Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Revisiting Eleven Madison Park (food)

Eleven Madison Park (EMP) was recently ranked the 5th best restaurant in the world according to the World's 50 Best Restaurants list organized by Restaurant magazine and sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. With that ranking also came the title of best restaurant in North America, as the next highest North American entrant on the list was Per Se at 11th. In fact, I've written extensively about EMP before, including a very thorough account of a recent dinner there, split into parts 1 and 2.

So why am I writing about EMP again? Well, the World's 50 Best site describes EMP as a restaurant that "offers a masterclass in surprise... ...little can be anticipated." So what happens when some of the surprise is gone for a repeat visitor? I wanted to see how well EMP stood up to a revisit. Since this post is specifically about whether EMP is just as good on a repeat visit, I will not go into detail regarding dishes that I've already covered in my earlier in-depth posts. My last meal was near the end of winter while this meal was in the early stages of spring.

Let's begin with how the menu is structured and changes. EMP officially changes its menu 4 times a year in accordance with the seasons. However, the changes are continuous and not abrupt, meaning that different parts of the menu undergo changes as the seasons progress. The current tasting menu mainly consists of a selection of canape courses, a couple of grand interactive themed courses, and then a more traditional progression of courses (appetizer, seafood, vegetables, meat), followed by dessert courses. The grand themed courses presented table-side do change, but can be among the slowest to do so because it can take 6 months or longer for one of those courses to go from ideation to actual execution at the table.

One reason to revisit EMP is to be able to taste both the duck and the beef main courses. Usually you choose from one of the two for the whole table, but it is also possible to have a taste of both in one meal with a $45 supplement. However, if you choose to do that, they will adjust the portions of each. You'll get more food, but it's not a straight doubling up of the entree. They do this so that you don't get too full and become unable to fully experience the meal all the way to the end.

CHEDDAR - Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple
The meal began the same way as last time.

PEAR - Gelée with Foie Gras and Tarragon
The gelée is made of both clarified pear juice and lemon juice, and is studded with bits of diced pear, shattered foie gras, tarragon plouches, and topped with a lemon vinaigrette. With a clean and pretty presentation, it is a refreshing starter with components that work both individually and together to awaken your taste buds.

ASPARAGUS - Custard with Caviar and Rhubarb
Another elegant preparation featuring blanched white asparagus and violets on top of rhubarb gelée. But underneath the rhubarb gelée are layers of white asparagus mousse and lobster consommé combined with caviar set with gelatin. Combining all the layers in one spoonful creates a harmonious marriage of sweet, tart, saltiness, umami, and richness that was still light on the tongue.

I did notice that both of these canapes were more involved dishes as opposed to one-bite canapes that they have served before (eg. single oyster, chickpea panisse, yogurt lollipop, etc.). They told me that this is in fact their new approach. I think it works perfectly and plays to chef Humm's classic culinary background and his strengths in layering and combining flavors in a composed dish.

The first of the grand themed courses is usually either the sturgeon or the clam bake. Due to my friend's dietary restrictions, we chose the sturgeon. This worked out well since I had the clambake last time.

STURGEON - Sabayon with Chive Oil
The first part of the sturgeon course involves smoked sturgeon sabayon flavored with vermouth, diced smoked sturgeon, and chive oil served in an open egg shell. To me, the best part of this is the chive oil, which is not only flavorful, but has an earthiness that rounds everything out and brings it all together. Since the chive oil is at the bottom of the egg, it is important to stir it up a bit to make sure you get a little bit of everything in each bite.

STURGEON - Smoked with Everything Bagel Crumble, Pickles, and Caviar

Bibb lettuce salad with poached quail egg and everything bagel crumble, caviar with cream cheese mousse.

Cucumber pickles and toasted rye bread.

This refined take on appetizing comes together beautifully as the thick slice of delicious smoked sturgeon is combined with the crispy, sweet, salty, tart, rich, and creamy sensations of the accompaniments.

EMP's in-house bread and butter with aged beef fat mixed in.

FOIE GRAS - Seared with Pencil Asparagus and Potato Crumble
Seared Hudson Valley foie gras, souffléd potato, potato crumble, pickled asparagus florets, sliced chives, chive blossoms, blanched asparagus, and balsamic vinegar reduction

FOIE GRAS - Terrine with Black Truffle and Asparagus
Hudson Valley foie gras terrine layered with black truffle puree and asparagus gelée, raw pencil asparagus, shaves of jumbo asparagus, black truffle-sherry vinaigrette, and miner’s lettuce

While both preparations were excellent, I continue to believe that EMP's seared version stands out more when compared to other top tier restaurants in NYC.

ASPARAGUS - Salad with Green Almond, Buttermilk, and Miner’s Lettuce
For my friend who couldn't have foie gras, this featured blanched and trimmed jumbo asparagus, buttermilk fluid gel, bitter almond crumble, green almonds, buttermilk snow, miners lettuce, and Dairyere Cheese crisps.

The second big interactive presentation is currently the carrot tartare. This dish actually came about when they first wanted to do a take on a classic beef tartare. They had to come up with a vegetarian version to cater to diners who couldn't eat beef, and ended up with this ingenious carrot tartare. The carrot tartare itself is so "meaty", they didn't think the meat eaters would miss not having the beef, and I think they're right. From what I hear, this should remain a staple of the menu until about late fall.

CARROT - Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments
Spicy carrot vinaigrette, mustard oil, pickled quail egg yolk, English pea mustard, chives, broccoli flower, smoked mackerel, raw English peas, sunflower seeds, grated horseradish, Amagansett sea salt, and pickled mustard seed. With a few minor differences, the condiments were pretty much the same as when I had it last time.

