Eleven Madison Park

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!

Lists of Food(s)

Lists of food(s) have been an ongoing part of my life.  First entering my consciousness as menus in restaurants, they have taken on myriad other forms.  Grocery lists; kitchen prep lists; freezer inventories; backstock pull lists; holiday baking lists; catering menus.  Some represent a form from which to make choices; on some, every item will require my attention.  Some are exciting and inspire anticipation;  others instill a sense of dread.  Food is so often a subject in my life that I find there is no escaping lists of food(s).

When presented with a menu in a restaurant, there are dozens of things to consider besides the obvious question of “What am I in the mood for?”  What are the specialties of the restaurant?  What might be in season?  What might be a good or a bad choice today?  What are my companions ordering?  What have I eaten in the past day or two, and what do I plan on eating later?  My favorite type of menu is no menu…when I am simply given a menu as a guide to what the chef has prepared that day.  Some of the best restaurants I have ever had the pleasure of enjoying are set up in this way.  Chez Panisse in Berkeley offers one menu each evening…take it or leave it.  Accommodations can be made for allergies or extreme dislikes, but you are pretty much putting yourself in the hands of the chef.  Thomas Keller’s per se in New York offers just two alternatives each night:  A Tasting of Vegetables and a Chef’s Tasting Menu.  (Charlie Trotter in Chicago offers this same, simplified choice.)  Usually one must make only a couple of decisions from these long lists.  When I am ensconced in a restaurant of this caliber, I like to believe that no one knows better what the best thing for me to eat that day would be than the chef .

Several summers ago, I had travelled to New York for the weekend to eat.  We had Sunday dinner at Blue Hill and had an awesome example of eating off menu.  Our reservation was later in the evening and when we were seated, we had already decided that we would do the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had seen posted.  Once our cocktail orders were taken, we were informed that the Tasting Menu was sold out for the night and we would need to order from the standard, a la carte listings.  Our disappointment was quite evident.  The waiter returned a few moments later to say that he had relayed our sadness to  the kitchen and if we were willing, the chef would just cook for us without a written menu.  We instantly agreed!  There were some daring dishes and many variations on seasonal themes, but overall the effect was outstanding.

Another menu that I rely on quite heavily is the one on the side of my freezer.  Decidedly less haute than the ones above, it is nonetheless appealing.  Each week, I cook some things to eat during the week and freeze them in individual portions.  I began this practice when I was working long hours in kitchens, with no desire to cook at the end of a grueling day.  Batches of chili, marinara sauce, macaroni & cheese and the like provided quick, comforting suppers when paired with a fresh salad.  Keeping track of the dozens of frozen blocks of food necessitated the creation of a freezer inventory.  This became my nightly “menu.”

There have been lists of Christmas cookies;  one massive list of everything we ate on a ten day cruise;  other lists of what we ate on vacations or at various buffets; even a list of all my holiday baking ingredients that I keep on the chalkboard in our kitchen at home.  These lists fill me with a sense of order and organization.  At times, they end up feeling like some sort of wretched excess, leaving me wishing I had never compiled them in the first place.  Ultimately, though, the Virgo in me craves the construction of these archives.  They are a record of my knowledge that I can refer back to when thinking about what to cook or bake or eat or order in the future.

Fine Dining

When I dream about the best meal I’ve ever had, I dream about Eleven Madison Park.  I think the lack of pretense was part of it (vs. Daniel); the beauty of the room was part (vs. Blue Hill);  the fact that we had the table for the entire evening, with no thought of a second seating waiting for us to finish (vs. per se).  The food is never the issue when I compare these experiences.  The level of food quality in my three and four star meals is almost always beyond reproach.  What ends up setting things apart are the most minute details.  The way the napkin is folded (or not) when a diner leaves the table;  the shape and material of a breadbasket;  the failure to offer a second glass of wine.  When I am spending  hundreds of dollars on a meal, I think I have a right to be aware of these details.  There are right ways (and wrong) to do everything in fine dining service.  There are ways to make that experience excel above and beyond traditional standards.  There are times when something unexpected can surprise and delight even the most jaded amongst us.   A finger bowl garnished with an orchid blossom; the thoughtful addition of an extra serving to make sharing a dish simpler; the offer of a bottle of post-prandial cognac.  More often than not, the meal is remembered as a series of these small moments interspersed with extraordinary food.  Eleven Madison Park offered many of these moments (including a personal note received in the mail days later), while La Grenouille offered almost none.  There was nothing wrong with La Grenouille, it’s just that there was nothing out of the ordinary.  All expectations were fulfilled, yet none were exceeded.  Don’t we enter into these evenings with such high expectations, hoping that we will be surprised?

