Eleven Madison Park, NYC

I visited New York recently, with the explicit goal of sampling what’s good to eat in the city. I wrote a story for the Frederick News-Post about some of the cheaper eats in town, but I ate some great stuff at the high end as well.

To that end, on my first night in town I visited Eleven Madison Park for dinner.

This is one of restaurateur Danny Meyer’s restaurants. I have visited Gramercy Tavern many times on previous trips to NY. This time, I decided to check out 11MP instead. I wanted to see a different Meyer venue, and I had heard a lot about chef Daniel Humm’s fresh, contemporary cuisine. Besides, 11MP is about 2 blocks from the place I was staying, so it seemed like a no-brainer.

I happened to be in the city by myself, but I had confidence that the Meyer reputation for service would mean that I wouldn’t feel lonely or awkward. Indeed, the hosts did not utter that horrible phrase “just one?” when I checked in. My captain and several other service staff made a point of coming over to chat and check in often. Everybody seemed deeply knowledgeable about the food, ingredients and techniques, and they were eager to discuss the plates when I asked questions (which I did often). Then there were those little touches–pulling out the table for me so I could access the banquette easily, holding my coat under my name instead of giving me a check tag of some sort to keep up with, covering the basics like keeping my water glass filled (I drink a lot of water).

One favorite moment was when a service staff member caught me looking up at the ceiling. If you ever go to 11MP, be sure to check out the ceiling–it’s painted in this cool art deco-ish pattern, and the pendant lamps have these jewel-like patterns encircling where they’re attached to the ceiling. The staff member told me about the history of the building–11MP is housed in the old Metropolitan Life building, and its dining room was not intended to be a restaurant initially. The architect who designed the restaurant had a sculpture created that mimics the shape of the original building as a gift; the sculpture is worth seeing to gain a sense of its grandeur. Lest you think this restaurant is overly stuffy or elegant in its design, I appreciated the wine list behind the bar: it’s a wooden menu board with wooden letter tiles spelling out the names of various red and white wines. (Add some numbers to the bottom right corner and you could play wine list Scrabble…)

I started off with a cocktail: the Cortes, with canela and champagne and some other ingredients I’m forgetting (brandy maybe?). It was refreshing and not too sweet. I loved the look and aroma of the giant stick of canela in the drink–it looks like a bizarre, dessicated log of some sort–but it did make it a little hard to drink from the tall, narrow glass. I munched through some hors d’oeuvres and an amuse-bouche while I sipped my drink. I loved the apple macaron with foie gras filling, and the crisp cornet filled with sweetbreads was clever as well as tasty. The amuse was a scallop in an endive-flavored nage; the scallop was delicious, but the nage was a little too fishy for my tastes.

For my appetizer, I ordered hamachi with pickled butternut squash. The hamachi was marinated in a lemon oil and decorated with crushed pumpkin seeds and a swath of pumpkin seed oil. I selected this dish partly because I had never thought of pickling something like butternut squash before, and I wondered how the squash would taste. It was crisp and tart like a pickle, but it maintained some of its earthy sweetness too. I’m not sure it’s a taste I’d seek out at home, but it made for a great contrast with the fatty fish. The crisp meatiness of the nuts played well with the other flavors. Nice dish.

Colorado lamb came next, capped with an arrangement of pickled red onion, fried garlic chips and baby spinach. I loved the look of much of the food at 11MP, with sharp-flavored accents arranged attractively on top of or alongside base proteins. A quenelle of parsnip puree and a small puddle of yogurt melted against the lamb, and a cumin-scented lamb jus was spooned atop at the table. There were a few crosnes–the root vegetable of the moment–and tiny baby carrots alongside.

I was served a glass of Billecart Salmon Demi-Sec champagne with my pre-dessert. This champagne merits special mention: you know that moment when you bite into a really crisp apple for the first time, and the force of your teeth against the skin results in a few particles of apple flying off into the air? That sweet, crisp satisfaction of that moment? This champagne created that same sensation for me–the feeling of being a little messy but not minding because it is so satisfying to chomp into that fruit. I have gone on record before about my adoration of fizzy wines, but this one was particularly revelatory.

As is true with most wines, its flavor changed when I started eating food between sips. In this case, the champagne’s crispness nestled against the creamy/salty pre-dessert: a modern interpretation of a malted vanilla milkshake. A salted meringue tile rested atop a sphere of malty vanilla ice cream. Extra-virgin olive oil (one created exclusively for the restaurant) added a fruity note to the plate. I loved its unrepentant whiteness–celebratory and a harbinger of deepest winter in appearance, despite its full and unusual composition of flavors.

I ordered the Vermont quark souffle for dessert. It arrived in a little demitasse-type cup set into a divot on a rectangular plate. On the opposite side of the plate, a quenelle of honeycrisp apple sorbet rested on an ice pedestal that was garnished with a slice of apple (sort of like an ice mold just to hold the sorbet). The pedestal was surrounded by some kind of small quartz-like rocks to keep it from sliding around the plate. I thought they might be some sort of rock salt, but when some of my sorbet fell off my spoon and into the rocks I couldn’t stand the idea of losing that ice cream, so I worked it back onto my spoon and ate it anyway. Good thing, because those rocks were rock candy–not salt–and so they didn’t make the sorbet salty or unpalatable. Plus, they’re cute and fun. Rock candy–when was the last time you ate it?

Post-dessert mignardises included a very satisfying chocolate peanut-butter tartlet, a lemon curd-filled butter cookie, an olive oil pate de fruit made with the same olive oil mentioned above, and a few other treats.

I learned a lot from this meal–always a chief goal of dining out at the upper level. I also ate some great food and enjoyed that signature service I have come to expect from any Danny Meyer restaurant. (I greatly enjoyed reading Setting the Table, his recent memoir/service manual–a book that clarified my own approach to providing service in a catering setting.) It had the desired effect–I felt welcomed and restored after my trip, and it was a great way to start a dining vacation.


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