We’d been hearing about Eleven Madison Park for over a decade and we even went in about five years ago for a cocktail. But a few years ago they changed their format: no more a la carte but rather a single tasting menu for the upscale price of $195 per person (today: $225). An article at the time in the NYTimes wondered whether that format would fly, even in Manhattan. But it did, with the Times’ highest four-star rating and three Michelin stars. Prompted by Pete Wells’s review, we finally decided we’d give it a try. Bottom line: pass it up. Nonetheless, we enjoyed much of it and here is our report.
We made a reservation for the opening hour (noon) and arrived a few minutes past the hour. The staff was still gathered for the daily briefing so we were asked to sit at the bar until it was concluded. We were seated after about ten minutes at a lovely table against the rear wall with no one around us (arrow).
The menu (which we were given only after the meal was concluded) doesn’t reproduce well so click on the link!
The first course was a savory black and white cookie containing cheddar cheese; they were in a white box tied with string which was on the table when we sat down. I didn’t take a picture but, except for the yellowish filling, it looked just like the dessert cookies which I did photograph:
The second course was morel custard with trout roe and borage flowers. The custard was delicious and a wonderful start to the meal. I certainly couldn’t distinguish the trout roe from the ikura we have on a weekly basis.
As the third course we were served fresh “english peas” (probably actually flown in from England) sitting in a buffalo yogurt sauce. I doubt that I could have identified the source of the yogurt.
Course four: smoked daikon with lettuce and radishes. This one was a real puzzle: my first impression was apple!
The overall theme of the meal was “riffing on classic New York cuisine” and this was the first dish which seemed solidly in that category. It was called “Eggs Benedict” with the tiny english muffin, ham and caviar. The white blob was a stand-in for hollandaise, of course — I’m afraid I can’t remember what it tasted like.
We were told that the radish with pike and rose was something that had been devised in that past day or two to take advantage of the arrival of spring; it seems that the only fresh vegetable available from local farms was radishes! An awfully nice presentation, though.
Next came the foie gras course. We were asked whether we wanted seared foie gras or the more french terrine and we initially both said the seared, which is the way we always prepare it at home. But then the error was quickly caught: we weren’t here for what we already know but for new presentations, so we quickly changed the order to one of each.
The seared foie gras was certainly not the presentation we do at home (usually warmed sour cherry preserves) but it was a generous portion (for a tasting menu) and perfectly seared.
The marinated foie gras terrine (underneath the tuile) was tasty but in no way exceptional.
Accompanying the foie gras we were served some rolls and butter. The rolls were a dream: puff pastry (as in a croissant) but in a round roll shape. The butter on the left was 80% duck fat and, when I asked what spices were incorporated, it turned out that the duck fat was from the roasting of the duck course (to come) and the spices used in roasting has permeated the fat.
The next course, called “Carrot Tartare with Rye Bread and Condiments”, was the first bit of theater associated with the meal. A line cook appeared, attached the meat grinder to the table, and explained that this carrot tartare was a riff on the popularity of steak tartare in NY restaurants of the turn of the twentieth century. The three very-bright-orange (and peeled) carrots were inserted in the grinder with expected result. All in all, much more theater than food.
Onward to the much more impressive butter-poached lobster with dandelion and ginger.
And then back again to theater! This time a pig’s bladder in which a single asparagus spear was being poached. The line cook carefully basted the bladder with the juice in the pan. Thanks!
Of course, we could understand the connection of asparagus to spring and even imagine that early asparagus must fetch a considerable premium at the local greenmarket, but this is taking cost-of-goods-sold to an extreme!
The only other choice on the menu (beyond the preparation of the foie gras course) was between duck and veal and we were not allowed to select our usual one-of-each. Since duck is a serious favorite (we eat much more duck than chicken) and we’re pretty stuck on veal rib chops, we opted for the duck which was brought to the table for inspection. Very pretty, especially with the lavender sticking out of the cavity.
The serving of duck itself was mighty pretty and very tasty but not so out-of-the-ordinary.
We now skip two stunningly inappropriate dishes intended to be the “cheese course”: a crock of farmer’s cheese (with an elaborate pedigree) which was as bland as farmer’s cheese must be; and a small glass bottle of “whey” (the by-product from making the farmer’s cheese), equally bland.
Which brings us to the poached strawberry with vanilla sorbet and elderflower. Well, OK, but we seem to be running out of steam.
I’m also omitting here the chocolate-covered pretzel with sea salt which was not really up to the designation “course.” Rather an amuse bouche.
So, finally, the dessert course: a repeat of the black-and-white cookie theme with which we started, this time with a lemon verbena filling.
So, it’s a wrap after three and a half hours. We ordered (and consumed) one each of the recommended wine flights but were mostly disappointed at the thirty-or-so completely undistinguished wines we were served. The only memorable ones were a red from Austria and a mead from Tuscany.
We finished off the weekend with a tour of the Woolworth Building, a 1913 gem which was the tallest building in the world until the Empire State in 1932.