Saturday night was the culminating celebration of my dad's birthday weekend. We were in the market for a special celebratory dinner, and (of course) I was in charge of planning, so in my mind there was only one option: Eleven Madison Park. AV met Mom, Dad, and me in Madison Square Park (the bro had work that evening, unfortunately), and we entered the hallowed halls for a 7PM reservation.
Everything was as I remembered it-- serene, smiling, solicitous. We were led to an incredibly large table, where our server offered her congratulations and asked if we'd like something celebratory to drink. Of COURSE we did, so I chose a bottle of sparkling wine from Jura, which turned out to be incredibly crisp and food-friendly. It was a great start to the meal, especially alongside the dishes of cheesy, ethereally light gougeres that appeared instantly on our table.
As we pondered the menus, subtly adorned with the message "Happy 60th Birthday Richard," the "appetizers" course arrived. At this point I realized I had forgotten to notify them ahead of time of my vegetarian proclivities-- I had made the reservation through EMP's General Manager rather than through Opentable, where I'd usually put a note so the restaurant was prepared ahead of time. No matter; when I asked if they had vegetarian versions, our lovely server didn't miss a beat and brought out a second tray of tiny bites swiftly. For the carnivores: a radish dipped in salted butter; a cucumber round topped with smoke salmon; a square of foie gras with strawberry (which my mom loved); a cheesy tart with crab; and the always-delightful cornet (filled with lamb this time, if I recall correctly). For me, the same radish (peculiarly creamy with the buttery coating); a refreshing cucumber bite with something I don't remember on top (oops?); a cheese tart, sans crab (delightful, especially the crisp crust); two tiny chips sandwiching chickpea puree (incredible and impossibly dainty); and a marinated cherry (pleasingly sweet-tart, not to mention pretty!). Not only were these bites delicious, but they were an impressive show of craftsmanship. Impressive.
We placed our order and soon were gifted an amuse-bouche. Small, delicate white cups filled with a colorful collection of minced ingredients descended upon our table, followed shortly with servers wielding teapots of orangey-red liquid that they poured into the cups. My delight turned out to be a tomato soup on top of a mixture of ratatouille vegetables (delightful and savory); for the non-veggies, it was the same soup on top of a lobster concoction. Well done.
Next up, the moment we've all been waiting for (at least until dessert, that is...): BREAD! We got the traditional two butters, one an unsalted creamy cow's milk butter and the other a bone-white salted goat's milk butter. Both bore the EMP imprint, which I thought was a nice touch. The breads themselves were the traditional mini baguette-- impeccable-- and a lemon-thyme ficelle, which had a very interesting flavor-- I'm not sure I've ever had lemon in bread before. While I tried to control myself in terms of the bread consumption, inevitably both breads were gone by the time the desserts arrived. Damn.
After a suitable pause for us to enjoy our bread, our appetizer course made its apperance. Mom had chosen "Hawaiian Prawns," described as "Roulade with Avocado, Lime and Yogurt." This was almost absurdly beautiful, like a pristinely crafted special roll at a top-notch sushi joint. My mom cooed over this dish, as well she should have; I tried a tiny bit of the yogurt swipe, which was creamy and tangy.
Dad, AV, and I had all chosen the heirloom tomato salad, which came with jamon iberico (for the guys), melons, and Fino Verde basil. Mine was the same, just without the ham. This was a very interesting salad, with the mixture of sweet (red and yellow watermelon), sour/tangy (heirloom tomatoes), surprisingly creamy (tomato sorbet), and simply awesome (aged balsamic vinaigrette, dotted on the plate thoughtfully by servers after the dishes had arrived). A colorful, creative, and satisfying first course.
After the appetizer course, there was quite a bit of a wait before the entrees arrived. During that time, Will, the incredibly kind and helpful GM (who had help arrange all the special touches throughout the meal) came over to greet our table-- it was great to be able to thank him in person. And then right before our entrees arrived, Chef Humm came over to say hello! That was really cool.
But press on, press on-- how was the food? Excellent, of course. AV and Dad both chose the "Dry Aged Angus Beef: Bone Marrow Crusted with Greenmarket Beans, Savory and Sauce Bordelaise." While the meat was enjoyed by both, the coolest part of the dish from my perspective were the tiny little "olive" spheres that the servers applied from a large beaker brought tableside after pouring on the Bordelaise sauce. These were ethereal, squishy little dollops made of who-knows-what that oozed olive essence. They puzzled and delighted me.
