Fri 11 Nov 2011
By any measure, Eleven Madison Park has had a phenomenal year:
Outstanding Restaurant, James Beard Foundation
#24 – World’s 50 Best Restaurants (up from #50), S. Pellegrino
Best Restaurant Bar, Tales of the Cocktail
Upgraded from one Michelin star to a full three stars
And just in case all of these accolades (and the four stars from the New York Times) didn’t make it hard enough to get a reservation at the Union Square Hospitality Group’s star attraction, the restaurant underwent a renovation that reduced their seating capacity from 114 to 80 and introduced a new format that offers either a four-course menu ($125 per person) or a Tasting Menu ($195 per person). A new cookbook – the word barely begins to describe it – out today is the luxurious icing on the cake, and it confirms that Danny Meyer is in the process of selling Eleven Madison Park to a restaurant group formed by Chef Daniel Humm and general manager Will Guidara.
So how did we end up with a choice reservation on the night before Hurricane Irene blew into town? Full disclosure: One of our cousins is on staff there and helped to secure the reservation for us. Considering the slate of awards referenced above, we’re pretty confident that our over-the-top experience owed more to the perfectionist culture at EMP than to our personal connection, but you can judge for yourself.
Immediately upon our arrival, we could tell we were in for an evening unlike any we’ve had in a long time. The maitre d’ greeted us by name as we walked in the door – before either of us had said a word. We were shown to a table near the front of the room, allowing a full view of the space. Before long, we met three more staff who confirmed food allergies and general dislikes before inviting us to sit back and enjoy our tasting experience. They take those answers seriously, too – Elizabeth’s aversion to sea urchin resulted in her receiving an alternate dish while Mike was served a “cappuccino” of sea urchin, crab and apple.
Even with all that attention up front, we were unprepared for what was to come.
The first course, a tomato water “tea” with thyme and a parmesan crisp, was a perfect introduction to Chef Daniel Humm’s menu. It was light and refreshing, capturing the acidity of the tomato and then bending it into a more savory broth. It highlighted an ingredient at its seasonal peak. And it showed the chef’s penchant for presenting familiar ingredients in new and unexpected ways. We were already sold.
Eleven more courses made up our Tasting Menu, and I’m not ashamed to admit that we were exhausted by the time we reached the dessert courses. Our palates had been dazzled with the likes of goat cheese lollipops, rabbit rillette and lobster lasagna, and even with our restrained approach to the wine pairings we had the equivalent of a few glasses each. The inventive take on a classic egg cream, prepared tableside with malt, vanilla and olive oil, was a delicious blur.
Still, some of our favorite dishes stood out distinctly. We couldn’t stop talking about Chef Humm’s two-course take on a classic Long Island clambake…even now, it feels like giving away a magician’s secrets to describe the presentation in detail. Suffice it to say they simulate the tastes, smells, sounds and sights of a beach-based cookout and then pair it with a South Hampton Saison Deluxe beer.
We may not be the first diners to leave Eleven Madison Park in this kind of haze. The servers are kind enough to record the dishes you experience a la minute and then hand you a souvenir menu as you depart. Lest you scoff at the idea that the record is done in real-time, our menu even included an unplanned thirteenth dish that the kitchen insisted on sending out when Mike found himself underwhelmed by a couscous dish midway through the meal.
Throughout the meal, our service staff shone. Their suggestions were incisive and seemed to reflect our feedback. Our water glasses never dipped below half-full and plates were placed and cleared like clockwork, but it didn’t feel like anyone was hovering or intruding into our meal.
Having seen the floor plan toward the back of the cookbook, we now know that Eleven Madison Park deploys four service teams made up of a captain, a server, an assistant server and a sommelier to cover the 80-person dining room. Add in a lead server, two dining room managers and a service director, and even when the dining room is at capacity there are never more than four patrons for every one staffer on the floor.
Insights like this from general manager William Guidara, coupled with mouth-watering food photography by Francesco Tonelli and recipes that “require a significant time commitment, a certain level of skill, a reasonably equipped kitchen, and a healthy dose of persistence,” make Eleven Madison Park: the Cookbook much more than just another rundown of modified restaurant favorites. Its heft and stark white cover will be right at home on your coffee table, where you can leaf through the seasons at your leisure. But if you’re like us, you’ll be photocopying recipes to spread out in the kitchen as you attempt to take on dishes like Pink Snapper Poached with Pears, Parsnips and Razor Clams.
Chef Humm’s recipes are arranged by season, with each section featuring dishes that unite various seasonal ingredients in harmony. They incorporate techniques from basic to complex, and they occasionally call for specialized equipment like liquid nitrogen or an immersion circulator (for sous vide cooking) – not everyone will be able to attempt every dish. And if you get stuck? Shoot an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. They’ve offered a hotline to help readers work through their difficulties.
Toward the back of the book, you’ll find recipes for the building blocks that show up time after time – pickled ingredients, gels, sauces, etc. You can be sure that we’ll be working to master a few of these to show off as components in our own dishes, as well. We plan to pick and choose our way, but if anyone out there is thinking of going all “Alinea at Home” on the book a la Carol Blymire, PLEASE let us know – we’d love to follow along!
The cookbook retails for $50, but if you follow the Amazon link on the EMP website, you can order it for $25.77 with free Super Saver Shipping. Still not sold? Check out the teaser video they put together for the book and tell me you’re not hungry for more.
And in case you’re worried that the cookbook lacks the whimsy of the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park, you need look no further than today’s release date – 11.11.11 – to see that the little details and the creative touches are still firmly in place. It will definitely be easier to get a table if you’re the one doing the cooking (Michelin-grade service not included).