Eleven Madison Park – Searching for Soul

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Website
Map
Online Reservations 

  • Menus: at lunch there is a 3-course menu for $56, a 4-course menu for $74 or a tasting menu for $125; at dinner there is a 4-course menu for $125 and a tasting menu for $195 (all prices without wine). The new menu concept does not offer specific dish choices, but rather a selection of main ingredient for each course, which the kitchen will construct a dish around, catering to any of your particular likes/dislikes/allergies
  • You can see all of the high-resolution photos on my Flickr set for this meal

There is no doubt that Eleven Madison Park is a beautiful restaurant with a chef and a kitchen that can turn out beautifully plated and often truly delicious food. After having eaten both dinner and lunch there over the past year or so, I can’t say that I am in love with the restaurant, but I can’t deny that I have had some incredible dishes either. At times, I felt the service, though well-intentioned, to be a tad overbearing. But the one thing I am still searching for is the identity of the cuisine. There are flashes of brilliance, but as Samuel Jackson's character Jules famously asserted in Pulp Fiction, “personality goes a long way.”

The second coming

I first visited Eleven Madison Park last summer for dinner. I was very excited about the restaurant as many critics and bloggers seemed to agree that its Swiss chef Daniel Humm and his team had really begun to hit their stride. We had a very pleasant dinner, but only a few things remain engrained in my mind over a year later: the unbelievable roast duck with lavender glazing that was presented whole and then carved up by the side of our table, and the uncanny knack of the front of house staff to anticipate our every need and desire in a casual and subtle fashion. Everything else is a little bit blurry, no doubt in part due to some of the excellent wine that we consumed that night.

Eleven Madison Park’s sweeping art deco dining room

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to return for a rare leisurely weekday lunch with a friend of mine who was visiting from overseas. We were both curious to see how this New York Times 4-star and Michelin 1-star restaurant (not to mention #24 on the most recent World’s 50 Best list) would live up to our expectations, and I was personally curious to hear my friend’s own views given his considerable culinary background and talent.

The menu

At my first meal, there had been a traditional structure to the menu, but this changed in September of 2010. Now, for every course, the diner chooses the main ingredient for each dish, and the kitchen then constructs a dish around the selected core element, taking into account the diner’s personal preferences and/or any allergies. I never asked, but would be curious to know how this works logistically in the kitchen as they presumably only have so many iterations or frameworks for each ingredient thought out, tried and tested ahead of time for each star ingredient.

Although four courses (plus all of the extras) would probably have been more than sufficient, we opted to go for an unadvertised tasting menu (well, it is mentioned on their website, but it wasn’t visible on our lunch menu). In the end, this turned out to be a mistake as it didn’t equate to good value for money given that we spent nearly 70% more for what amounted to be only two extra courses.

Things were Humming along…

I will try to keep my commentary to a minimum and let the pictures speak for themselves (as you may notice, I’ve also made the pictures larger than in prior reviews – let me know if you prefer this). It is suffice to say that the opening progression of small bites and dishes was fun, well-balanced and impressive.

NV Claude Genet, Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Grand Cru, Chouilly, Côte des Blancs (Champagne)

I remembered that I had been quite taken with the Champagne I sampled on my prior visit, and luckily they still had it on menu by the glass. The delicate grower-produced blanc de blancs (meaning from Chardonnay grapes only) Champagne was perfect with the meal’s preamble.

Gougères

The golden, plump gougères were made from an excellent choux pastry and had just the right amount of cheese so as to be present and pleasant, without overshadowing the light dough. 8/10.

Chilled Pea Soup with Buttermilk Snow & Ham Crisp

A chilled, sweet pea soup was accented by some even cooler milky ‘snow’, with a crispy ham cracker lending crunch and saltiness. The combination worked well and was also artfully presented. 7/10.

Goat Cheese Lollipops with Beet

Besides being colorful and playful, the goat cheese lollipops were also downright delectable. The beet coating not only added vivacity to the presentation but also lent a subtle flavor which melded well with the cheese. 8/10.

Goat Cheese Croquettes with Watercress & Chive Dipping Sauce (not pictured)

These little blonde spheres of (fried) bread and (goat) cheese were also delicious, with the rich flavor and saltiness of the cheese being offset by the watercress in the light emerald dipping sauce. 7/10.

2009 Thalassitis Assyrtico, Gaia (Santorini, Cyclades, Greece)

We had run out of Champagne and the sommelier recommended this Greek wine to see us through a few more courses. It went fairly well when sipped with the next mini-course.

