This is a fairly extensive review, and so I will be splitting it into two parts. Please click here for part 2.
It seems not that long ago that I was writing about the "new" Eleven Madison Park menu. In fact, The New Eleven Madison Park Lunch I wrote a little over 2 years ago has reigned as the most popular post on this blog. Since then, the menu format has changed a couple of times, but the current incarnation has been the one that has gotten the most scrutiny and even been deemed risky. I guess this is what happens when one of your mottoes is "Endless Reinvention".
The restaurant is ensconced in a former bank, and features a large spacious dining room with grand high ceilings, tall windows, and a beautiful view of the park. Not much has changed in that regard, although the artwork that is now hanging in the back looks to be of the very park that we are adjacent to, while the previous pieces have been moved to behind the bar area. The lighting felt as if it wasn't as dim as during previous visits, which was great for taking photos with my so-so camera without using flash. Prime time on a Friday night, neighboring tables included a lovely young couple who were regulars celebrating a birthday, as well as a young aspiring foodie who was very enthusiastic and inquisitive about what was being served.
The friendliness and accessibility that has always been a signature of the EMP experience continued to shine through. That being said, I have read some reviews suggesting that the service feels a bit different than it used to, and I sensed that a little as well. It could be because of newer staff, although my belief is that it has to do with the fact that the staff has more to do and hence, added stress, in the current dinner format.
The night we were there, they had forgotten our black and white cookies at the beginning of the meal, and there appeared to be a mixup when I opted for still water, and iced water came on a refill. While these were lapses that I would never expect to see at a top tier fine dining restaurant, they were not egregious and I'm not the type that demands flawless, anticipatory service. To me, what was more important was that everything was remedied swiftly when it was brought to their attention, and in such a way that our mood for the rest of the evening was not adversely affected in any way.
Whether at lunch or dinner, only one tasting menu is served at a price of $195+t/t. The tasting menu pays homage to New York through various courses. The meal will take at least 3 hours, and the only choice to be made is between beef or duck for the main course. It is possible to have both with a $45 supplement. Even in this set tasting menu format, the restaurant is still extremely accommodative to dietary restrictions and preferences. I strongly urge future diners to not be shy about voicing those. There is a beverage pairing option for $145. I say beverage because it is possible they pair some courses with beer instead of wine, although most of it will be wine. We did not order the pairing, as we thought that it would've been just too much. I did inquire about splitting one pairing, but was told that that is no longer an option given the size of the pours.
The top of the cookie featured a white cheddar glaze and a black vegetable ash glaze. The cheddar cookie itself was well balanced with a cheddar and crab apple chutney filling. While I loved the previous version I'd had featuring black truffle and parmesan, I'm glad to see them move on with the season and the cookie served as a wonderful savory palate opener.
Before we even get to the dishes, let's look at the actual dishes. The plates are custom made, featuring the logos and signature on the bottom. The dark disc-like shape near the center of the plate is actually a tiny recess that allows other serving bowls to sort of "dock" with the plate. This would have been so much cooler if I hadn't recently seen a magnetic plate at Brooklyn Fare that served the same purpose.
The Duxbury Oyster was topped with Champagne and Champagne vinegar mignonette, puffed buckwheat, sorrel, and lucky sorrel. The plating of the dish with the greens draped on top evoked an image of a fresh oyster straight from the ocean. The flavor components of this dish was well designed but I thought there were structural flaws in its execution. For the size of the oyster I got, there seemed to be too much mignonette. As it was the first thing that hit my taste buds, my first reaction was too much acidity. It did balance itself out a bit more later on, but I also found a stray flake of black pepper in my mouth that left a random spicy aftertaste after I'd already eaten the oyster. I understand the design and the plating, but I felt that a more controlled method of distributing the dish's components would have been better.
Maine Sweet Shrimp already tends to lack much texture even fresh out of the shell, so the freshly grated horseradish and fennel fronds provided a welcome textural component to the dish. Along with the olive oil and lemon, everything brought a brightness to the dish that highlighted the sweetness of the shrimp. A very well composed dish.
Everything was there. A sea urchin panna cotta that held the sweet and tart flavors of more sea urchin, scallop marinated in lemon juice, and granny smith apple gelee. There was even a wide range of textures from the creamy custard to the soft shellfish flesh to the crisp apple batons. I cannot fault this dish, and yet I just didn't find it compelling.