This is the post that made me think about EMP.


dinner at la grenouille

our dinner on saturday night was a somewhat different event. we dressed ourselves up and headed out for a pre-dinner cocktail at the king cole bar in the st. regis hotel. it was quite a lively scene in there at 8pm, with a lot of men in suits and young ladies dressed to the nines. the most noise came from a group of gals out for some “sex and the city” style fun…perhaps a bachelorette evening…with lots of martinis, camera flashes and off-the-shoulder outfits. we finished our kir royales and strolled across town to la grenouille.

the scene inside the door there was equally lively. the second seating guests were all jammed into the bar waiting for their tables. the room was timeless “french restaurant” with red velvet banquettes, mirrored walls and gold leaf everywhere. the flowers were as promised: sumptuous, skyscraping and delightful. after a brief wait, we were escorted to our table. we were tucked into a corner of the room, seated next to one another on the banquette, both facing out on the space. this location, along with the profusion of mirrors, made for superb people watching. a spray of deep pink roses and peruvian lilies adorned our setting.

the crowd here was decidedly older and decidedly moneyed. there were no culinary adventurers here—no foodies coming up from downtown. the clientele clearly considers this their own turf. outsiders, while tolerated, are not really welcomed with open arms. the only young people were the sons and daughters of the regulars and they were obviously in their element as well. we saw evidence of many episodes of plastic surgery, hairplugs and tanning beds. it was a different kind of people watching, but fascinating nonetheless. the clothes were hand-tailored suits and couture dresses, except for the “lady with the shoes” (more on her later).

the menu is strictly classic french. blinis with caviar; terrine with pistachio; endive salad with roquefort; duck a l’orange; veal kidneys; frog legs provencale. we made our selections (including pre-ordering a dessert souffle) and chose a french wine (when in rome, right?) from bordeaux: a 2005 duhart milon from pauillac. our hors d’oeuvres arrived shortly thereafter. a tiny bowl of potage st. germain (split pea soup) upon which floated the tiniest crouton ever. the waiter also placed a wee silver caddy with a few gougeres (cheese puffs) and a pair of cheese straws. we were offered miniature baguettes and some delectable, salty butter as well. while good enough, the baguettes were the only bread offered during our service and they were not served warm.

our appetizers were two of the house specialties: ris de veau and foie gras de canard. my sweetbreads were a textbook example, a crispy exterior giving way to a custardy soft interior. they were sauced with a port reduction scented with the piney aroma of fresh rosemary. drew’s foie gras was also outstanding. the two generous slices had been given a deep, mahogany crust that enclosed the still-rosy liver. the saucing was similar, but the accompaniments included a couple of perfectly turned lozenges of baked quince and a tumble of sultanas.

after a brief interval, our waiter arrived to present my grilled whole dover sole. following nods of approval all around, it was whisked away to be filleted and plated on the sideboard. when he returned, there were four perfect fillets, some haricots verts, half a lemon and a silver bowl of rich mustard sauce to spoon atop the fish. drew had ordered a true classic of the french canon: quenelles de brochet lyonnaise. these rich, airy pillows of pike were bound with cream, poached in fish stock and floated to the table atop a pale cream sauce. alongside were served perfectly cook grains of white rice; crowning each quenelle was a spoonful of caviar. the dish was a composition in shades of white, contrasting with the shiny caviar on top and the use of a matte, black plate beneath it all.

once these plates were cleared, we were presented with an assortment of classic patisserie from which to choose. chocolate ganache cake; coffee eclairs; apple tart; oeufs a la neige (floating islands). to accompany our chocolate souffle, we chose a clementine granite and a miniature almond cake. the icy crystals of the granite were a necessary foil to all the richness we had consumed thus far. the almond cake, served with a spoonful of crème anglaise (custard sauce) was completely unremarkable. the star of this course was most definitely the souffle. presented tableside in all its towering glory, it was plated at the waiters station with unsweetened whipped cream. it arrived all quivering and steaming, the heady aroma of chocolate filling our noses and tempting us to dive in. we were rewarded with a decadent, elegant and nearly overwhelming sensation of warm, melting chocolate.

