I have mentioned again and again that Eleven Madison Park (EMP) is my favorite restaurant in NYC and that I think it is the best restaurant in NYC. I think this time I will go into more detail about what I think sets EMP apart from other restaurants in its class.
Accomodative service and FOH:
There was a recent thread on Chowhound about expectations of EMP's service and some disparity among guests. I firmly believe that it is perfectly reasonable for restaurants to provide certain perks to regulars. What separates EMP in my opinion, is the ability to identify "regulars" without the need for a high frequency of repeat visits. They understand that at their price point, they are a luxury dining experience for many, and that one doesn't have to eat there every month to show one's appreciation for their restaurant.
Besides the reciprocal appreciation, EMP's baseline service is also at a very high level. They are very good at anticipating the needs of diners, but that is not as important to me personally. I am very demanding of service, but I do not expect them to be psychics. I am very comfortable asking for things, and all I ask is that the staff respond promptly, politely, and with a warm smile. EMP's service is very fine-tuned in this area, and they are also especially warm when you engage them in conversation. Never have I gotten an impression that they have something better to do or somebody more important to talk to.
I personally love the art deco design and the extremely high ceilings. While I agree it may not convey the warmth and coziness of the dining room at Daniel, it offers a majestic elegance without the over-the-top opulence of a place like Robuchon at the Mansion in Las Vegas.
It has been almost a year since the menu revamp, but I completely understand now its relevance as a showcase for the food at EMP. The thing about EMP is that they do everything well. While the focus at Le Bernardin is seafood, and the truly outstanding components of a meal at Blue Hill are the farm-fresh produce, EMP excels at a wide array of main ingredients, from vegetables to pork to duck to fish, and more. While every dish at WD50 is interesting, not every dish is good. While every dish at Daniel is perfectly executed, not every dish is interesting. I find that EMP is remarkably consistent in its ability to deliver an array of interesting small tastes through the canapes, and back them up with wonderfully refined yet comforting composed dishes.
I did not get a chance to tour the kitchen on my previous two visits for dinner, but there was no blizzard this time, so my friends DC and SC and I went a little crazy getting the complete experience, and it was a truly memorable meal.
I arrived early and had a drink at the bar. There were olives, chips, and roasted peanuts on offer. The chips were kind of bland and I much prefer the ones at the bar at Scarpetta.
I ended up having two drinks, one was from the cocktails menu while this one was off-menu and expertly mixed by head bartender Leo. The flavors just kept opening up as I kept sipping it, and it definitely opened up my tastes buds for the big dinner I was about to have.
We started off with lovely champagne Roses de Jeanne from Cedric Bouchard. A wonderful recommendation by the sommelier as even an accomplished oenophile such as my friend DC did not know about Bouchard.
Look at that lovely color.
The wine to accompany our main meal (and duck) would be this 1978 Chateau Lynch-Bages. Another excellent choice.
As usual, gougeres to start the meal. Just as good as ever, with a slight taste of salt and the savoriness of the warm cheese center. We had at least thirds.
PEA chilled soup with buttermilk snow and ham crisp. Our first canape involved traditional ham and pea flavors with an interesting play on temperatures with the buttermilk snow. DC could not have the ham crisp so they made a mint crisp for him.
FLUKE AND SCALLOP with basil and meyer lemon; ceviche with tangerine. The ceviche on the left was bright and flavorful, but I really liked the spices that went with the basil and lemon on the fluke.
CUCUMBER with fennel and tangerine. This was in place of the scallop for DC.
GOAT CHEESE lollipop with beets; croquette with watercress and chive. Goat cheese and beet just go so well together. A lovely presentation with the lollipop.
The croquettes were wonderfully light and airy.
ASPARAGUS with sorrel and lemon. This was for DC. Just beautiful.
SEA URCHIN cappuccino with crab and apple. For us, a favorite from last year makes its return. Full of sea urchin flavor, I think the apple really helps bring this dish together both texturally and with that refreshing flavor.
SMOKED STURGEON AND CAVIAR sabayon with chive; fingerling potato and creme fraiche. Another EMP favorite. I'm glad this is constantly offered. Just a wonderful range of savory goodness brought together by the chive oil at the bottom.
