cheese and beet version was even better. (Is that even possible?)
And with that, the real fun began, as our first course, a sea urchin cappuccino with crab and apple, made its way out of the kitchen, along with our first beverage pairing.
The cappuccino, carrot-orange in color from the urchin, was served in a white porcelain dish, modeled after a true sea urchin’s shell. The dish’s top layer—an ethereal foam—was atop sweet slivers of king crab and apple. This dish was paired with a French pear cider, Domaine Christian Drouin Poire Cider, from Pays d’Auge, France, near Normandy.
Our seafood theme continued with the second course: smoked sturgeon and caviar. This dish was served in two variations. The first, a dainty fingerling potato, was topped with crème fraiche, caviar, a bit of preserved Meyer lemon and a few chive flowers for a pop of color.
The second variation, one that Eleven Madison Park is well-known for, was a smoked sturgeon sabayon, served in an eggshell with the top so very delicately carved out. After devouring the smooth sabayon, a layer of pungent, chatreuse chive oil awaited me in the bottom of the egg shell.
The sommelier got a little funky (in a good way!) with our wine pairing for this course. To accompany, we were a Gurrutxaga Txakoli de Bizkaia, a white wine from Spain’s Basque region. As explained to us, the soil where these grapes grow is extremely salty, giving the wine minerality and even a little bit of fizz.
The next course was perhaps the one that Ryan—let’s call him the Foie Gras Freak—was waiting for all night. A foie gras terrine with strawberries, celery and balsamic. We’re no stranger to unique foie preparations—in fact, one of our all time favorites in wd~50’s passionfruit-filled foie with dehydrated Chinese celery—so I knew from the moment this dish touched the table that it would be a hit.
Of course, it was, but perhaps even more intriguing to both of us was the wine it was paired with. Ryan is a huge Bordeaux fan, particularly a good Sauternes, so imagine our surprise when we were poured a Kracher Zweigelt Beerenauslese from Burgenland in Austria.
This wine, almost honey-like in both taste and texture, was virtually indistinguishable from a good Sauternes except for one thing: its color. The Kracher is a pale ruby, rather than honey-toned. (It’s also, upon research, much more wallet-friendly than the bottle of Château d’Yquem that you’ve been coveting.)
Next, a scallop, perfectly seared with crayfish, smoked potato puree and black garlic. This was served with my favorite wine of the night, a 2006 Domaine Bruno Colin La Boudriotte Premier Cru from the Chassagne-Montrachet, an appellation in Burgundy, France.
I’m going to pause here for a minute to talk about the service. The people are one of many things that make Eleven Madison Park such a special restaurant and once again, they didn’t disappoint. There is never any pretension, snobbishness or haughtiness in the dining room. The staff is jovial, genuine and knowledgeable. They walk a tremendously fine line of being there just when you need them without hovering. It’s truly remarkable.
In fact, Ryan and I even chuckled as they would seemingly appear out of nowhere to pull out our table whenever either one of us needed to scoot by the use the restroom. Not once did we manage to trick them! (They must have eyes in the backs of their heads.)
After the scallop, we were quite full, as expected, but we powered through. Fine dining can be painful.
Anyway, the next course was variations of broccoli with parmesan, lemon and lardo. Broccoli is my favorite vegetable (how did they know?) and this dish reminded me exactly why. Perfectly-formed cylinders of broccoli stems were served along roasted stems and leaves, all topped with a broccoli jus. The pairing, Dugges Nevermind the Bollox India Pale Ale, from Mölndal, Sweden, was superb too.
Vegetables starred in the next course too, as a trim slice of roasted eggplant was served alongside bulgur and licorice. It was also accompanied by a crispy eggplant chip—paper-thin and perfectly crisped. Our pairing was an earthy Rioja from Spain, a 2002 Lopez de Heredia Viña Bosconia Reserva.
And finally, the last of the savories (and my all-time favorite protein): lamb. A succulent, juicy pink loin with morel mushrooms, English peas and a lamb-mustard seed jus. This was accompanied by a 2004 Olga Juge Cornas from the Rhône Valley.
Then, the most extraordinary part of the night: we were treated to a tour of the kitchen. Stephanie took us back as service was winding down.
We stood briefly in awe of the massive spotless kitchen, adorned with photos of Miles Davis (more on that in a minute), a list of a few adjectives (a few of which are included in this post’s title), and a large sign that says “Make It Nice.”
Stephanie told us that when Chef Daniel Humm first moved to the U.S. from Switzerland, he knew very little English and “make it nice” became a catch-all phrase.
The story of the Miles Davis photographs is a little more complex: in a 2006 review, a critic from the New York Observer said that Eleven Madison Park needed “a bit more Miles Davis.”
The restaurant took the suggestion to heart and created a poster of a few of the words used to describe Miles, used in the title of this post and hung prominently in their kitchen. Last year, Sony Records gave the restaurant two photos of Davis, which now also proudly hang in the kitchen.
While we hung out in the kitchen, we were treated to an Aperol nitro “cocktail.” I was never good at chemistry, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves on this one. (Another fun fact: the chef in the photo, Becky, went to the same high school as me and even graduated the same year! Small world, huh?)
After this, we returned to our table but Eleven Madison Park was still not content just yet. Our next pre-dessert treat was an egg cream—or Eleven Madison’s take on it anyway.
Fresh malt syrup, vanilla and olive oil is whisked together table side and then topped with soda from a classic seltzer bottle. The smooth concoction was not too sweet and just the right balance of tradition and innovation.
Our real dessert came next. It was a chocolate cannelloni with espresso, caramel and yogurt. The chocolate cannelloni had the thickness of a tuile and gave off a satisfying crunch when the spoon touched it.
We even had a pairing with our dessert: a coffee cocktail with cognac, port and demerara sugar.
The parade of mignardises came next. Too many and too delicious to even describe. We were left with a complimentary bottle of V.S.O.P. cognac to supplement these—just another special touch from Eleven Madison.
As our evening began to wind down we realized we were the last table in the restaurant and still felt absolutely no rush from the staff.
In fact, while we sipped our cognac, we spent a few minutes chatting with our service captain about everything and nothing—favorite restaurants, The British Invasion, and the things we love about EMP and food in general. It was a relaxed, yet engaging conversation.
This sort of dialogue extends not only into the service, but also the menu, the food, the drinks. This is exactly what we love the most about Eleven Madison Park.
– Laura and Ryan