as we settled back into our seats, dark coffee was poured and a silver tray of cookies presented. crunchy caramelized almonds, classic madeleines, almond tuiles and chewy florentines were tiny enough to still be enjoyed without us feeling too stuffed. it was late and the room was starting to empty. as people got up to leave, it became even clearer that they all knew one another. they stopped to chat at various tables as they left and this gave us a chance to really see their beautiful clothes. a woman from the front room walked by on her way to the restroom and she caught my eye because she seemed really out of place. a bizarre blouse with holes cut in it, an ugly tan leather skirt and shoes that lit up??? did i really see shoes with lights in them? i quickly related this to drew and he was completely unbelieving. a few moments passed, she returned from the powder room and we saw it again. clear plastic mules whose soles were filled with multi-colored flashing lights! incredible! we fell all over ourselves in laughter and she smiled a big grin. this lady knew exactly what she was doing wearing that outfit in this room. we were the only ones that were relaxed enough to get the joke.

in the final analysis, we agreed that we need not go back. everything was perfectly executed: the décor, the flowers, the service, the food, the pastry. ultimately, though, there were no surprises; nothing that wowed us; nothing that made us sit up and take notice. it remains a bastion of gallic excellence. perhaps we are just jaded, but there are other settings where we agreed we would rather pass a few hours to fill our bellies.

lunch at le bernardin

my flight from cleveland arrived early; my bag was waiting on the belt; there was no cab line and virtually no traffic. from boarding the plane to walking into the apartment was just about two hours. the worst part of the trip was arriving at hopkins 2.5 hours early and sitting in the food court and gate area, waiting for my flight. drew served a late breakfast (my third of the day) of croissants, scones and coffee. we got ourselves together and headed out to the museum of modern art. the highlight of that visit was the retrospective of
tim burton’s work. drawings, sketches, paintings, film, video, puppets, costumes, props, and other ephemera were all jammed in together to make for a wild and almost nightmarish exhibition space. we also strolled through the photography and design archives, as well as spending a few quiet moments with monet’s water lilies.

we had a late lunch reservation and when we arrived the restaurant was really buzzing. we settled into our chairs in the center of the room and ordered a couple of big fat martinis. almost immediately we were presented with one of my favorite parts of lunch here: the salmon spread and toasts. a luscious preparation including fresh and smoked salmon, mayonnaise, lemon and chives, it is an integral part of the moment wherein we leave the outside world behind and allow the restaurant to envelope us.

for the first course, I chose a progressive tasting of kumamoto oysters en gelee. the six mollusks arrived atop a hillock of crushed ice woven through with a strand of seaweed. each was topped with a dice of differently flavored jellies, from yuzu to shiso, dashi to kimchi. each was a bracing mouthful of briny goodness. drew was presented with a salad of grilled bacalao (salted cod). the strong tastes of salt and the grill were tempered by a cool, white gazpacho, almonds and sliced white grapes. alongside, we nibbled at an assortment of breads that included parkerhouse and seven grain rolls, sliced raisin bread, and an olive baguette. when we finished these plates, I was brought a silver fingerbowl with which to wash away any traces of oyster.

for our entrees, we chose two different types of bass. drew had baked striped bass. two skinless pieces of fillet shared the plate with a corn “canneloni.” a fine mince of black truffle was scattered across the fish; the light perigord sauce spooned around the plate was also flecked with this precious fungus. i was served a beautiful piece of crispy skin black bass, laid across two stalks of melted celery. the sauce here was a sharp combination of iberico ham and green peppercorns. alongside arrived a ramekin of parsnips three ways: custard, foam and chips.

after a lengthy pause that included a consultation on dessert wines with the sommelier, we commenced with the sweets. a pear composition that included a cinnamon caramel parfait, fromage blanc sorbet, smoked sea salt and “liquid pear”–a colloidal suspension filled with the essence of pear. a hazelnut themed plate featured gianduja cream, brown butter ice cream, caramelized banana and roasted hazelnuts. we topped this course off with a trio of seasonal sorbets: coconut, blood orange and pineapple buttermilk. these arrived with a pair of butter cookies. there were also served a basket of warm almond madeleines and pistachio financiers. to drink, we tasted a lovely fortified muscat wine and rich, dark roasted coffee.

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a weekend in new york

so i haven’t posted in just ages and ages and ages and i thought i had better throw something up here lest blogger try to take away this piece of real estate.

i spent last weekend in new yawk eating. the little owl, eleven madison park, bar masa, nougatine and per se. (sorry i am too lazy to put up the links.) i posted about it all on FB, but here it is in the altogether.

lunch the first day at the little owl: a dish of heirloom tomatoes (red, yellow and green) with shaved radish, cucumber and red onion and a bit of basil. exquisite! then a plate of grilled scallops atop a salad of asparagus, grapefruit and cracked green olives. as much as i wanted to try their famous fried softshell crab, it was just too darn hot!