Smoked Sturgeon Sabayon with Chives

The saboyon was heaven in a hollowed out eggshell: luxuriously smooth, smoky, creamy, with a touch of acidity and perfectly seasoned. I wanted three more three-quarter filled eggshells full of it. 10/10.

Cow & Goat Butters

Two types of butter were served for the meal, one from a cow (left) and one from a goat (right) – both elegantly presented and quite delicious.

Bread

The bread was freshly baked and of very high quality, with a lovely crispy crust. The presentation – they arrived in a little taupe-tinged blanket – reminded me of the way the ‘snacks’ are served at noma. 7/10 (I wish there had been a variety of breads offered).

LETTUCE: Salad with Almonds, Mangalista Ham & Cucumber

The first of the ‘real’ courses was a wide assortment of lettuce seemingly randomly arranged and interspersed with two slices of excellent ham, moist almonds and edible flowers. I wasn’t expecting too much; however, once I began eating it, I fell in love with the dish. The salad possessed a great variation in textures and flavors that spoke to me. The dish now adorns the banner of my blog, so I guess that says something. 10/10.

2009 Meroi, Sauvignon, Buttrio (Colli Orientali del Friuli, Italy)

A medium-bodied and deliciously fragrant Sauvignon Blanc was suggested for the rest of the non-meat courses. It fared better with the broccoli dish than the lobster course that was next upon us.

LOBSTER: Poached with Carrots & Vadouvan Granola

The next course was even stronger than the salad. The most perfectly poached lobster I can remember having was complemented beautifully by the butter sauce and sweetness of the carrots, which didn’t overshadow the self-proclaimed star of the dish (‘LOBSTER’ is in all caps on the menu), with the of-the-moment vadouvan granola giving my jaws some more serious work to do. In a word: stunning. 10/10.

BROCCOLI: Variations with Parmesan, Lemon & Lardo

I wasn’t sure about the broccoli dish at first; however, it grew on me as I ate more and more of it. One thing they understand very well at Eleven Madison Park is the importance of texture in a dish, and this shone through here as well. The various forms of Parmesan were delicious and they pierced through the distinct iterations of the green flowering cabbage very well. 7/10.

2008 Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, Clos Marion, Monopole (Fixin, Burgundy)

For the meat dishes, we decided to go for a half-bottle of a red Burgundy that was suggested by the helpful and friendly sommelier. Unfortunately, despite having had another good wine from Fixin not that long ago, I wasn’t inspired by this one. It was perfectly drinkable, but didn’t strike a chord.

PORK: Confit with Cherries, Onions & Guanciale

The food elements of the meal had thus far been progressing very well. Sadly, when we reached the two final savory courses – both of which featured meat – the beautiful overture began to decrescendo.

The pork dish certainly looked the part. Another thing the kitchen excels at is constructing a striking plate of food. However, the cylindrical shaped loin had been, so far as I could tell, cooked sous-vide, which in this particular case hadn’t done it any favors, or given it much flavor. The texture was monotonous and there was no complexity of taste. The little confit cube was mildly more interesting (the belly’s crackling could have had more crackle), but I didn’t feel that the sauce or the accompaniments made this dish more than the sum of its parts. 6/10.

LAMB: Loin with Morels & English Peas

The lamb course was almost identical in its conceit, and received a similar reception from myself and my companion. The long pink strip, which had almost certainly been cooked in a bag, presented the same problems as the leaning tower of pork. The darker meat – was it lamb breast? – was more flavorful, but again, we felt let down by the supporting cast as they didn’t seem to interact naturally with the star to create a memorable scene. 6/10.

A small section of the huge kitchen

At the intersection between savory and sweet, our waiter suggested that we might like to take a brief tour of the kitchen to see us through the interlude. We followed dutifully and were in awe of the mini metropolis that housed the small legion chef whites. I noticed that the back-of-house space had been enlarged since my last visit. The area where we had sat last year – a slightly awkward and dark rectangular room at the back right of the restaurant – had been converted into a sort of interim room where smaller but important tasks, such as making the coffees, were being handled.

Alcoholic alchemy

We were seated at two stools against a wall in a less busy area of the kitchen and watched as a resident mixologist concocted a couple of cocktails, which involved the use of liquid nitrogen in the final stages.

