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

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