that evening, dinner at eleven madison park…
6 tiny canapes, including the lightest gougeres ever and foie gras with strawberry gelee and the tiniest radishes dipped in salted butter.
then a liquid insalata caprese: a colloidal suspension of mozzarella and one of tomato water.
next was caviar with panna cotta and lobster gelee, served in the caviar tin;
followed by heirloom tomatoes three ways: poached, served with Jamon iberico; warmed and topped with a tomato cloud: as a sorbet with “provencal granola.”.
a lovely dish of sea urchin cappuccino with cauliflower and peekytoe crab arrived next; then a mille-feuille of foie gras plated with compressed plums and bitter almonds
now we are on to the fish courses: snow white halibut with sweet corn three ways, radishes and purslane (this was my favorite dish);
poached lobster with lemon verbena and quenelles of zucchini, eggplant and peppers.
the next course was served in an empty egg shell: frog leg ragout with truffle and vin jaune sabayon. with this course we made the leap from the sea back to land.
a plate arrived covered with a glass bell filled with smoke. the waiters lifted the bells simultaneously, filling our nostrils with sweet smoke. on the plate rested a thin slice of pork belly with a sugary crust. pure theatre.
the last savory course arrived: herb roasted lamb, lamb sweetbreads, garbanzo beans and a sheeps milk tart with haricots verts. by now we have finished our martinis and are deep into the wine.oh yes…the wine. a 2005 chateau neuf de papes les hautes brusquieres. light enough for the tomatoes and fish, yet bold enough for the lamb and cheese.
ooooh! the cheese. the cheese trolley was wheeled up and we were informed about the dozen or so choices. cow, goat, sheep, washed rind, triple creme, blue, aged, fresh, blahblahblah. drew chose and they were plated with apple butter, port jelly, marcona almonds, toasted nut bread, fig cake and baguette
okay so now the desserts. an icy strawberry sorbet atop lemon gelee, crowned with champagne emulsion.
then jivara chocolate: moelleux with vanilla, olive oil and cocoa raspbery sorbet. this came with a whisper of a cocoa tuile.
all that remained were macaroons in seven flavors, along with coffee, and the check. we stumbled out into the night 4.5 hours after we had arrived–fat and sassy.

saturday night we opted for a japanese dinner at Bar Masa. we started with cocktails: a raspberry champagne concoction for drew and a refreshing watermelon martini for me.
we sat at the bar and drew handled the ordering. first up was hirame (fluke) layed atop perfect cylinders of cucumber and drizzled with a spicy vinaigrette. these were garnished with a tangle of cilantro sprouts. next was “Mako Karei”: slivers of flounder draped over quartered cherry tomatoes and anointed with tomato vinaigrette.

thanks to the perfectly dreadful heat, we were ready for another round of cocktails at this point. we each chose a wicked good elixir of ketel one, cointreau and clementine juice muddled with mint. two more sashimi selections came up next. unagi shirayaki (grilled eel) and toro (fatty boston bluefin tuna). each was laid next to a nest of shreds of shiso leaf and daikon.

next up were some warm selections. BBQ toro suji: fatty tuna cooked with a deeply flavored, spicy sauce, flecked with sesame and finely diced daikon, then mounded on bibb lettuce leaves. our last dish was grilled eggplants. these came in a heated black stone bowl and were crowned with a shower of bonito flakes that danced in the waves of heat from the dish.

opting out of dessert here, we settled the bill and crossed the street to have something sweet at jean-george vongerichten’s Nougatine in the trump hotel. we sat at the bar and noshed on cherry clafoutis with an amazing pistachio ice cream; apricot semifreddo; and the original warm chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream.

the last was dinner in per se’s salon on sunday night: we were seated in the middle of the room on a velvet couch in front of a silk rug set with a low table. a gorgeous setting, but not the most conducive to (fine) dining. we settled on a bottle of champagne (pol roger NV) and the food started coming.

the traditional thomas keller beginning: cheese gougeres (more substantial than those from friday night) and the salmon creme fraiche cones. next up was a luscious, silky gazpacho with a float of armando manni olive oil. a breadbasket was presented with pretzel rolls, miniature sourdough boules and tiny baguettes, accompanied by salted butter.

we ordered everything on the salon menu, leaving out only the foie gras and the cheese course. the first dish to arrive was a matsutake mushroom salad with very thinly sliced fresh mushrooms, chunks of lightly sauteed mushrooms, confit of fairy tale eggplant (about 2 inches long!), french breakfast radishes and bok choy. also a dish of sweet corn agnolotti with new crop potatoes, celery and tarragon butter.

then a fish course: pan roasted chatham bay cod with summer pole beans, smoked chili puree, frisee and whole grain mustard emulsion; butter poached lobster with lemon cucumbers, “ranch dressing,” and a baton of red pepper puree encased in the lightest, crispiest phyllo imaginable.

