Sometime between my review of Slater’s 50/50 and my review of Daniel I realized: Oh shit. These tongue-in-cheek “distinguished gourmand” posts are actually starting to be…you know…distinguished. I’ve been really lucky to have been able to eat at some of the best restaurants in the country. In fact, Blue Hill At Stone Barns (#54), the aforementioned Daniel (#40) and Per Se (#30) all appear on the list of the 100 best restaurants in the world. I think about how many restaurants there are in my hometown, or how many there are in Los Angeles, and then I try to estimate how many are operating right now across the globe. To say that I’ve enjoyed eating some of the best food in the world is a privilege I don’t think I ever anticipated having back when I was surviving on a diet of bagels and Coca Cola. The fact that I’ve been able to share all those experiences with my mother and sister only makes those meals more memorable for me.
On Wednesday night the three of us sat down at Eleven Madison Park — ranked the fourth best restaurant in the world and #1 in the United States this year — for not only some of the best dishes I have ever tasted, but also the most casual, fun and relaxing fine dining experience I’ve ever had. For as perfect as chef Daniel Humm’s food was, the service and atmosphere elevated the meal to something even greater. There was not a single moment that felt stuffy, or pretentious, or uncomfortable. There was a sense of levity that permeated every aspect of our visit. So many other high-end restaurants could learn something from chef Humm, his staff, and the food at Eleven Madison Park. World-class food in an award-winning and top-ranked restaurant can still be FUN.
Hyperbole exhausted, long-winded intro completed, now I can talk about the food. Oh, and thank you to my sister for being unashamed of photographing most of the night. While I was being all, “put your camera away!” she was telling me I’d be thanking her later.
You take your seat and your server introduces herself. She instructs you that there in an envelope and a knife placed at the center of the table. Inside are “tickets” for each diner. Each ticket offers for perforated little sigil you can choose from. These sigils represent four elements that will come into play during your meal. Obviously it’s best for you to choose different options from the other people at your table. The four choices we were given were “cherry,” “strawberry”, “celery” and “coffee.” After a brief discussion, my sister chose celery, mom took strawberry and I went with coffee. The waitress punched the corresponding pieces out of the tickets and placed them in front of us. Next we had to choose whether we wanted lamb or duck as our main course. We chose duck. Lastly we ordered drinks (I went with a “Voodoo Down,” made with bourbon, Trinidadian rum, St. Germain, Lemon, Honey and Ginger). Then the fourteen-course meal began.
Our first course was a small white box with a bakery box with a blue and white string tied around it. The contents were a play on the traditional New York black-and-white cookie. You know, LOOK TO THE COOKIE. Of course, a traditional black-and-white features vanilla and chocolate frosting. This iteration featured cheddar cheese and apple chutney. It was a delicious and silly bite that perfectly set the tone for the rest of the meal.
The second course came on two plates. Called the “Oyster” dish, there was a trio of creme fraiche, baked potato ice cream and caviar. That was served with an oyster frozen in champagne. As I was commenting on the shocking hit of sharp sourness (in a good way) my mother announced that she had just consumed the first oyster of her entire life. I was absolutely shocked to hear she had never tried one before, and quite impressed that she did so without uttering a complaint first. My instinct was to congratulate her and offer to buy her a stuffed animal from the gift shop on the way out the door. As a kid she used to have to bribe my sister and I to try “weird” foods like squid or shrimp. Once or twice she resorted to lying in order to trick us into trying a new food. I thought it was kind of awesome that after 31 years (although most of my culinary maturity occurred during the past 5-7 years) the tables had turned slightly and it was my turn to smile and congratulate my mom for trying something new.
The third course was a morel custard with Maine sea trout roe. I found this to be fantastic both technically (turning a mushroom into a custard? wha?) and in terms of flavors. The salinity of the roe meshed with the earthiness of the morel was a wonderful combination. Even the tiny mustard flowers that dotted the small bowl imparted a nice bright color contrast.
