The final piece of my birthday celebration took place this past week. A brief trip to New York City to visit a very dear friend included a few casual and delicious meals, as well as one superb dinner experience at Eleven Madison Park. Having had one of the best meals of my life there last August, it seemed the natural choice for the “New York Birthday Dinner.” I called exactly twenty-eight days ahead, just as the reservation line opened. I secured a prime 8.30 pm table and requested the same young man who had been our captain last summer. The restaurant is now more than a year into its title as one of just seven dining rooms to have earned four stars from the New York Times. EMP (as it is known colloquially) underwent a transformation last month, subtracting tables and seats, reconfiguring the bar area and radically altering the format of the menu. This last change seemed the most threatening to me, causing some hesitation and much consternation as I planned for this meal.
The room is the vaulted lobby of the Metropolitan Life North Building, begun in 1928. It has been restored to its original glory, details of polished nickel and burnished wood gleaming in the dim light of evening. A well in the center is surrounded by a low balcony on three sides and an overhanging private dining room above. Tables are very generously sized and lavishly well-spaced, especially by New York standards. A subdued bar lines one wall and serves mostly as a way-station for diners waiting for their seats. There is the muted hint of Miles Davis in the air and several spare flower arrangements on the sideboards. The staff moves through space in a silent, smiling ballet; I encountered no one who failed to make me feel welcome.
We spent a short while with the cocktail list and chose a brace of martinis: Drew’s with Plymouth gin, mine with organic vodka. The presentation of these classic drinks involves the appearance of a rolling cart tableside. Chilled martini glasses are placed above your plate and a sterling silver oil can (a la The Wizard of Oz’s Tinman) is proffered, dispensing just the proper number of drops of vermouth into the vessel. The frozen bottle of the appropriate spirit is then generously poured, right up to the rim. The garnish of a twist is sliced with a silver peeler from a fresh lemon and dropped into the glass. Lastly, a tiny dish of toasted and salted Marcona almonds lands next to your hand for easy snacking.
Ordering was our next task. (Somewhere in here, a square dish of the most ethereal gougeres ever appeared and we made quick work of those!) Rather than a traditional menu with categories (such as appetizers and entrees) and descriptions of individual dishes, the new format here involves a grid with sixteen squares. Each row lists just four words, encouraging one to have a conversation with the server about likes, preferences and general expectations. We chose to minimize this discussion, leaving as much surprise in the equation as possible. Every single noun listed sounded enticing, so we set about eliminating what appealed the least. When we were done, we had settled on a course of action that would take us from land to sea to sky and back again.
Our odyssey began with a progression of hors d’oeuvres presented by the kitchen staff that had prepared them. We asked each of them multiple questions and found that really responded to the attention of being in the dining room, with the guests. First up was a diminutive teacup, plumbed with a tiny bouquet garni of sage and rosemary tied with raffia, into which was poured a pale brown “tea.” The aroma that rose was russet potato, roasted to a rich, dark hue. “Baked potato tea” was a new experience for both of us. The counterpoint to this arrived on a block of black resin, cut with grooves. Curling up out of these, a potato crisp dabbed with creme fraiche and dotted with chives.
Next up, after a short interval, a soup spoon with a truncated handle, into the bowl of which was lain a mouthful of smoked Balik salmon. The garnish of dill was totally superfluous. The fish simply melted on the tongue, leaving only a rich, buttery afterglow tinged with the lightest bit of smoke. The resin block appeared again, this time laden with a rice crisp topped with Hamachi tartare, enhanced with shiso leaf and lime.
Our final treat was a duo of smoked sturgeon bites. The cold began with a sliver of house smoked sturgeon, nestled into a tiny leaf of Baby Gem lettuce, finished with a shaving of French Breakfast radish. The warm portion of this course was presented in a sheared off eggshell, set in a porcelain egg cup. A delicate froth was all we saw at first, a savory sabayon of smoked sturgeon. Hidden further down were nuggets of the fish, the bottom of the shell bright green with chive oil. This was one of my favorites of the night.
Now the the starters were out of the way, we could move on to the portions of the menu we had actually ordered. Bread service arrived: an individual baguette, an olive and rosemary roll, cultured cow butter, goat butter and a dish of flaked fleur de sel. Our first glasses of wine were presented as well. We chose a Riesling and a Gewurztraminer, both from Alsace, for these initial courses. The balance of sweetness and acid was the perfect foil for the rich food it would accompany.
Foie gras is one of my favorite indulgences and this iteration did not disappoint. A perfect ring of liver encased a rillettes of wild boar, lightened with the dollop of brussels sprout puree on top. A diagonally bisected, thickly cut slice of toasted juniper brioche landed alongside, on its own plate. This dish was sheer bliss! The matching course was a preparation involving a giant, meltingly tender sea scallop, sweet shrimp and a subtle orange-hued sea urchin foam. Although delicious, the foie gras was the clear winner here.