Aperol Spritz with Liquid Nitrogen

The Aperol-based cocktail, which also contained what I believe was a blood orange sorbetwas really delicious, but I did find it slightly awkward to drink it in the midst of the bustling kitchen. It was like being a fly on the wall, but a human-sized fly that everyone could see!

Table-side egg cream creation

To mix things up even further, after we were escorted back to our table, we were asked if we would like to try the restaurant’s version of a classic egg cream. Now I should state that my father is a native New Yorker and has been known from time-to-time to harp on about the glory that is an original New York egg cream. I guess I am not my father’s son in this sense, since I have never much cared for the combination of seltzer water and milk (call me crazy). However, I am open-minded when it comes to all things edible and I thought I’d give a second (or ‘eleventh’) chance.

Eleven Madison Park’s Egg Cream

I don’t think their version used any chocolate, but it definitely had malt, vanilla and olive oil. Anyway, I can confirm to you that no matter how good the ingredients might be – and I am sure this was probably the most luxurious version you could ever have – I will just never like sparkling milk. I will refrain from giving this a score as I was predisposed not to like it.

CHOCOLATE: Cannelloni with Espresso, Caramel & Yogurt

I was really underwhelmed with the dessert, which on paper sounded like a great combination of flavors, but in reality didn’t provide any excitement on the palate. In particular, the caramel sauce was simply too sweet. I had hoped for a more creative and satisfying dessert, especially as I realized that the egg cream must have served as our pre-dessert. 5/10.

Double Macchiato

For a restaurant, they can make a pretty decent macchiato though, and I was glad to savor this with some colorful petit fours. 8/10.

Petit Fours: Pâte de Fruits, Macarons & Tuiles with Grains and Seeds

I know a lot of people who don’t really care for the jellies you often get in fancy restaurants at the end of the meal (or pâte de fruits in French), but I have a sweet tooth and if they are well made, I like them. These were pretty good, and the macaron and the tuile were both pleasant enough too. 6/10.

Stuck in the middle with you

This was really a tale of two meals within one. Everything sang until the meats arrived, which was a shame as the first half of the meal contained some of the best dishes I’ve had this year. I just didn’t understand the conception of the meat dishes – besides cooking one type of meat two ways, which hasn’t been that original for a long time – and it really put a damper on the meal as a whole, especially as this and the disappointing dessert came at the end, as they usually do.

In terms of ambience, the room, while being grand, was absent of a certain animation which was present when I first dined there. The room was also not full, and it was eerily quiet for most of the meal. Don’t get me wrong, I abhor background music in a room and restaurant like this, but the atmosphere felt a little flat.

I would also like to briefly comment on the service. I think that the Union Square Hospitality Group must have the best CRM system on the market. When I arrived they definitely knew who I was, when I had last been there, and that I had been a particularly interested/ engaged diner on that occasion.

It was plain to see that they were going to go the extra mile – or run a marathon – to make sure that we were well taken care of. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and this is the right way to run a business. Heck, it’s probably the main reason Danny Meyer and his establishments are so successful. However, I felt that the approach taken towards our table on this occasion was too overtly over-the-top and oftentimes crossed that thorny border into the realms of being cheesy (sorry, that is the best word I can find to describe it). The problem was that it felt like we had to enjoy everything because it was made to seem like they were pulling out all of the stops for us.

I have no idea if this is the way that every returning (or even first-time) guest is treated at Eleven Madison Park if and when they appear to be particularly interested in the food: very possibly so. I try to be as discreet as possible when taking photos, but people do sometimes notice, and I am sure they did on this occasion, which may have led to slightly special treatment. The last thing I want to do is come across like a whiney blogger who complains about receiving extra attention at a nice restaurant, but all I can tell you is what happened and how it made me feel. It felt like they were trying too hard, like it wasn’t quite natural. There is a way to cosset guests and make them feel like they are at home, and I didn’t feel like this at Eleven Madison Park.

Lastly, with regard to the food, I can’t quite eek out its identity. It contains the occasional homage to America but overall, since there are single ingredients listed on the menu, I can’t get the sense of the cuisine’s personality or ambitions. I wonder how chef Humm would describe his food. To me, it seems to incorporate some very modern techniques (i.e. liquid nitrogen in the cocktail, and various ‘snows’ for garnish), as well as some classic European ones (i.e. that truly wonderful roast duck I had the first time around). But from my two visits, it doesn’t appear to be beating its own drum or leading the pack, but rather incorporating various trends that are going on throughout the higher echelons of international cuisine. Perhaps I am not familiar enough to be a fair judge, but by focusing on individual ingredients without any obvious overarching conceit, the food seems to lack a sense of soul.

