I also find Spring to be an especially difficult season to judge. It's not that the food is less delicious in the Spring. It's that when you're able to eat more luxurious ingredients during the fall and winter seasons, from truffles to foie gras to heartier proteins, it's easier to feel a sense of value. Not everyone appreciates that the costs for foraging and sourcing certain vegetables and herbs are expensive. As my friend over at www.donuts4dinner.com once wrote in her first review of Eleven Madison Park years ago,
"When I think about the one thing that really, really gets my goat, it’s the sheer unimpressiveness of the ingredients we were served. Two of our main courses were vegetables."
I found the Spring 2014 menu at EMP to be truly special. Not only was it a celebration of the season from start to finish, it also managed to be both delicious and luxurious in a way that alleviated some of the aforementioned dissonance. I believe that this meal compared favorably to both my meals at EMP last year, and I highly recommend reading last year's Thorough Review of Eleven Madison Park posts first to get an idea of the foundation that they built and have improved upon.
Interaction with the diner is one of the things they really enjoy doing at EMP. As the four of us sat down at the table, we noticed an envelope and a letter opener. Opening the envelope revealed four perforated chits featuring four different ingredients - cherry, coffee, celery, strawberry. It was then explained to us that we should punch out the ingredient we liked, and that ingredient would be featured multiple times throughout the meal. Since there were four of us, we decided to give all four ingredients a try, and I chose celery.
The first course was their savory take on a black and white cookie. I felt that this time the crabapple chutney was more pronounced, and played off well with the cheddar.
OYSTER - BAKED POTATO ICE CREAM AND CAVIAR
This could have been served as two separate courses, but serving both together was a brilliant touch that created a great balance. One of my main issues with single oyster courses (usually with some sort of mignonette) early in tasting menus is that it often leaves a mouthfeel that is too cold and/or too acidic while waiting for the next course. The baked potato ice cream and caviar managed to round out that bite of oyster, soothing the palate while still maintaining the chilled temperature of an early course.
Between the morel custard, morel ragout, trout roe, and bonito broth, this was just loads of umami. There was great attention to detail with the use of borage flowers as garnish. The blue/pink color looked beautiful next to the brown and orange, which is not an easy color combination to make pretty.
Pure Spring in a little bowl. I love English peas and meyer lemon, so this was perfect. But even though it looked simple, it was a well-composed dish with great depth that also featured a lavender-pea puree, smoked fish gelee, miso cured egg yolk, and coriander and lavender flowers.
BEEF - PASTRAMI WITH RAMPS, RYE, MUSTARD, AND FLAVORED SODA
The first of the interactive courses featuring a tableside presentation. The pastrami was ridiculously good. Rich, tender, and beefy with the spices being noticeable but not overpowering. But what really made the dish for me as a whole were the condiments. It's common to have pastrami with rye and mustard and dill pickle, but the additional presence of ramp and dandelion greens in various forms (mayonnaise, relish, pickled) reinforced both the freshness and savoriness of Spring.
I love Cel-Ray, and thought that this was the best version of it I've ever had. It was not as strongly carbonated, which I prefer, and contained additional hints of mint, apple, and lime. This course featured all the theme ingredients we chose at the beginning of the meal, and the coffee soda featured espresso powder, while the cherry soda had flavors of cherry, lemon, and apple, and the strawberry soda featured strawberry, lemongrass, and apple.
Similar to previous visits, the butter was flavored with drippings from our choice of main course, giving the butter additional warmth and lusciousness.
As usual, there was a choice between hot and cold preparations of foie gras. I've always thought that EMP had the best seared foie in the city, but for the sake of completeness I opted for the cold prep (well, my dining companions all called dibs on the hot prep). Instead of horizontal layering, the layer of gelee was actually in the middle through the cross-section. It was interesting, but didn't really work for me. I tend to like foie for its decadence, and this just wasn't as rich as the one I had at Per Se.
FOIE GRAS - SEARED WITH FAVA BEAN MARMALADE AND SORREL
WALDORF SALAD CART
The second interactive presentation was accompanied by a brief discussion on the history of the Waldorf salad.