The potato looks even prettier than it did last time, and again showcases classic flavors brought together.
QUAIL ballotine with foie gras, fava beans, and radish. We ordered separately as opposed to the tasting menu to get a broader look into the food that was coming out of the kitchen that night. This was perfectly cooked quail meat with a lovely foie gras center. The fava beans and radish helped to offer a full array of textures and provided a refreshing spring flavor.
TROUT smoked with asparagus, creme fraiche and rye crisps.
CRAB salad with pickled daikon radish and crustacean mayonnaise. Just stunning to look at.
For the new bread service, EMP now offers its in-house roll. While it looked like a roll, it ate more like a biscuit, with a wonderful rich and buttery interior. It was served warm, so we had to wait a little bit of time in between each batch they brought us. I think in all we stopped eating the bread about the sixth time around.
The cows' milk and goats' milk butters. We went through a few of these.
LOBSTER poached with carrots and vadouvan granola. The lobster was cooked perfectly, but I found the sauce to be a little too sweet. The mix of vadouvan granola and carrots provided nice crunch and balance to the dish. I'm still hoping they bring back the lobster with meyer lemon.
The lobster after it was sauced tableside.
BROCCOLI variations with parmesan and lemon. If I didn't like EMP's lobster so much I definitely would have ordered this too.
LAMB loin with morels and english peas.
CHICKEN poached with provencal asparagus, morels, and black truffles. DC kept raving about this dish. I could smell the truffles sitting next to him.
PORK rack and confit with cherries, onions, and guanciale. The cherries were perfect without being too sweet. The rack was cooked beautifully, and I was happy to see the return of the confit with the crisp layer of skin on top. I just wish there was more of it. I remember when the confit was served by itself like a brick.
The pork after it was sauced.
DUCK rooasted with lavender honey, rhubarb and celery.
Our server expertly carving the duck tableside.
The skin was beautifully crisp and the concentrated duck flavor was definitely there. This duck was fatter than the one we had last time, and I think I would have preferred it cooked a bit more. Given the aging preparation, I think the meat would have been able to stand further cooking while still being tender, and the fat would have cooked down some more.
POTATO MOUSSELINE with wine braised dark meat. After previous discussion about what happens to the dark meat, we were offered this delicious mix of potato and dark meat. I would have preferred the potato texture to have been less watery though.
EGG CREAM malt, vanilla, and olive oil. Our predesserts were also prepared tableside.
Just wonderful. The flavors were delicate and as someone who does not particularly prefer carbonated drinks (especially water), I found the carbonation to blend in perfectly with the flavors in the drinking experience.
STRAWBERRY vacherin with lemon and basil. Amazing dessert. Strong strawberry flavor from the ice cream harmonized with the light citrus and creaminess from the vacherin. But when you add some of the basil into the same bite it just sings in your mouth.
PEAR poached with honey and ginger.
CHEVRE 4 farms with onion, walnut, and cherries.
MIGNARDISES I cannot recall what these were.
Peanut butter and jelly macarons, mango and coconut meringues.
Olive oil pate de fruit, bread crisps with chocolate and maldon sea salt. Chocolate and salt just go so well together.
Another tableside preparation, this was their coffee service, featuring Bolivian coffee that had a rich flavor that I enjoyed sipping even without milk or sugar.
Only after a specific temperature was reached did the coffee go in.
Finally we were off to the kitchen. DC had to stay behind while we toured the kitchen. It's a pretty big kitchen:
They set up a counter with full view of the kitchen where they prepare a special dessert right in front of us using liquid nitrogen.
Frozen scoop of champagne to be broken and mixed over the top of orange segments and some orange liquer, if I remember correctly. Delicious and interesting.
Just because DC could not make the kitchen tour did not mean EMP didn't have something special for him. When we returned to our table, it turns out that they had overheard him talking about sauternes and poured him a healthy glass of Chateau d'Yquem 1999. I took a sip myself and it was wonderful. The aromatic sweetness, great body, and depth of flavors slowly opening up in your mouth.
It was a truly memorable experience at EMP, made special from beginning to end.