Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A medley of awesomeness exploding in my mouth: Valentine's Day at Eleven Madison Park

With the possible exception of New Year's Eve, Valentine's Day is the worst day of the year to go out to dinner. Restaurants know that; savvy diners know that; both parties act accordingly. So a nice, quiet dinner in was my plan, until AV surprised me with V-day reservations at none other than Eleven Madison Park. His theory: based on my embarrassingly frequent gushings about my last experience there, if any restaurant can not mess up Valentine's Day, it's EMP. So we were off to put the place to the test: Could it retain its title as Greatest Place on Earth on one of the toughest days of the year? (If you're the impatient type, you can scroll down to the bottom of the review to find the answer. But c'mon, stay with me.)

We entered the amazing dining room, and it was just as I remembered it: beautiful, serene, peaceful yet still vibrant. Not surprisingly, it was full of couples and parties of multiple couples, and though we had expected a rather older crowd, the average age was surprisingly young. After being greeted effusively by almost every person in the dining room, we were led to an expansive two-person table in the back corner of the room. They had set the table so we sat side by side with our backs against the wall, looking out into the dining room. I'm not sure whether this setup was just for Valentine's Day or whether it was to allow carts to move past the table without bumping into chairs (which made sense, as there wasn't much room to pass). Initially, we weren't huge fans the side by side dining, but we acclimated quickly, since it allowed us to watch the action going on in the middle of the room. Plus, it saved us from having to look at each other (kidding).

First up: the champagne cart, which arrived mere nanoseconds after we had sat down. This cart had chilled champagne at the ready, in case we required a glass of champagne RIGHT NOW and couldn't even wait to look at the wine list. Unfortunately, being more on the prudent side and less on the already-drunk-and-making-hasty-and-foolish-decisions side, we decided to look over the wine list before making a decision. With the help of the kind and knowledgeable sommelier, we decided on a relatively reasonably priced bottle of Alsatian sparkling wine (well, you HAVE to have bubbles on Valentine's day, right?), which was delicious and refreshing. It was served in beautiful, tulip-shaped flutes, which I always appreciate.

And before we knew it, we were off. Before even seeing a menu, we were presented with dishes of tiny little appetizers. Mine were vegetarian (I had notified them in advance) and included a cucumber bite, a leek mousse tart, a butternut squash and beet box, and an egg-and-radish cracker (full disclosure: I didn't take any notes during dinner, so my descriptions of the food are based on memory, photos, and menu descriptions and may not be 100% accurate. Bear with me). AV's were a cucumber and smoked salmon piece; a leek-and-bacon tart; a foie gras square; and a tiny phyllo cornet. I don't remember exactly what was in the cornet-- for some reason I thought it was lamb, although looking back at our last dinner there it was rabbit... nonetheless it was AV's favorite. I was partial to the butternut squash box, if only because it was so structurally impressive. The appetizer course came with a small dish of gougeres; once again, it took nearly superhuman strength not to shovel all of them into your mouth at once and be full and happy. Until you realized that you hadn't even technically started your five-course meal and were already full. So we restrained ourselves.

Veggie bites

Meaty bites

At this point we were given menus to look over-- our choice that evening was between a five-course and an eight-course meal. We went with the fiver, because that seemed ridiculous enough. The courses were already preset, so we just had to make our choice, sit back, and wait to see what we were in for.

But we weren't ready for the first course just yet-- oh no. First came the amuse bouche, which was a butternut squash veloute with asian pear, pomegranate, and riesling foam in an strikingly pristine porcelain cup. This soup-- if you can even stoop to call it soup-- was hands down the best soup I have ever, ever eaten. It was like sipping liquid velvet, with occasional pearls of pear or pomegranate to temper the unctuousness. If I could have cancelled the rest of my dinner and instead ordered a kiddie pool of this veloute and a giant twisty straw, I would have. But I didn't, because we were trying to be grown-ups. (N.B.: Trying.) It was at this point, I believe, that AV described the food as "A medley of awesomeness exploding in my mouth" (or was it earlier? after tasting the cornet?) and professed that he now knew what I meant by a five-spatula restaurant. Not to be a spoiler or anything.

Sumptuously beautiful, like melted sunshine

You'd think THEN we'd get rolling on course #1-- but wait. First we had to traverse what I think of as the EMP Dining Minefield, or what other people think of as the bread course. As you know, I love bread. I especially love good bread. I especially, especially love warm, fresh, crackly-and-soft good artisanal bread with outstanding butter. So, oh, the bread course at EMP is hard. Our waiter brought over two small baguettes for each of us-- tiny and warm, one with olives, one without-- and a dish of unsalted cow's milk butter next to a tiny pot of fleur-de-sel so we could salt to our taste (uh, of course. Pre-salted butter is so inconsiderate). At this point, when he left our table, I was confused. One of my favorite parts of my last meal at EMP had been the dual-butter presentation, one cow's-milk, one goat's-milk, both out of this world. But here we were with only one butter. One butter? Are you kidding me? At this point I started whispering slander to AV, talking trash about deducting spatulas, storming out of the dining room right then... when, lo and behold, our waiter returned with a dish of pure white goat's milk butter, sprinkled with salt on the top. Now, I don't know if every table got the two-butter treatment that night and for some reason our goat butter was just held up momentarily or if this was a quitessential example of Danny Meyer they-know-what-you're-thinking-before-you-do hospitality, but either way, color me impressed. And if this isn't the longest paragraph about butter you've read in a long time, you may want to reconsider your choice in reading material. Moral of the story: the bread was delicious, and when the bread vixen reappeared between courses three and four and offered us more, it was heart-wrenching to pass it up. (But we did, dutifully. Like grown-ups.)

Oh, bread, how you tempt me


...and goat

At that point, having emerged from the minefield with all our limbs and organs intact, we finally made it to course #1. For AV: Diver scallops "en chaud-froid" with black truffle. For me: Heirloom beets marinated with chevre frais and rye crumble (these are the menu descriptions, in case you were confused at the precision). Both plates were beautiful. My beets were superlative, with the chevre mousse especially delicious and the rye crumble texturally interesting (it really did taste like rye bread!). AV loves scallops, but this dish was probably his least favorite of the night-- not because it wasn't good (as he said, at any other meal in any other restaurant the very same dish would have been excellent, just compared to the rest of the food at EMP it wasn't the best), but because he prefers warm scallops and isn't a huge fan of truffle. Such is life.

A beet still-life

Scallop & friends

On to course # 2, which came with an interesting scooping utensil that neither of us knew what to do with (I wonder if the waiters have bets back in the kitchen on which tables will use the obscure silverware and which won't. If they do, I'm pretty sure they pegged us as non-users). This dish, violet artichokes barigoule, was a candidate for favorite dish of the night for both of us. Mine came with arugula, AV's came with bacon, but both were the most tender, flavorful artichokes imaginable. There were also various interesting garnishes: a circle of starchy potato; a ring of pickled onion; a smear of pea puree; a sun-dried tomato; an olive half; a drizzle of pesto. Pure genius.

The meaty version

The veggie version

Interesting scooping utensil

We were hitting our stride at this point-- still hungry but not ravenous, hitting the food sweet spot, halfway through our champagne, loving life. Perfect time for course #3. For AV, this was Mediterranean Loup de Mer, seared with satsuma tangerine, Florence fennel and tarragon. For me, this was celery root beignets with apple remoulade and black truffles. AV thoroughly enjoyed the perfectly cooked piece of fish-- from my spectator's position, I will say that you really can't get a better sear on fish than Daniel Humm's kitchen wizards did that night. My own dish was intriguing, and I liked it more and more with each bite. The celery root beignet was almost like a celeriac tater tot (gasp, uncouth!), and the apple remoulade was like apple cole slaw-- it was very upscale/downscale. And I like truffle, so I appreciated the substantial truffle slice.

Incredibly crisp skin

Both beignet and truffle are silver-dollar-sized

At this point, there was a reasonable pause between courses; whether planned or not, it gave us some much-needed time to digest and visit the restrooms. It also gave us enough time to be tempted by the bread vixen (damn you bread vixen!!). But we resisted and were rewarded with our fourth, most substantial, and final savory course. His: Colorado lamb with herb roasted crispy panisse, cumin, and sheep's milk yogurt. Mine: Wild mushroom canelloni with red wine braised onions and Satur Farm spinach. AV particularly enjoyed the poppable sweetbreads that came as a pleasant surprise on the side. My canelloni was spectacular-- hearty but small, with a delicious filling and vibrant spinach on top.

Lamb log with my favorite kind of mini carrots

A forest scene... over canelloni

And finally, the moment we've all (i.e., I've) been waiting for: Course #5: dessert! Our dessert this evening, at least according to the menu, was a dulce de leche parfait with milk chocolate and Maldon sea salt. According to my memory, it was chocolate mousse wrapped in a chocolate coating accompanied by a smear of caramel, a smear of something carrotty, and scoop of ice cream of some sort (caramel? chocolate?). This was delicious, but as you can see by my somewhat spotty recollection, the complimentary dessert wine we were so graciously given at this point may have made things somewhat delightfully foggy.

Edible gold leaf... extra luxe

Finally came the plate of mignardises, which this evening was a selection of macarons. There was a passionfruit one (my favorite), a chocolate/raspberry, a strawberry (I think), a violet, and a rose. These were perfectly constructed macarons, crisp on the outside with a chewy interior and soft cream in the middle. What an incredibly delightful ending to the meal.

A beautiful closing bonus

Well, as you can probably tell right now, EMP wins: they managed to pull off a classy, fun, delicious, and spectacularly enjoyable Valentine's Day dinner. The service was flawless and warm, especially our gracious waiter (who dutifully indulged me when I requested some insider info pertaining to a, ahem, friendly wager regarding the number of marriage proposals AV and I would witness that night. Despite cheating, I lost anyway). The food was incredible, more than up to snuff. And they even sent us home with a small box of fruit gels for later (which I ate the next day. Mmmm). There is absolutely nothing I would have changed about the evening: it was the perfect Valentine's Day surprise.

Oh, and in case there was any doubt whatsoever, yes, EMP is still the Greatest Place on Earth and without a doubt the quintessential five-Offset-Spatula dining experience.

Eleven Madison Park

11 Madison Avenue, at 24th Street

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