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Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Restaurant: Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park Menu Tin

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 scandalBut 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. 
Eleven Madison Park Menu Fold

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.

Box with Black & White Savory Cookie with Apple and Cheddar

Black & White Savory Cookie with Apple and Cheddar

Vodka Martini with Olives

2a. Oyster

... poached and raw with chestnuts and velouté

2b. Sunchoke

... 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.

Oysters and Sunchokes Served Hot and Cold

3. Caviar

... 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.

Caviar "Eggs Benedict" with Miniature English Muffins

Caviar "Eggs Benedict" with Miniature English Muffins

Kitchen Visit

... 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.

Eleven Madison Park Kitchen - Garde Manger

Eleven Madison Park Kitchen - The Pass

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.

Maple Taffy on Apple Snow

Bread Course

... 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.

Laminated Rolls with Cultured Butter and Local Salt

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.

Marinated Fois Gras with Maple and Apple

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?  

Seared Fois Gras with Maple and Pickled Apples

5a. Black Bass

... seared with black radish and sesame

Perfectly crispy skin will always win.

Black Bass with Sesame and Radish

5b. Chicken

... roasted with sesame and parsley

Done right, Chicken need not be an also-ran item on the menu.

Roasted Chicken with Sesame and Parsley

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 Celery Root with Black Trufle

Braised Celery Root with Black Trufle Warmed in Pig's Bladder

Overhead of Braised Celery Root with Black Trufle

7a. Pork

...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.

Braised Pork Cheeks with Onion and Mustard

7b. Duck

... 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.

Honey and Lavender Glazed Duck with Salsify and Pear

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. 

Roasted Butternut Squash with Thyme

7d. Potato

... 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"?

Potato Confit and Pureé

8. Cheddar

... 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.

Cheddar Tarte with Apple and Bacon Marmalade

Cheddar Tarte with Apple and Bacon Marmalade Served with Bitter Greens

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.

Overhead of Pumpkin Cake with Butternut Squash and Sarsaparilla

Pumpkin Cake with Butternut Squash and Sarsaparilla

9b. Malt

... 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.

Malt Cheesecake with Chocolate Sorbet

Inside of Malt Cheesecake with Chocolate Sorbet

10. Chocolate

... "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.

"Name That Chocolate" Milk Matching Game

"Name That Chocolate" Milk Matching Game Sscorecards

Apple Brandy

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