The fourth course was another small bowl filled with colorful and delicious flavors. English peas were split (at least that’s how they appeared to me) and warmed with Meyer lemon, miso and egg yolk. After this dish was finished we had a couple minutes before the first protein arrived so we started to debate what the best tasting dish was. To this point, I think the women at the table agreed this was the best yet, while I argued for the morel.
The fifth course was a doozy. A cart rolled to the table included three plates and a small dish atop a burner. A small round of house-baked rye bread was dotted with mustard and garnished with ramp relish and some kind of weird strawberry. The top of the burner was removed to reveal six small (think 1″ x 1″) squares of house-cured pastrami. Our served told us that this was an homage to the New York Deli (specifically Katz’s). She then produced three small bottles of soda. One celery flavored, one strawberry flavored, and one coffee flavored. This was the first instance of our pre-meal ticket choices coming into play. We build our little sandwiches, enjoyed our sodas, and passed our glasses around so we could determine who made the best choice. When it came to the soft drinks, my sister (celery) probably had the best-tasting variety. If you’re not sensing the playfulness of the meal at this point, it should be readily apparent. Yes, it’s a three-michelin star restaurant — one of the finest in the world — but they served us legit pastrami sandwiches! How awesome is that?
Before the sixth course arrived we were treated to a bread course which included two different kinds of butter, one of which was rendered in duck fat, and sea salt. The sixth course was the foie gras dish. It came with cured orange-chamomile, white asparagus, and bitter almond. I believe the foie was sourced from Hudson Valley. Now that California has banned the production and sale of foie gras I take any opportunity I can to indulge. Whether it’s on a burger at Holstein’s in Las Vegas or on the supplemental menu at Per Se, I have to order it. I think my mother could sense my anticipation and elation upon receiving my plate, as she generously gave me a portion from her dish.
The seventh course was perhaps the most inventive and tasty of the night. Our server arrived with a cart and a series of ingredients. As she told us about the history of the Waldorf salad, she proceeded to slice and then julienne an apple using a vintage French tool that was hand-crank operated. She then added in celery root to the thinly sliced apple (it’s crispier than regular old celery), mixed it together with lemon mayo and added rhubarb, blue cheese and walnuts to create a reinterpretation of a Waldorf. The best part was, after we’d finished our salads we were told there was a surprise for us beneath the ornate wooden plates the salads were served on. Once the plates were lifted from their bases, we found that a hollowed out bowl underneath with a deconstructed Waldorf salad in soup form! The chilled broth was made from (I think?) celery, and there was a spoon resting above the liquid containing dehydrated apple and candied celery with garlic croutons that we could mix into the broth to complete the dish. The textures and the flavors almost didn’t matter at that point even though they were spot on, the creativity required to imagine and execute such a dish is simply extraordinary.
The eighth course was Maine lobster poached with beets, ginger, and nasturtium. As soon as they set the plates down I was nervous because my mother hates beets, but she approached the plate like a champ and consumed just about everything left for her. The lobster was delicious and I really enjoyed the thinly sliced raw beat laid across the meat as well as the smaller, roasted (I think?) preparation that also accompanied the lobster.
The ninth course was our final vegetable plate. A young man rolled a cart to our table and spooned sage water onto a pig’s bladder filled with asparagus and black truffles. After telling us about the process and how it was made popular by a famous French chef, he returned to the kitchen. Soon after a plate arrived with our asparagus.
It was served with a potato puree that rested atop a black truffle puree. The asparagus was then covered in a black truffle pork jus. The combination of the visual presentation and the flavor of the elements on the plate made this one of our favorite dishes. I was shocked at how mild the truffles were. I don’t typically like that intense, almost funky earthiness, as it always dominates every other flavor it’s supposed to elevate. How many times do you see “truffle fries” or “truffle mac and cheese” on a menu and wind up disappointed because it’s all one truffle-y note? This was the exact opposite of all those overkill dishes, and thus a testament to just how talented chef Humm is.