The clam course featured many components, the first of which was steamed surf clam presented in the shell, along with diced celery root, diced pear, crumbled morcilla sausage, and topped with a clam and celery root espuma, chives, and piment d’espelette. While I've had chorizo with clam before, the morcilla sausage here added a wonderful depth of flavor. The crumbling of the sausage also helped as I usually have issues with the texture of morcilla. Everything was well-balanced and rounded out by the the foam, which brought a nice earthy, savory note to the fresh taste of the clam.
A finishing touch of hot water onto the rocks released steam vapor that carried the smell of the ocean within it.
The Clambake is often served in lieu of the Smoked Sturgeon course for those who've had the sturgeon before. That night I saw the clambake and the smoked sturgeon show up at different tables. I've been lucky enough to have had both the smoked sturgeon and a previous version of the clambake at a previous dinner before the current menu format went into effect. While the accompanying dishes are nice, I personally think the chowder is the key part of the EMP Clambake experience. It should be pure distilled essence, and "taste like happiness". While this one had great clam flavor, I felt it was missing the something that makes you sit back and say, "ahhhhhhh" contentedly. I tend to associate chowders with warmth and comfort, and the tomato and corn chowder I had on that previous visit gave me that "tastes like happiness" feeling which I felt was lacking in this version. I personally would have preferred the smoked sturgeon over this version of the clambake.
Next up was bread and butter, featuring EMP's in-house bread. The inside is flaky, fluffy, and buttery, while the outside has a delicate, soft crust. Two butters are featured. The first is a cow's milk butter from the chef's favorite creamery. The second is the same butter but with some of the fat from our beef entree mixed in. If you happen to choose the duck entree, your butter would have duck fat. This little, somewhat interactive, touch shows the brilliant attention to detail in the kitchen and the ambition to take something as common as bread and butter and elevate it to another level within the narrative. The beef fat butter did have great beef flavor without any additional feeling of greasiness. One thing I did notice was that while the regular butter remained as it was throughout the night, the beef fat butter melted at a slow but noticeable pace by itself.
This dish actually featured various textures of scallop, including seared, steamed, and diced scallop dressed with crème fraiche and caviar. The accompanying shaved radishes, radish flowers, and apple provided a good crunchy textural contrast while helping to highlight the sweetness of the scallop. I personally would have liked them to push the envelope even more and feature the scallop coral, which has a unique taste and texture different to all the variations already on the plate.
I originally inquired about foie gras when I made my reservation, stating my preference for a seared preparation. At the time, I was told that the menu that had been planned did not feature foie gras at all. When I arrived, they mentioned my inquiry and said that they would be able to do a foie course in place of the scallop course. The seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras at EMP is still my favorite preparation in the whole city. The piece of foie maintains its richness and structural integrity while being completely greaseless outside of it. I always find some sort of residual grease in foie gras preparations elsewhere, but this one results in a cleaner, better mouth feel. In terms of accompaniments, they managed to stay on the same theme as the scallop, featuring different textures of sunchoke, including crispy sunchoke skin, sunchoke puree, pickled sunchokes, and confit cooked sunchoke, along with lady apple puree and pickled mustard seeds.
The next course involves another tableside presentation. First, a hand cranked grinder is attached to the table while a wooden board featuring a bunch of ingredients in small dishes (those were probably custom made as well) is placed in front of the diner.
A type of carrot specifically chosen for its sweetness is used, and ground right at the table.
CARROT - Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments
The condiments include two mini squeeze bottles (be careful, it can get messy if you squeeze too hard!) of spicy carrot vinaigrette and mustard oil. The small dishes featured (left to right, starting from the top row) apple mustard, sunflower seeds, pickled quail egg yolk, smoked bluefish, chives and broccoli flower, pickled mustard seed, grated horseradish, pickled apple, and Amagansett sea salt.
While this is interactive, in the sense that you mix the condiments into the ground carrot yourself, the condiments in the small dishes are already pre-measured. It is expected that you mix everything in the small dishes into the tartare, and only exercise discretion on the vinaigrette and mustard oil. You can also do what I did, which is to split your tartare in half, and put in exactly half of everything into one of the halves to taste it as it was meant to be, and then experiment with the other half. I did come to the conclusion that the way it was meant to be was the tastiest.
What an ingenious dish this was! This took advantage of the diner mixing everything to create unique and remarkable combinations of flavors and textures, similar to some dishes at the excellent modern Korean restaurant Jungsik. The condiments allowed the tartare to taste "meaty" while the sweetness of the carrot always shone through. At the same time, it also had the balance of a traditional tartare. You would be able to enjoy this dish even if you didn't like raw carrot.
That's it for part 1. We're only about halfway through the meal. Here's a little teaser for part 2, the 140-day dry-aged ribeye: