Sunday, August 31, 2008

The meal I've been waiting for at Eleven Madison Park

Last night was a night I've been waiting for for a long time. Ever since I lived in NYC while interning the summer after my junior year of college, I've loved Eleven Madison Park to a somewhat irrational degree. I've been there a few times, just to sit at the bar, meet friends, and soak up the atmosphere (i.e., watch the dishes emerge from the spotless white kitchen)-- but I've never eaten a real meal in the dining room. That all changed when I received a gift certificate to EMP from my parents for my birthday. And last night, I took my brother for the meal of a lifetime.

If you've read my post on Gotham Bar and Grill, you'll know that in my world, there are some restaurants that just exude "niceness." That when you step inside, you are instantly at ease and at peace-- that inside the chamber of the restaurant, nothing could go wrong. For me, EMP is the quintessential exemplar of that phenomenon. You walk through the heavy revolving doors into the cavernous space and... just-- wow. It's my happy place.

We were led to a table in a small enclave in the far corner of the dining room. It was a smallish room set apart from the enormous main dining room, so it felt rather private. Our table was quite large-- in any restaurant it would be a four-top, but it sat only the two of us. Though there are a lot of tables in EMP, there's so much space between the tables that you never feel crowded.

When we were seated, we were brought the wine and cocktail lists. The sommelier came over shortly after to answer any questions we might have. We were pretty simple: we decided to go with a half-bottle of Domaine de Chatenoy Sauvignon Blanc from France. It was quite reasonably priced, and it was great that EMP had so many half-bottles on offer, in addition to lots of wines by the glass and a veritable tome describing the bottle selections (they also have quite the cocktail service: the sommelier wheeled a whole cart over to the table next to us to make the lady there a martini, in the manner of tableside Caesar salad, or "guacamole!" as she exclaimed). Despite our meager choice, the sommelier was very solicitous the entire night, pouring our wine and not once pressuring us to order more.

Once our wine selection was done, our waiter returned with menus. I had noted when I made my Opentable reservation that I was a vegetarian, and he discussed at length the vegetarian options they could provide. We looked over the menu, went for the $82 three-course prix-fixe, and placed our order with a few recommendations from our waiter. They graciously accommodated my request for two appetizers instead of an appetizer and an entree.

Almost instantly, two different plates of complimentary "appetizers" appeared at our table. These were flights of bite-sized hors d'oeuvres, a different set for the bro and for me (because mine were all vegetarian while his were meatalicious). There were so many elements of this meal that I'm having a bit of trouble remembering everything, but here's a yeoman's effort: mine were a cucumber bite, a salty fennel-and-tomato concoction, another cucumber tower, something with beets, and a tiny little fingerling potato. The bro's were an adorable rabbit cornet, a foie-gras square, some sort of little tartlet, a hamachi tuna roll, and a cheese-and-tomato thing. These were all so elaborate and incredible; we ate them thoughtfully, chewing the little bites and thinking about how wonderful they were.

The meatless version

The meaty version

The appetizers were also accompanied by a small dish of gruyere gougeres. These were pretty good, although they could have been warmer. (Disclosure: I myself make a mean gougere, so I'm hyper-critical of restaurant versions).

Small gougere tower

When we were finished, the plates were whisked away gracefully, as plates for every course were for the entire night. Fresh on the heels of the appetizers were the amuse bouches. Two small white bowls arrived on our table, with a small still life of watermelon, canteloupe, and honeydew with tiny little basil leaves in a small pool of olive oil at the bottom of the bowl. Our waiter then whipped out a small teapot and poured tomato gazpacho around the melon. The presentation was beautiful, and the gazpacho was delicious. I didn't think I'd like the combination of melon and tomatoes, but it was really delicious. Not that I should be surprised-- everything there was delicious.

Beautiful amuse bouche

When the amuse was finished, the bread course made its appearance. We were each given a mini french baguette and a picholine olive roll, individually doled out off a silver platter with silver tongs. The bread was warm and crusty and perfect. But that wasn't even the best part of the bread course. The bread arrived with TWO BUTTERS. Yes, two butters. One was a starkly white salted goat's milk butter from California, and the other was an unsalted cow's milk butter from Vermont (as our waiter informed us). There was a small dish of sea salt placed between the butters to salt our bread and butter as we wished. And of course the butters were room-temperature and perfect spreading consistency. I loved getting the chance to try goat's milk butter, which was delicious and mild. Exceptional.

The blank canvases...

...and the paint: Goat's milk butter...

...and cow's milk butter

Finally, the "official" part of the meal began: our selected appetizers arrived at the table. The bro had chosen the Big Eye tuna tartare with avocado cream, spring radishes, and bok choy greens. It was absolutely beautiful to look at, and he said it was delicious. He noted that the avocado cream was even better than the tuna itself.