APPLE - WALDORF SALAD WITH CELERY, RHUBARB, WALNUTS
While the original version contained only three ingredients, the version made tableside included a variety of ingredients commonly associated with the Waldorf salad, including apples, celery root, mayonnaise, cranberries, walnuts, blue cheese, and fresh celery leaf. It was delicious and so refreshing, and made me rethink, "Wait, this is a Waldorf salad!?"
But that wasn't all! The bowl opened up to their modern take on a deconstructed Waldorf with celery root-apple veloute, celery gelee, dehydrated and pickled apples, candied celery root, garlic croutons, chives, and chervil. It was also delicious and refreshing, but I think I preferred the salad version.
The gorgeous dinnerware with the double decker bowls and an ingenious nook to hold the spoon and keep its contents above the soup!
LOBSTER - POACHED WITH BEETS, GINGER, NASTURTIUM
Over the years, quite a few of chef Humm's lobster preparations that I've had have included a sweet vegetal accompaniment. The latest one involved the use of beets, and it added a wonderful extra dimension. There's an innate meatiness to beets, which were further explored here with the use of a citrus beurre blanc and bone marrow sauce.
More tableside fun as they bring over the asparagus for our next course, still poaching while encased in the pig's bladder.
ASPARAGUS - BRAISED WITH POTATO AND BLACK TRUFFLE
The black truffle and potato puree was rich and earthy, complementing the asparagus and completing the Spring theme of vegetable from the ground. But what was unique about this dish was how they took that singular asparagus, that vegetable main course and made it truly special with not only luxurious truffle, but also the tableside presentation using a technique that one doesn't get to see too often nowadays.
LAMB - BROTH WITH CURED LAMB AND WATERCRESS
LAMB - ROASTED WITH LETTUCE, GARLIC, AND ONION BLOSSOMS
The broth was made into a gelee and served on a rice crisp, fitting for the season as it was a lighter preparation compared with the hot broth from last year's winter tasting. The plated main course featured roasted lamb loin, brioche-crusted torchon, and confit lamb shoulder. It reminded me a lot of the chef's work during the earlier days of his tenure at EMP. The flavors were concentrated without being dull, and the texture on the lamb loin was ethereal, tender without being too soft, and reminding me of tendon during certain bites. Some of the best lamb I've ever had.
The other protein option was Duclair duck dry aged two weeks and glazed with lavender honey, sichuan peppercorns, coriander, and cumin. I'm willing to bet that the duck will always be an option and never leave the menu.
FRESH CHEESE - PRETZEL, PARSLEY, STRAWBERRIES
The whimsical picnic basket course is always a grab bag, and this time around there were refreshingly tart pickled green strawberries, as well as a delicious parsley relish with honey that went beautifully with the fresh cheese and pretzel baguette. I also preferred the brown ale to the previous pale ale, but that's a very subjective preference.
The cool thing about this dessert was that they utilized the whey that was used in the cheese-making process for the previous course. Unfortunately, while delicious, it wasn't a very memorable dessert.
ALMOND - BAKED ALASKA WITH RUM, CARAMEL, AND ADDITIONAL THEME INGREDIENT
Continuing the theme of celebrating iconic New York foods, the Baked Alaska featured another nice tableside presentation. Even though the dessert itself had been around long before, the name "Baked Alaska" originated at Delmonico's Restaurant in New York City in 1876. Both the toasted almond ice cream and the cake were delicious, and the dessert once more featured our chosen ingredient from the start of the meal. While I liked this dessert more than the whey, I didn't think either of the two desserts were particularly novel or daring in combining flavors and textures.
The finishing sweet black and white cookie had a refreshing mint filling, providing one last note of Spring to send us off.
In a city filled with some of the best restaurants in the world and a culinary world where "chef personalities" are dominating more and more, Eleven Madison Park's most endearing trait to me is its humility. It may be ranked the 4th best restaurant in the world, but there's no, "you'll eat only what I want to make" mentality here. There's clearly a concerted effort that every dish be enjoyable to eat, not just interesting, cool, or thought-provoking to look at. To that end, EMP gives me the impression that they want to make the enjoyment of their dining experience accessible to as many people as possible, and not just pandering to jaded foodies in search of the new and exciting or rich folks who don't care how much they spend on a meal.