Restaurant: Eleven Madison Park
A month ago, the team at Eleven Madison Park announced it would change its dining format. Abandoning a long-form tasting menu in favor of simplicity, the experience would be streamlined with fewer courses, more options and, reportedly, more food.
This wasn't the first time EMP would strip down and rebuild. The four-hour tasting menu had only been introduced in 2012. That change came at a time when EMP was viewed as performing at the top of its game and fully deserving of a growing reputation as one of the best restaurants in the world. Over the four years since, EMP's reputation has endured if not grown stronger.
The 2012 change was heralded as a success, a testament to Chef Humm who would not coast on reputation alone. Yet some diners found the four hour experience to be unnecessarily long and "too chatty" (the waitstaff provided protracted explanations of how dishes had been inspired by New York City and its local surroundings). As the experience evolved, much of the dialogue was cut as were some of the kitschier elements including a card trick with dessert. But at all times, the food and service continued to shine.
With such a stellar reputation, innovation is risky. Michelin Stars may be symbols of excellence, but they also make a restaurant a target. Any misstep invites attack. The only thing foodies love more than building up culinary heroes is tearing those heroes back down again. Just look at the gleeful responses to Pete Wells's two-star downgrade of Per Se (published just a few days after the EMP announcement) or the Mast Brother's Chocolate scandal. But as the Per Se review highlighted, complacency may be worse than taking risks and stumbling on occasion.
True to their word, EMP's new format is shorter, the options greater in number and the portions larger.
A few elements have been carried over from the prior incarnation. Savory Black and White Cookies are still the Amuse Bouche, but gone is the history lesson, as are the sweet versions that previously served to bookend the meal. And a game of "Name That Chocolate", which had replaced the much derided card trick, still caps the evening. But there is more than enough that is new to make the experience fresh and worth pursuing.
1. Black & White
... savory cookie with apple and cheddar
One of the hold-overs from the prior menu, this Amuse Bouche was originally presented as a take on the classic Black & White Cookie, a New York City deli staple. Now it is presented without commentary, neatly packaged in a small box that is waiting at the table when diners arrive. Paired with a Vodka Martini, it is a perfect beginning before the action commences.
... poached and raw with chestnuts and velouté
... hot and cold with velouté
Oysters for those who love them... Sunchokes for those who do not. The hot and cold preparations are served with a small dish of Velouté, which is predictably rich and decadent. The Apple Snow garnishing both cold preparations is notable given the intensity of the Apple flavor.
... benedict with egg, potato and ham
A playfully elevated take on Eggs Benedict, this some-assembly-required presentation is reminiscent of EMP's Carrots Tartare, where diners were presented with a spread of ingredients to mix, match and combine to their pleasure.
This time, a small tin filled with Egg, Potato, Ham and Caviar is served alongside miniature English Muffins for open-faced sandwiches. The dish is topped with an obligatory quenelle of Hollandaise sauce to keep it true to the brunch favorite.
... maple taffy with apple snow
After several visits to EMP, you come to expect the unexpected... Chef Humm personally visiting your table to solicit reactions to a recently created dish... a little sabrage, the ceremonious uncorking of a Champagne bottle with a saber...
On this visit, that special something was an invitation from the Maitre'd to tour the kitchen and enjoy an additional treat made by the pastry team. Even if these tours are a carefully orchestrated part of every service, it's nevertheless exciting to be among the chosen few who take the walk to the back of house.
The space is vast, meticulously organized and immaculate. It bears little resemblance to the kitchens serving the majority of New York City restaurants - subterranean sweat boxes with waiters, cooks and dishwashers bashing elbows.
Service and prep teams work in the same space as Chef de Cuisine Chris Flint expedites service. The entire kitchen operates on a call and response system, a long standing practice at EMP, where each order is acknowledged and repeated by the entire staff with militaristic precision and intensity.
The Pastry Team provides an additional treat to conclude the visit - not a literal cherry on top, but a Maple Taffy made on Apple Snow.
... with cultured butter and locally harvested salt
Made from a laminated dough to yield a Croissant-like flakiness, these Rolls are extremely difficult to decline when seconds are offered. But pacing is key when so many courses remain.
4a. Fois Gras (cold)
... marinated with maple and apple
Fois Gras can be overwhelmingly unctuous, particularly when served cold. In this preparation, a Maple Syrup center is not only a fun seasonal surprise but also a sweet balance to the savory.
4b. Fois Gras (warm)
... seared with maple and apple
And who doesn't love seared Fois Gras, particularly when served with slices of pickled apple?
5a. Black Bass
... seared with black radish and sesame
Perfectly crispy skin will always win.
... roasted with sesame and parsley
Done right, Chicken need not be an also-ran item on the menu.
6. Celery Root
... braised with black truffle
For a touch of table-side flair, the otherwise humble Celery Root is warmed in a pig's bladder. Over the course of a single service, that makes for a lot of pigs' bladders.
...braised cheeks with onion and mustard
The Pork Cheeks are so rich and tender, to say that they "melt in your mouth" is a partial truth when in fact, they are almost liquid.
... honey and lavender glaze with salsify and pear
The Duck is good... very good. But with accompanying Root Vegetables also receiving star treatment, this dish exemplifies the extent to which the entire meal is carefully crafted to showcase the products and flavors of the winter season.
7c. Butternut Squash
... roasted with thyme
As part of the revised format, the main entrees are now served with side dishes, part of the "fewer courses, more food" philosophy. Side dish or not, they are no less refined and perfectly presented.
... confit with potato pureé
However, the Potato Confit may be the one miss on the entire menu. It is more of a shrug than a failure. Dare I say, "under-seasoned"?
... tarte with apple and bacon marmalade
The Cheddar Tarte highlights a recent move to revitalize the Cheese course, providing diners with a composed dish rather than a few chunks of assorted cheeses, a dollop of honey and some stale toast. If this Tarte cannot rekindle interest, nothing can.
9a. Butternut Squash
... cake with pumpkin and sarsaparilla
Diners are presented with three dessert options.
For those who like to share, there is a Baked Alaska, which is set ablaze table-side. For those who are incapable of sharing dessert, the choice is between a somewhat savory Pumpkin Cake and a sweet Malt Cheesecake.
The Pumpkin Cake surrounds a rich slice of Butternut Squash and is topped with coarse Salt and Candied Pumpkin Seeds - a perfect pairing for those who enjoy sweet and unabashedly salty combinations.
... cheesecake with chocolate sorbet
The Chocolate Sorbet at the base of the Cheesecake is the standout component. Too often, "Chocolate Sorbet" is code for "bad Gelato"... but not here! And the hidden Caramel center is an added bonus.
... "Name That Chocolate"
Dinner ends with a little pop quiz. But win or lose, with "Name That Chocolate", you still walk away with four bars to your name.
Presented with four unmarked bars of Chocolate and a slip of paper with pictures of four milk-producing animals (i.e. Cow, Bison, Sheep and Goat), diners are asked to sample each bar and guess which Milk was used to produce each Chocolate. While each bar tastes remarkably different, making the correct matches is surprisingly difficult.
Also surprising is that the Chocolate is prominently labeled as Mast Brothers. It would seem that EMP has not abandon the Brooklyn producers, even after the recent scandal.
Belly full of Chocolate, the meal ends with a large bottle of Apple Brandy. Should there be any room remaining, diners are invited to drink their fill before heading home.