Such elaborate plating

My appetizer was a salad of Satur Farms lettuces. It was a lightly dressed salad of the freshest baby lettuces, which included the odd fresh mint leaf. The interesting part of this salad was a swirl of some sort of creamy dressing lining the plate (in addition to the white balsamic vinaigrette), which was delicious. This was a light and fresh prelude to the rest of the meal.

Rakish lettuce with flavor swirl

There had already been so much food at this point, and we hadn't even gotten to the entrees. But eventually they did arrive. Upon the recommendation of our waiter, the bro ordered the Colorado lamb with Artichoke Barigoule and petite Silvetta arugula. He was debating between this and the dry aged Angus beef, and I think he wished that he had gone with the beef. Not that this was bad, but-- I think he might have liked the beef better. The lamb arrived as a roll in a shallow bowl, and similar to the gazpacho amuse, the waiter poured the sauce around the roll from a small teapot. The best part of this dish was that it came with a side of whipped potatoes, which were intensely rich and creamy. I can't even imagine how much butter went into them... and I probably shouldn't try.

Lamb roll

Whipped butter with a dash of potato

For my entree, I got the heirloom beets appetizer. It usually comes with a chevre panna cotta, but the waiter pointed out that the panna cotta has gelatin in it, so they could make it just with fresh chevre for me. So incredibly thoughtful... and the outcome was delicious. There were red beets, candy-cane beets, and golden beets, and they were roasted to perfection. The goat cheese was creamy and pungent, and the garnishes of nasturtium leaves and nasturtium leaf dust (!!!) were interesting. A truly awesome dish.

A beet tableau

Phew. So once we were finished, our table was completely cleared (bye bye, selection of butters), and we were on to dessert. Now, you all know how important dessert is to me, and by no means did EMP disappoint. We were given the dessert menus and made our selections. A short time later, the desserts arrived.

The bro went with the chocolate and peanut butter dish. It was a long and thin sandwich of cookie, peanut butter, and chocolate, all covered with chocolate ganache. There was a garnish of caramel popcorn and a side of popcorn ice cream. The dessert tasted like a peanut butter Twix and was absolutely delicious.

An upscale Twix, that is.

My dessert was a bing cherry and pistachio millefeuille. I'm not the hugest fan of pistachios, but for some reason this dessert appealed at the moment. It was a log of light pistachio cream (really delicious), flanked by pistachio florentine brittle (the best part of the dish) and topped with brandied cherries (actually didn't add much to the equation). There was a scoop of mascarpone ice cream on the side and two swipes of sauce (one cherry, one creamy). This was an incredibly well-composed and tasty dessert, and it was just perfect.

Almost too beautiful to eat. ALMOST.

So that's it... but wait! There's more! Before we settled the bill, the waiter returned one more time with a platter of mignardises-- essentially little pastries that are works of art all in themselves. We were allowed to have as many as we wanted, and against the bro's protestations, we took two of each. The offerings were a light lemon sandwich cookie with lemon cream (verrrrry good); a passion fruit and chocolate bon bon (passionfruity and delightful); some sort of berry financier (not that great); a raspberry and chocolate macaron (superlative); an olive oil gelee (tasted like the olive oil gelato at Otto... interesting); a cream puff (the best of the bunch); and a chocolate and peanut butter tart (very strong and peanutbuttery). Needless to say, a few moments later, our plate was empty.

So... much...dessert

Eleven Madison Park was the meal of a lifetime. It was everything I had hoped for and more-- each course blew me away more than the last. The service was exactly what you'd expect from a Danny Meyer restaurant: Perfect, from the smiles and greetings to the runner ironing the tabletop after resetting the table next to us (seriously). When the server was doling out our mignardises one by one using the silver tongs, he accidentally broke one of the chocolate tarts, and when I told him we'd gladly take the broken one, he refused to serve it to us ("Don't worry, we have plenty!"). Although the meal certainly wasn't cheap (the two three-course prix fixes, one half-bottle of wine, and tip came to $250), it was well worth every penny. They give you so many extra courses that you end up with a lot more food than you anticipate, which makes it feel like a good value, even when you're paying $82 for the base meal. I don't think anybody could have had higher expectations entering a meal than I did for EMP, and it's a testament to the ridiculousness of this establishment that not only was I not disappointed but my expectations were actually exceeded. There is not question in my mind that EMP is a five- Offset Spatula restaurant. I can't wait to go back.

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue

Friday, August 29, 2008

A Belgian Blowout at Markt

On Thursday evening I convened with one of my teams from work at Markt, a Belgian place in the heart of Chelsea. We were there for lots of food, lots of beer, and lots of bonding, and we got all three.