LOBSTER - Poached with Snap Peas, Morels, and Sweetbreads
The lobster was poached in beurre blanc, and accompanied by morels braised in cream and vin jaune, snap peas, pickled snow peas, glazed sweetbreads, and lobster bisque with saffron. I think there may have been some meyer lemon too. The lobster was cooked perfectly, and the presence of the pickled snow peas and meyer lemon(?) added just the right amount of bright acidity. But what really made the dish for me was the presence of small nubs of glazed sweetbreads, which brought a contrast to everything else on the plate with its crispiness, saltiness, and mineral earthiness.

HALIBUT - Seared with English Peas and Variations of Egg
For my friend who could not eat lobster, they had Atlantic halibut seared and glazed with citrus buerre blanc, English pea puree, cured pheasant egg, duck egg salad, grated egg yolk, reduced fumet blanc, pea tendrils, and English pea relish.

NETTLES - Creamed with Fingerling Potato and Goat Cheese
The vegetable dishes at EMP are often a wonderful assortment of many different preparations brought together harmoniously on one composed plate. Here, it was nettles creamed with milk and garlic confit, potato puree and olive oil, pickled potato, meyer lemon, peanut potatoes glazed in smoked butter, Lynnhaven goat cheese, nettle chip, and green garlic foam. Everything was tasty and the components could be enjoyed both separately and together in a variety of combinations. As I don't have much personal experience with nettles, it's hard to comment and draw comparisons.

The main course is usually composed of a small bowl of broth, the entree, and a potato mousseline filled with some more meat and foie gras. As we added the supplement to taste both the beef and the duck, our broth was beef and our potato had duck.

BEEF - Beef Broth
BEEF - Grilled with Mushrooms, Amaranth, and Bone Marrow
The 140-day dry aged ribeye tasted even beefier this time, and had a stronger grilled flavor than last time.

DUCK - Roasted with Pistachio, Rhubarb, and Fennel
DUCK - Braised with Foie Gras and Potato
The Duclair duck is dry aged for 2 weeks and glazed with lavender honey, Sichuan peppercorns, coriander, and cumin. It was served with pistachio puree, butter braised fennel, shaved fennel, braised rhubarb, toasted wild rice, and pistachios. Even for a signature dish as iconic as EMP's duck, which will pretty much never be taken off the menu, they continue to experiment and try to improve upon the dish. In the past, they've used Muscovy ducks from California, while currently they use Duclair ducks, a heritage breed, from Stone Church Farms in Rifton, NY. The accompanying dish had duck leg braised in red wine, mixed with foie gras torchon and potato espuma.

GREENSWARD - Pretzel, Mustard, and Fruit
The picnic course is essentially the same except instead of a small bunch of grapes, they now have a "fruitcake" made of blueberries compressed with honey and sunflower seeds.

MALT - Egg Cream with Vanilla and Seltzer

CELERY ROOT - Cake with Apple Sorbet, Walnut, and White Pepper
Composed of celery root mousse, white pepper steam cake, mutsu apple sorbet, apple vinaigrette, walnut crumble, candied celery root, and poached apple, this dessert was refreshing and interesting in that one doesn't normally associate things like celery root and white pepper with desserts. However, it didn't wow me as much as the maple bourbon dessert did last time and just didn't produce that comfortable sated feeling one usually gets after eating a great dessert to finish off a great meal.

SHEEP'S MILK - Cheesecake with Mango and Peanut
I'm not a big mango fan, but the mango sorbet and mango puree that came with the aerated sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake worked really well with the honey, candied peanuts, and peanut shortbread.

The trick has not changed, but continues to be a whimsical distraction. The deck of cards used is gorgeous.

PRETZEL - Chocolate Covered with Sea Salt
CHOCOLATE - Sweet Black and White Cookie with Apricot
The pretzels are actually deconstructed and reconstructed, with the pretzels ground and combined with white chocolate, then enrobed with Mast Brother’s chocolate and Amagansett sea salt

As opposed to the apple brandy from last time, EMP has worked with Laird's to produce an aged apple brandy for the restaurant. This one is more of an acquired taste, and it doesn't feel like was meant to reinvigorate like the previous apple brandy.

WIDOW'S KISS - Applejack, Yellow Chartreuse, Benedictine, and Angostura Bitters
My favorite part of the kitchen tour this time was that we were led further into the kitchen and I got to see the grill that they use for the beef entree. They use Japanese wood that comes in larger log-like pieces, and slowly burn it, treating it essentially like charcoal. This method imparts such wonderful flavor and texture into the meat. For a cut like the ribeye, I prefer it much more to the seared and sous vide or pan roasting methods that many other top restaurants use to cook beef. There was also a recent NYT article about the resurgence in the popularity of wood-fired grilling among chefs.

For those who have been to EMP and are thinking about whether to go again, I would strongly recommend doing so. Switching between the sturgeon and the clambake and between the beef and the duck, along with the seasonal changes in the rest of the menu, will allow the meal to feel just different enough to experience surprise anew. Furthermore, I hear that there's a new interactive table-side presentation in the works, which will be an ode to an American pastime. That one might debut by late summer.

I remember asking chef Humm while in the kitchen, now that he has a 5th in the world ranking, along with the 3 Michelin stars, James Beard awards, and whatever else he's won, what's next? His reply was, "Well, there are still 4 restaurants ahead of us." Regardless of how you may feel about the San Pellegrino list, I believe that this kind of ambition is what helps to make Eleven Madison Park a great restaurant for both new and repeat diners alike. And repeat dining is actually still possible, whereas it was recently reported that El Celler de Can Roca, ranked #1 on that same World's 50 Best list, is booked through April 2014!

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave
(at 24th St)
New York, NY 10011

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