ELEVEN MADISON PARK
New York, New York
Like many great chefs in Europe, Chef Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park comes out towards the end of the evening service strolling from table to table to meet the guests. He's charming, modest and appreciative of those who have come to savor his cuisine. I'm starting at the end of the story only because the experience of eating at Eleven Madison Park was so overwhelmingly good one tends to remember the meal for a long time.
It's August 4th, a Tuesday night, 8 p.m. Nearly all the tables are filled in the large dining hall of this landmark art deco building. Being a Relais & Châteaux establishment, the impeccably well-trained staff takes care of everything you might possibly need. Water is poured (regular tap in a beautiful container with no sales pitch to get some overpriced bottled stuff), cocktail and wine lists are brought.
The wine list at Eleven Madison Park is daunting - not because of its price but because of its scope. Wine connoisseurs will want to take the time to review the list online before dining otherwise you could easily spend a good hour if not more trying to decide what to drink. Yes, there are that many choices at reasonable price points. I had done my homework and since I already knew we were going to order the tasting menu, I thought a variety of half bottles in the $30 range followed by a full bottle in the $50 range would in the long run be cheaper (and more fun) than doing the nearly $100 per person wine pairing.
At some restaurants when you order the tasting menu, you get the courses in the order listed with maybe a free amuse bouche thrown in. At Eleven Madison Park, before you even get to the first course in the line-up, they've brought you a plate of assorted amuse bouche to share plus three (3!) additional amuse bouche (think pre-first course appetizers). But first bread was offered: individual baguette rolls plus baguette that was baked with picholine olives and rosemary. Two butters were presented, upscale cow's milk from Vermont and a soft white goat's milk along with a small bowl filled with sea salt.
We moved on to drink two glasses of champagne (2002 Domaine Huet Brut from the Loire Valley) and then shared some memorable amuse bouche treats of sweetbreads stuffed into a luscious pastry cornet and smoked salmon topped cucumbers.
We then moved on to amuse bouche #1 -- a cold corn and bacon chowder with cream that was poured over the ingredients. Amuse bouche #2 was a warm sea urchin "cappuccino" served in a funky plastic bowl that had the unpleasant effect of trapping the sauce in the ridges of the plastic. We were a bit confused about the serving of two variations of soup back-to-back but amuse bouche #3 brought the concept of whetting our palate to a whole new level. Two Chinese soup spoons were placed in front of us. One nestled a tablespoon-sized piece of homemade mozzarella di bufala, the other what looked like a mirror image of the bufala (it too was glistening and white) but was a bite of concentrated tomato that Chef Humm had somehow managed to turn white with an incredible burst of tomato flavor as we bit into it. When Lynn and I looked at each other surely our eyebrows were raised - in awe and surprise at not only the concept and execution but the intensity of flavor.
We were now ready for our first course. Listed on the tasting menu as "greenmarket heirloom tomatoes" it was in fact a composition of a large tomato slice and a tomato sorbet - the sliced tomato was dusted with something dark (sesame seeds?) while the dark pink tomato sorbet had some crunchy olive thing (kind of like olive brittle) going on on top. Besides the two tomato variations, a bowl with a crunchy white disk was placed in front of us that when broken with a spoon revealed tiny cherry tomatoes in shades of yellow and red nestled underneath.
The tomato variations done we moved on to what I can only describe as a "bar" of rabbit - slices of rabbit that had been molded to look like a chocolate bar that were plated with three whole cherries, one yellow, one red, and the final "cherry" actually a pistachio coated "cherry" that when we put a fork to it yielded an intense cherry juice to sweeten the rabbit, pickled onions and grilled pistachio bread accompaniment. With the rabbit we shared a half bottle of Syrah (Alain Graillot Crozes Hermitages 2007) .
Moving on to our next course, poached Nova Scotia lobster plated with dollops of pureed eggplant, zucchini and red and yellow peppers with a creamy saffron broth, we drank a half bottle of Sauvignon Blanc (Château de Maimbray Sancerre 2005).
Our lamb dish came out next - expertly grilled baby lamb chops (Lynn says there were two on the plate but truthfully I only remember one singularly spectacular chop) plated with sweetbreads, peas (both chick and green) with a small sheeps milk tart covered with green herbs. With the lamb we had a bottle of Côtes du Rhône (La Pialade 2005).
With nearly half a bottle of wine to finish, the cheese cart was wheeled up to us and we managed to make our way through a variety of cheeses from Switzerland, France and Vermont. After our cheese plate we were instructed to wash our hands since a finger bowl filled with wild herbs and flowers was placed before us and warm water was poured out of what looked like a small silver teapot. In the middle of the bowl was a small white cylinder that when the water hit, it was soft enough to pick up and unravel and become an upscale wet wipe. (It actually reminded me of those bath toys that become dinosaurs or elephants that we'd throw in the tub when the kids were little.) Not only were we amused but the smell of the herbs revived our senses to move on to dessert.
Here's my problem. I'm not a big fan of anything with peanut butter. I suppose when they asked at the beginning of the meal if I had any food allergies or disliked any particular food groups I could have volunteered my take it or leave it feeling about peanut butter. Instead my usual reaction is "we eat anything, bring it on."
Dessert that night was a chocolate peanut butter thing followed by little macarons in a variety of flavors. I hate peanut butter, Lynn hates the little macarons that inevitably follow high end dining these days. We survived.
We sat for nearly 3.5 hours and towards the end of the meal, the wait staff brought out complimentary cognac and left the bottle on the table with instructions that we should feel free to help ourselves to more.
Generous beyond a doubt, incredibly romantic, expensive but worth it. Meeting Chef Humm and the high caliber of the artistry going into the cuisine was an experience that was extraordinary. Humm and the entire staff of Eleven Madison Park are surely the crown in restaurateur Danny Meyer's empire.