As always, I planned the event, which meant I got to work with the lovely managers at Markt, who were exceedingly accommodating and flexible throughout the whole process of planning the dinner. As a group of 9, we had a $45-per-person set menu with a range of choices for appetizers, entrees, and desserts. They also created beer pairing options with each course, which was really cool.

We started with large quantities of their French bread and butter. They kept baskets of this coming throughout the meal, which was awesome. The bread was addictive-- highly chewy with no hint of a crackly crust, but delicious nonetheless. I ate a lot of this bread.

The remnants of one of many loaves we packed away

On to the appetizers. We had a choice between the lobster bisque; country pate with toast, dijon mustard, red onion relish, and cornichons; and their mixed greens salad. The lobster bisque was pronounced good but exceedingly hot and very rich.

Hot bisque, comin' through

A couple of my teammates chose the pate, but they were at the other end of the long table, so I didn't get the download on that. It looked like a large portion, for what it's worth.

So much pate.

I got the mixed greens salad (as did most of the other members of our party). Since there weren't that many appealing veggie entree selections, I asked for a double portion of the salad, which they provided. I also asked for the dressing on the side, which they didn't do, but I'll give them the benefit of the doubt-- it's always tough serving a large party. The salad had a light dressing and came with cherry tomatoes, pine nuts scattered across the top, and large rounds of goat cheese on toasted baguettes drizzled with honey. The flavors in this salad were certainly strong and interesting. It's not my favorite combination of ingredients (although I do like goat cheese), but it was certainly a welcome departure from the normal mixed greens.

At first I thought those were hard boiled eggs on the side

Then came the entrees. Their house specialty is mussels in a white wine sauce, and many people at the table got them. They came in large black pots accompanied by yummy fries (of which I consumed several). The fries were good-- is any fry ever truly bad?-- but could have been a little hotter. The consensus with the mussels was that they were good at the top of the container, but once the eater got down to the ones at the bottom of the pot, the wine sauce was overpowering. Too much wine, I guess, if that's even possible.

Check out the beautiful steam action

Crispy, golden frites

My friend JW got the steak frites, which came with a small side salad. He let me eat the salad, which was basically an extension of my main salad.

It's like a rosemary epee

Up close on tiny endive salad

There were also partakers in the poached salmon, but again those were at the other end of the table, so I did not get a picture.

And, of course, all along there was beer (or, for me, wine. I just can't stomach beer).

Special glasses and everything

Finally, after much beer and many frites, we made it to dessert. The popular choice was the Dame Blanche, which was vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and a cookie. I had my friend SG's cookie and whipped cream, and they were delicious.

Odd angle, but good dessert

Other people got the Belgian chocolate mousse, which was deemed delicious (albeit small), and the apple tartlet with vanilla ice cream (also pronounced very good).

As the partner on our team declared when this arrived in front of him, "Did anyone order a shot?"

Lovely pastry

Unfortunately, I chose to go with the mixed berries with a hoegaarden sabayon. It was truly disgusting. The sauce tasted like beer (duh, you're saying, it's hoegaarden). I know it's beer, and I know I don't like beer, but I figured it would be a light hoppy flavor-- not like dousing a bunch of berries in beer. Which it was. I tried to wipe the sabayon off the berries but was largely unsuccessful. Seriously, seriously gross.

It looked like hollandaise and tasted worse

All in all, despite the disastrous beery berries, we had a really good time at Markt. The service was outstanding, and they dealt with our large group like pros. The room was a little loud for conversation, but it lent the outing a boisterous and upbeat feel. I'd definitely recommend Markt for a group, a date, or just a night out. Like BXL, it's a solid three Offset Spatula joint: a fun place for food and a good vibe. Oh, and did I mention the beer?

Markt Restaurant
676 Sixth Avenue, at 21st Street

NYC Icy: News and Nutella

It was a long and trying week at work. I was one of the last people left in the office this evening, as everyone else was able to go home early. I came home and my toilet was clogged and I realized I was in a miserable mood. Nowhere else to go but NYC Icy.

"Icy Tea" now on offer

I tried two new flavors this time. The first was "Shazzam" (why? why Shazzam???), which was black raspberry with white and dark chocolate chunks. It was actually pretty good-- mild but tasty black raspberry, and my sample had a good chocolate chunk in it-- but a pretty unappealing faded gray color. I considered getting a full cup, but then I tasted my second sample: Nutella. Ohhhhhhh yes.

The masterpiece

I love Nutella and most Nutella-flavored things (see the frozen nutella at Gotham Bar and Grill), and this really hit the spot. It was light and creamy with a potent nutella flavor, equal parts hazelnut and chocolate and pure deliciousness. It was better than their hazelnut chip flavor, which, incidentally, costs an extra $1 per cup.