Our tenth course was our “main” course, the duck we had chosen at the beginning of the year. Since my sister and I had long ago finished our cocktails, we asked our server if she wouldn’t mind pairing a wine with the duck for us, and she returned with a fantastic French syrah that she thought would compliment the duck (it did). First we were presented with the whole duck, which was crusted with Szechuan peppercorns, coriander, lavender and honey. After returning to the kitchen for carving, it was served roasted rhubarb, spring onion, whole shallots and scallions, and topped with with a cured duck broth and watercress. Oh, and just before the plates were delivered we got an amuse that was basically a duck breast cube on top of a rice cracker with a duck consume jelly and couple little greens atop it. I know that’s not the most flattering picture ever but I was halfway through the dish before I realized I wanted to immortalize it. The skin was perfectly crispy and the meat was tender and juicy. I couldn’t have asked for it to have been better cooked. Obviously. The meal had hit on every single mark through nine courses, what on earth would have possessed me to think the tenth one might not have been perfect?
Our eleventh dish was a play on a traditional cheese plate. I was given a picnic basket by the server and instructed to hand out the picnic snacks to everybody else. Inside the basket were fresh made pretzel breads, a parsley puree, pickled strawberries and a shockingly fresh cow’s milk cheese. There was also a bottle of “Picnic Basket” brown ale, brewed exclusively for Eleven Madison Park by Ithaca Brewery in upstate New York. I mean…come on. Re-read that description. We had just finished one of the finest, most savory and delicious preparations of duck in the world and the next course was a beer, pretzels and some spreadable. Are you kidding me!?
Since the production of cheese involves the separation of curds and whey, our fresh cheese course was followed by a whey sorbet with caramelized milk and milk foam. Yeah, it was also delicious.
Dessert (course fourteen) was called “Almond.” It involved another table-side presentation and story about how the Baked Alaska came to be. Our waitress described the process while flambéing our dessert. She returned with three plates for us, each one once again utilizing our pre-chosen ingredients from before the meal began. My sister’s had some kind of celery sauce beneath the dish, mom’s had fresh strawberries and mine featured a coffee/chocolate sauce. It was a perfect way to bring the meal full circle while once again incorporating unique elements to traditional presentations. I’d never tried a Baked Alaska before, and this one (which also featured rum, caramel and strawberry) was outstanding. And I say that as someone who is NOT a dessert person.
Our meal concluded with chocolate and sea salt covered pretzels as well as three more miniature plays on the black-and-white cookie, this time substituting chocolate ganache and mint for the vanilla and chocolate components. As our meal was bookended by black-and-whites, it once again brought the meal full circle for us while forcing us to look back over the rest of the dishes and see how we’d progressed from beginning to end. I guess if you you could call a one-bite cookie a stroke of brilliance without sounding like an idiot…well…you’d be a better food journalist than I am.
It was right around this time Chef Humm stepped out from the kitchen to personal thank everyone for dining at his restaurant that night. We in turn thanked him (uh…DUH) and were given a small bag containing two parting gifts. The first was a menu detailing our meal. The second was a jar of granola we were instructed to eat for breakfast the following morning. Much like the tin of cookies we received upon leaving Per Se a few months ago, the parting gift serves as yet another fun reminder of the meal long after you’ve left the restaurant.
I don’t know what I can say about the Not gonna lie, the experience of eating at Eleven Madison Park was worth every penny. I don’t think there’s anything I can add to what I wrote at the beginning of this review. Every dish was cooked perfectly, beautiful to look at, tasted delicious while hitting on every level. The atmosphere and staff attentiveness were flawless. Their sense of timing was impeccable. I can’t think of a single element that detracted from the meal. In a word, it was awesome.
Lightnin’ Hopkins – Blues In The Bottle [MP3]