In any case, it is a very good restaurant that is capable of some incredibly high highs. I just wish my most recent meal would have been more cohesive and consistent. Perhaps my expectations were as grand as the dining room.

Would I return? Yes, but not for a while, and I would probably ‘just’ get the three or four course menu and inquire and/or direct more specifically how each dish will be prepared to avoid potential disappointment.

Rating

Ambience: 6/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: they have one of the most extensive and best-chosen wine lists in NYC, and it is truly a pleasure to peruse. There are trophy wines and undiscovered gems alike. France, Italy, Spain, Germany and California feature heavily, but other regions are represented throughout as well. They have a very nice selection of half-bottles of red and white wines, which is much better than you typically see. My only gripe is that they should have a few cheaper options by the glass.

*Note: I have been to Eleven Madison Park twice – once for dinner and once for lunch – and paid the full price (with no known freebies thrown in) both times. I was not invited by the restaurant or its PR team on either occasion.*

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

16 thoughts on “Eleven Madison Park – Searching for Soul

  1. Wow. Eleven Madison is one of my favourite restaurants in New York – I just think it’s fabulous in every way – creative, beautiful looking and tasting food, lots of surprises that put a smile on your face. And I love the high ceilings and big windows of the big, airy room – something NY restaurants have well over ours in London. I found the service attentive, but certainly not overbearing (nothing I hate more) – do you think they noticed the camera and assumed you were a blogger so perhaps turned it on a bit too much?

    • Hi there,

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t necessarily disagree with most of what you are saying (and I think I made many of the same points in the review – i.e. the grand room, the beautifully presented food, and mostly very good tasting food). The main issues I had in this particular meal were two (in my opinion) lackluster meat dishes – especially after such a great procession of food before it – and then a very disappointing dessert to finish. As I noted in the review, I think they noticed the camera and yes, this is possibly why we got what I believe to be somewhat ‘special’, or at least extremely attentive, service. I just felt it was a bit too much, and think my companion did too. Not a disaster, but it didn’t make us feel at ease. My other, less important, point about the food was that by focusing on individual ingredients (i.e. market-driven food, which is, in and of itself, a good thing), I just can’t get a sense of the identity of the food. Not that a restaurant/chef necessarily needs to have a theme/aspiration/ambition/etc., but with cooking at this (very high) level, I think it can add something to the whole experience. I am not saying that every restaurant should go as far as a place like noma, but I just wanted to get a better sense for chef Humm’s food, which I don’t feel I did. I also made the point that I may not be in the best position to judge, having only eaten there twice. I don’t want to dissuade people from going there – I plan to return myself at some point – but I personally haven’t fallen head over heels in love with the place, though it is indeed a very good restaurant.

      Hope you are well.

      LF

  2. It does look lovely, though shame about the meat courses. Do they definitely do a 3 course menu? they only list 4 course on the website and I’d rather like to visit in October (though I’m on a budget…)

    • Hi Lizzie,

      Thanks for your comment. If you look at the photo of the menu in my post (also here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/laissezfare/5834357006/in/set-72157626839455353/lightbox/) , you can see that they did offer a 3-course lunch when we were there for $56, although I also noticed the same thing you did on their website (plus, as I said in the review, it was also weird that they didn’t have the tasting menu option printed on our menu on the day). I would just book it and enquire at the time if they will be offering a 3-course. It’s definitely worth a try if you haven’t been before. Let me know if you want any recommendations, though I am sure you have probably already been inundated.

      Best regards.

  3. Beautiful photos- thank you for the vicarious visit. We had to choose two out of Daniel, Per Se and Eleven Madison Park when we were last there. We went for Daniel and Per Se. I think we made the right choice.

    • Thanks for your comment. I haven’t had the chance to try Per Se yet and the last time I was at Daniel was probably close to 10 years ago, so I can’t compare, but you may well be right. Thanks for stopping by.

      Best regards.

  4. Pingback: Memorable Morsels & Fermented Finds of 2011 | Laissez Fare

  5. I was actually looking for good restaurants to visit during my upcoming trip to NYC. The food looks very minimal, yet I can imagine super tasty thanks to the high resolution illustrative pictures. Will have to definitely pay the restaurant a visit. Thank you

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