our entrees followed: rare duck breast, accompanied by a duck leg “sausage” with crispy okra, corn and huckleberries; a lovely lamb chop, garnished with crispy bits of lamb sweetbreads, infant brussel sprouts, chanterelle mushrooms and lamb jus.

dessert was next: a sorbet selection that included manjari chocolate, red currant, strawberry (set atop a brunoise of strawberries) and coconut, (set atop “croutons” of toasted genoise); a double chocolate brownie with caramel ice cream. this was followed by coffee and sweets (chocolates, pate de fruits and fudge).

new york in winter part five

from here we strolled back down along the eastern edge of the park. it was almost time for dinner in midtown. our final destination was l’atelier de joel robuchon in the four seasons hotel. this is one of a small string of these restaurants across the globe, designed to offer a less formal setting in which to partake in this legendary chef’s craft. centered around a pearwood counter seating twenty guests at high stools overlooking the kitchen, it is a beautiful room across from the bar of the hotel. after a slight misstep on the part of the hostess, we were shown to our seats at the counter and greeted warmly by our waiter.

the visible kitchen is mostly for show and is decorated with stunning arrangements of fruits and vegetables in glass vases and bowls. it is done up in black lacquer with red accents, everything polished to a high gloss. the blond wood of the counter is set with black rubber placemats, red water glasses, signature chargers and futuristic silverware.

we decided that a series of small plates was the way to go, rather than traditional appetizers and entrees. we wanted to be able to taste as many different things as possible–plus the fact that we had already had a good-sized lunch. our amuse-bouche was once again a verrine, this time layered with foie gras and port gelee. the bread basket proffered wheat rolls, black olive focaccia and the most perfect miniature baguettes imaginable.

the first plate was a tower of roasted slices of zucchini, japanese eggplant and tomato, layered with buffalo milk mozzarella. this was dressed with a summery little basil sauce. nothing spectacular here (i.e. no luxury ingredients), but the elements were all perfectly cooked and seasoned and clearly assembled with great care. next we were presented with a gold leafed charger onto which had been lain a geometric oblong of smoked foie gras and lightly caramelized eel. atop this had been showered shavings of black truffle, while the plate was decorated with precise lines of finely ground pepper and and dollops of cream.

we had both wanted to taste the langoustine, but had only ordered one serving, figuring we would just split it. the kitchen generously sent a second plate of it, much to our surprise. i tasted mine first, biting through the incredibly thin shell and the basil leaf beneath it, into the sweetness of the shellfish’s flesh. it was simply astounding! i resisted the temptation to slap drew and cry out, “this is the best thing i have ever eaten!” i just sighed and stopped to savor the experience instead. moments later, i was smacked out of my reverie by drew, having the exact same reaction. this dish was truly transporting….unlike anything i have ever eaten in my forty-some years. the only garnish was a dab of intensely colored basil puree, and even that seemed superfluous.

what followed was a plate of classic vitello tonnato. the paperthin slices of veal were rosy pink and fork tender, napped with a luxurious, creamy tuna sauce and sprinkled with a few pearls of capers. the rim of the plate held a lightly dressed half of a baby romaine heart, which offered the textural contrast needed to make this plate of richness not seem overwhelming. we also tasted an onion tart, the base of which was the just the barest whisper of crisp puff pastry. topped with meltingly sweet onions, tomatoes and some fresh field greens, it also benefited from a dusting of black truffle shavings.

the plates cleared away, the silverware removed and our placemats wiped down, we were ready to think about dessert. we started with a complimentary pre-dessert of grapefruit gelee, a fresh raspberry and lychee syrup. then we were given another complimentary plate with a nage of fresh fruits, all cut into the tiniest, most perfect dice imaginable and plated with lemongrass broth and a scoop of basil lime sorbet.

next came the desserts we had actually ordered…bracingly sour pink grapefruit supremes, garnished mint sorbet, two different creams, lemon foam, cubes of elderflower gelee and a shard of frosted sugar-glass inlaid with sliced almonds. it was absolutely stunning to look at and even more rewarding to taste. the other dessert was a warm souffle of yuzu plated with a quenelle of raspberry sorbet. as in the case of the the vegetables and the langoustine, there was nothing inherently special about this dish. it was in the execution and presentation that we glimpsed perfection.

we lingered with the last drops of wine (an outstanding 2001 chateauneuf du pape) and our cups of coffee, which were presented along with a caramel and seasalt filled chocolate. the sadness at being at the end of this meal (and the end of my visit) was mitigated by the knowledge that this one would rise into the pantheon of some of my best meals.

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