A second pair of appetizers followed. The first was prawns. My thoughts are unclear on this plate…it seems all my memory cells for this course were focused on the tortelloni served simultaneously. These tender pillows of hand rolled egg pasta were filled with an unctuous, toothsome blend of chestnuts and Parmigiano Reggiano. They reclined in a puddle of fresh cream, were topped with chestnut foam and then showered, tableside, with a deluge of white truffle shavings. I am usually not a big fan of truffles, but the combination of the fungus, the chestnuts and the cream was ethereal.
Our first entrees were next. A venison loin, presented as two tall cylinders, was perfectly browned on the outside and rosy pink inside. The plate included an ovoid slice of poached pear, its core removed and replaced with a circle of bacon panna cotta. It was a savory, silky and utterly decadent accompaniment. A juicy and vaguely pink pork loin chop was served simultaneously, garnished with fresh juniper berries and the tiniest brussels sprouts you can imagine. At this point we had switched to red wine, a Syrah from the Rhone Valley.
Our final savory course was not on the regular menu. It was my understanding that this dish was only available by pre-ordering it when the reservation was made. I had passed on doing this, wanting to leave as much as possible to serendipity and surprise. When it was offered to us during the ordering process, though, my ears perked up and I nodded vigorously. Now it was time for the payoff. I watched Drew’s eyes light up as the cart rolled up behind me. The duck had arrived! An entire Muscovy duck, roasted to a glistening, crackling finish with honey and lavender. Our waiter carved it deftly and swiftly, crowning it with fresh huckleberries and huckleberry puree. We were so stuffed at this point that we left half of it to take home. It was certainly a delicious addition to our meal, as well as a beautiful one.
As we sat back in our chairs, contemplating the desserts to come, the table was cleared of the previous courses’ accouterment. Bread and butter service were removed, crumbs cleared, wine glasses whisked away. A pre-dessert was brought…a malted milk shake. It came in the form of malted ice cream sandwiched with the thinnest sheets of meringue imaginable. The inclusion of an olive oil emulsion, sea salt and cracked black pepper provided another twist on a classic flavor profile.
Our chosen desserts were next to the table. A course of three types of chevre, presented in a basket with straw, returned plated with thin crisps of fruit and nut bread. The apple dessert included a slice of moist apple cake, a quenelle of apple ice cream, a perfect sphere of apple flesh coated in salted caramel and an intriguing little globe of walnut crumble. A bottle of Poire William, replete with a whole pear suspended in glass, landed on the table with this course. It was ours to drink, as much as we pleased, for the duration of the meal. Flavor overload had started to set in by this point.
We ordered coffee service as well. Eleven Madison Park has recently upped their game in this area, offering not only traditional coffee and espresso drinks, but also tableside theater with Chemex or Siphon preparations. We chose the latter and were treated to a recreation of a science experiment/dinner party experience from the nineteenth century, updated for the 21st century. (You can watch a video of this process at Intelligentsia Coffee here.) Another rolling cart arrived, laden with glassware, cups and a Bunsen burner. Fueled to a white-hot glow with butane, it was placed underneath a globe of glass filled with spring water. A second globe rested on top, connected by a slender neck of glass threaded with a thin chain and a filter. The water boiled and rose into the upper chamber. Once a digital thermometer guaranteed the correct temperature (precisely 199 degrees!), freshly ground beans were spooned into the water, gently stirred, and a stopwatch was activated (precisely 45 seconds!) During this interval, the lower globe was gently fanned by our waiter, lowering the ambient temperature to encourage the finished brew to return to its original home as perfect coffee. We were poured only half a cup each with the proviso that the brew would probably be too hot to drink for some minutes. Neither cream nor sugar was offered: none was needed. It was indeed a very fine cup of coffee, hoopla notwithstanding.
The final bites of the evening were brought by a member of the pastry department. Three little mouthfuls, each more amazing than the last. To begin, a perfect sphere of warm, cinnamon sugar dusted doughnut, filled with still-cold ice cream. Then, a piece of translucent brittle, fortified with butternut squash puree and studded with salted pepitas. Lastly, a chocolate truffle. This was roughly shaped and pitch-black on the outside, the perfect visual take on the fungus of the same name. The surprise came when it hit my tongue: the sweetness of fine chocolate tinged with a hit of real, savory truffle.
We were exhausted by this point. We had been at the table for more than four hours. We had seen some twenty plates put before us. The room was nearly empty as the clock passed midnight. As we wearily rose, the bill having been settled, we were presented with our coats and a jar of housemade granola with the Eleven Madison Park label affixed to the lid. A little snack for breakfast, should we happen to wake up hungry!