Mom chose the Halibut, a firm piece of fish dotted with crisped corn tableside and accompanied by radishes and purslane. This dish was quite pretty, as is everything that emerges from the EMP kitchen, and my mom--ever a fish lover-- enjoyed it very much.
My own entree was one of the appetizer selections, the "Lynnhaven Farms Ricotta di Capra," gussied up in vegetarian fashion. It came out as a plate of the most incredible gnocchi I've ever encountered, swimming in a sea of corn, peas, chickpeas, beans, and purslane. There was a creamy sauce and all the veggies were tender and tasty, but these gnocchi were in a class by themselves: light and pillowy to a level almost beyond physics, oozing a center of something I assume was ricotta but may well have been crack for how tasty it was. These bore no resemblance to the dense, rock-hard gnocchi that sometimes have the misfortune of ending up on your plate. Once again, I was blown away by the craftsmanship of the dish. Wow.
And with that, we were on to dessert... where things started to get interesting. We placed our orders (all in the "chocolate" category rather than the "fruit" section... maybe chocoholism is genetic?) and soon our desserts were upon us. Dad had gone with the simple chocolate ice cream, which was festively adorned with a decorative tuile, a candle, and an inscribed "Happy Birthday." So sweet, literally and figuratively.
Both Mom and AV had chosen the Jivara chocolate, described as "Moelleux with vanilla, olive oil, and cocoa raspberry sorbet." It emerged as a deeply chocolately, tender rectangle covered with a jellied fruit-flavored (raspberry?) layer on top, dusted with silver foil and accompanied by the cocoa-raspberry sorbet. Everything was powerfully chocolatey, and I especially enjoyed the taste of the sorbet, which AV swapped for my ice cream.
Which brings me to my selection: "Eleven Madison's Symphony No. 2," a "Chocolate Tart with Caramel and Maldon Sea Salt." This was extravagant, a substantial wedge of tart filled with rich chocolate atop a thin layer of smooth caramel (in between the chocolate and the crust... ingenious!), all sprinkled with coarse salt and gold foil. There was a scoop of chocolate ice cream alongside, which AV replaced with his sorbet; the pile of golden crumbles was a tasty way to anchor the ice cream to the plate. This dessert was incredible and incredibly rich; I did my best, but I was seriously full by the time the fork hit the plate.
But of course, EMP doesn't leave you with just dessert: after the plates were cleared, servers arrived with the mignardises, a selection of delightful, tender macarons in creative flavors. I was only able to try the passionfruit and the raspberry, both of which were sweet and tasty and true to their fruit flavors, before my stomach prevented me from proceeding further.
After the macarons for the table, however, our server arrived with a special "birthday" macaron for my dad. It was an enormous chocolate cookie the size of a softball, and it delighted my dad immeasurably. It looked delicious, but I couldn't even manage a bite. Boo.
And as a final surprise, tiny cordial glasses appeared on our table, and a server arrived with a bottle of Cognac, which he poured and left on the table with the directive "have as much as you like." We had an incredible amount of fun sipping it (me) and/or making silly faces (Mom and Dad). I'm not a frequent Cognac drinker, to put it mildly, but the flavor was unimaginably intense, and the liquor was warming and delightful. What an incredibly thoughtful and generous gesture.
And finally--finally!-- with the bill, we were each sent home with boxes of fruit gelees, EMP's signature parting gift and a beautiful way to remember the meal the next day.
All in all, it was an evening filled with superlatives. From the incredibly serene bathrooms (quoth AV: "If I had to choose one restaurant bathroom in which to spend the rest of my life, it would be here") to the restaurant itself (quoth my dad: "I can see why you love this place"), I couldn't have asked for a more special, relaxing, and fun celebration of my father's brithday. And any hesitations I had that my parents would be put off by such a "classy joint" (again, quoth my dad), once we arrived I remembered that while the service at EMP is impeccable and outrageously solicitous, it's clear from the output that their first priority is truly that you have a great time. It's perfection without stuffiness, and I've never found another restaurant where the balance is struck so flawlessly. EMP defines the five Offset Spatula designation, and if I had a higher ranking it would earn that. In full realization that I may in fact be EMP's biggest fan, I can't urge you strongly enough to pay a visit, whether it's simply for a drink at the bar, a weekend lunch, or a special celebration. Oh, and happy birthday, dad!
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, at 24th Street