Ohh-- and a bit of NYC Icy news-- they've added both a few extra garish plastic chairs for a makeshift seating area and a stand-alone freezer, which as of this evening was empty. I asked if that meant that they were preparing to sell packed pints, and I got the affirmative. Yesssssssss.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

In the meantime...

I've been pretty MIA recently, readers, and for that I apologize-- I was away last weekend and have had a very busy and difficult week at work. I will get back to regularly scheduled programming soon (particularly a VERY special destination this weekend), but in the meantime, check out my new-ish post on

Till soon,


Thursday, August 21, 2008

Good Greek by Grand Central at Ammos Estiatorio

My mom was in town this evening, so we decided to meet up for an early dinner. I chose Ammos Estiatorio, a place I had spotted a couple weeks ago when wandering around that was also convenient to both our locations.

We arrived absurdly early in the dinner hour-- towards 5PM-- to a not-surprisingly empty dining room. We were seated in a corner table in the lovely, warm, yet sophisticated dining room and were given the dinner menu. Since my mom wasn't really hungry, it took us a while to find our footing menu-wise, but after a few false starts (and several questions answered adequately by the server), our order was placed.

A runner brought over a basket of bread and a small plate of olives. The basket held flatbread, breadsticks, sesame bread, and what looked like rosemary-onion rolls. I tried a bit of the flatbread, which was utterly flavorless and nearly textureless as well (don't even know how that's POSSIBLE), and a tiny bit of the hard and chewy sesame roll. The lackluster bread was made up for by the delicious olives-- a mixture of fresh, tangy, and savory green, dark brown, and kalamata olives. The kalamatas were especially soft and fabulous. About halfway through our bread course, another runner came over with another basket of bread, stopped awkwardly, and then put some extra plates on the table and gave us his dish of olives. Upside: we got more olives.

Not the best I've had...

...but oh, so much better!

As my mother had ordered a whole grilled fish, which takes a while, the first part of my meal arrived first. It was the lahanika xidata, a selection of four mezes presented in a clear ice-cube-like tray. From left to right were pickled cucumbers (like the lightest, most gentle yet delectable pickles you've ever had); carrots in some sort of sauce (nothing special); chickpeas with a pepper and parsley mixture (very good, but even a bad chickpea is good for me); and beets (which tasted like bacon. Hmmm).

They're not REALLY floating there, it's just an optical illusion

Close up: cucumbers and carrots

Close up: yummy chickpeas and bacony beets

While I was having a little solo meze party, a surprise arrived at our table: an appetizer of kolokithokeftedes, or fried zucchini balls, "compliments of the chef." Not sure why this came (perhaps they spotted my liberal use of the camera?), but we were happy to have it. The little fried spheres were surprisingly soft and were filled with a mixture of fried zucchini and a touch of ricotta-like cheese. There was a welcome puddle of tzaziki in the middle (yummmm), and a few of those cucumber pickles. This was a delightful and delicious addition to our meal.

Free, fried, and delicious

After this appetizer extravaganza came the entrees. My "entree" was a side of grilled broccoli rabe with lemon. It was mercifully un-oily, as requested, but it was pretty bitter and lacked much flavor. I remarked to my mom that it could use some salt, and all of a sudden a dish of salt flakes and a pepper grinder appeared at my side. Well done, eavesdroppers!


My mom had ordered the Rhode Island Black Sea Bass. It came as a whole fish (head on, which my mom balked at and which was quickly removed), seasoned with herbs and a bit of olive oil and sauce. My mom thought it was very good, and it was flavored with a lot of spices she had never encountered before.

Pretty... yet fishy

We were both full and I had a lot of things to do this evening, so we skipped dessert and paid our bill. All in all, our experience at Ammos was a little odd. There were certainly service foibles, especially at the beginning... After we placed our order our waiter returned to bring back the menu and ask if my mom wanted a side dish with her fish (um, no); and then he took the wine list, then returned shortly after to bring back the wine list and ask if we wanted wine (um, no). But at some point I suspect they got wise to the whole blogging thing and began to dote on us... which wasn't too difficult, because we were one of the few patrons in the restaurant, even at the end of our meal. In any case, it's hard to judge service accurately at a really off-peak time, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt here. The food was really good, creative, and well-prepared (well, except for the bread basket, I guess), and the prices are not cheap but are certainly reasonable, especially for a rather nice restaurant. Would I recommend Ammos? Definitely, especially if you're in the vicinity of Grand Central. While I'm pretty sure Ammos would be a three-and-a-half Offset Spatula restaurant if I had half offset spatulas (I'm waiting, nycfoodguy...), I think this time I'm going to have to round up to four OSes. Go and check it out for yourself-- and let me know if you disagree.

Ammos Estiatorio
52 Vanderbilt Avenue, between 44th and 45th Streets