I spend the entire month confirming, reconfirming, and reconfirming my decedent Five Course Vegetarian Gourmand lunch reservation at Eleven Madison Park. Having read the phrase “EMP has the best vegetarian tasting menu in Manhattan” on Yelp and Chowhound ad nauseum, to say my expectations (and anticipation) were high is not an overstatement. We began the fanciful gourmand journey at 2:00pm and by 3:30pm, forcing down the final crumb of exquisite macarons, we were the last men standing in the shimmering gold deco dining room at the base of the iconic Met Life Tower.
As expected (I can’t decide if it’s funny or crass that these “compliments of the kitchen” bites are now anticipated, or even demanded in a tasting menu) we were presented with a square bowl of Gougeres. The delicately cheesy bread is like eating air with carbs… which is not really a good thing, but in this case, not a bad thing either…
While sipping my Blackberry Bramble, we were presented with diminutive duos of Melon with Radish and Chive/ Buttered Radish for me and Beet Marshmallow/Foie Gras with Raspberry Gelee for the gentleman. Though refreshing, mine were barely notable. Meanwhile, the fruity foie gras bite was devoured by my Beau with a Michelin Star smile.
Corn Chowder = heaven in a cup! The creamy cold soup coats the mouth, easing the way for the crunchy dehydrated corn kernel and a paper thin slice of radish. The translucent radish lays like a red round monocular into the bowl. A single stewed cherry tomato sits like an island with a single sprig of very young basil sits atop it like a palmtree. With all my strength, I attempted to dent the cup’s porcelain sides while digging out every last drop from the bowl. I stared down, eyeing the glistening yellow streaks climbing the side, taunting me… as if to say “We are delicious streaks of chowder! Throw away that spoon and stick your finger in here! NO ONE WILL THINK LESS OF YOU….BRUHAHAHAHAHA!” (But, like a lady, I kept my fingers out of the luscious leftovers). My Beau attacked his Lobster Bisque with a similar fervor.
Next out, the famous bread and butter course. A pair of silver dishes cupped two variations of butter: mellow salty Cow’s milk from Beurremont of Vermont and a sweet and grassy white as snow Goat’s milk butter from Meyenberg of California. We spend the entire course debating the merits of each. In the end I think the Goat’s milk was deemed the favorite, but barely. Beside the butters sat a dish of fleur de sel and a set of breads: Olive Ficelle loaf and a triangle of French bread. Neither were the crown of yeastly creation, but they need not be since they’re merely vessels to deliver the silky butters.
Our next course was a deconstructed Taboli salad. The dish held a waxing crescent of squash blossom, melon ribbons, radishes, parsley, mozzarella, baked tomato, mint and purslane on a bed of (of course) couscous. Normally these fancy deconstructed dishes seem pretentious – but this was a case of “just right.”
My Beau received a Foie Gras Terrine with cherries, thin crisp raisin bread, molten cherry ball, pistachio, pearl onions, mustard vinaigrette, and a sprinkle of pistachio dust. I received the exact same dish but with a thick slice of juicy Buffalo Mozzarella in place of the foie gras. Although delicious, I wish there had been a bit more cooking involved besides slicing a mozzarella ball (then again, it’s not like the chef is back there gavaging the goose… like my mozzarella, he just bought and sliced a silky fatty block and tossed it on a plate). My dish lacked the molten cherry ball… we both examined it for its meaty component but there was no obvious one.
After the delightful fattiness of the previous course, we were presented with a menagerie of summertime memories in a bowl. Fresh sheets of pasta–rolled with herbs and stamped with leafy trademarks–curled and layered with zucchini, paddy plant, squash blossom, oven roasted tomatoes, viola flowers, parsley, and lemon verbena to make up the Heirloom Squash Lasagna. The dish is finished with creamy foam, which I’m sure the waiter provided a description for, but which left just the lightest impression, so what does it matter. My Beau’s was the same, but with the addition of Nova Scotia Lobster.
And for the final (savory) presentation, we received multiple preparations of our respective vegetarian and omnivore ingredients. I received Eggplant 5 ways – pan fried, breaded, chips, broiled, and er… something else. Served upon mozzarella, a littering of fresh peas, basil tips and other accoutrements. These aubergines reestablishing my affections for this commonly over-played “vegetarian” vegetable. Considering EMP makes no explicative gesture to vegetarians, the chef – who I’d like to imagine was actually Swiss superstar Daniel Humm, but in reality was probably someone a little lower in the ranks left to the task of dealing with “people like me” – didn’t phone this in. This dish was a playful and intelligent exploration of a vegetable that, up until this point, I thought I had eaten every which way… so, yay to new yummy experiences!
The omnivore option (ha! I like that phrase…IT IS MINE!!!!) was some sort of Beef Duo with au ju. Based on the fact that I had to remind him what he had eaten for this course, I don’t believe it was particularly outstanding. Why didn’t I ask him what he thought while we were actually eating? By this point the overwhelming food induced euphoria caused my ability to speak, or even acknowledge the presence of any other entrée but my own, to dissipate.
After all that consumption, we needed a liquid break, so we accepted the (additional cost) of two mild coffees in organic shaped porcelain cups by Limoges.
Red Velvet Cake with cream cheese parfait, roasted strawberry ice cream and red currants with freeze-dried fruit bits sprinkled around. This extra fancy post-modern eye-shaped dish was a bland and somewhat sour end to the decadent lunch.
But, in the grand tradition of EMP, we finished with Macarons! Now, I know macarons are all the rage (and at this point fairly passé in the NYC foodie circuit) but, I’ve never meet one I didn’t like. The platter held an assortment of traditional flavors like caramel with sea salt, lemon, passion fruit, and strawberry, matched with more inventive ingredients such as peanut butter and jelly, chocolate with apricot, and earl grey (my favorite of the bunch). I held out hope that one would be the elusive Violet (which I know EMP makes), but alas, I have yet to taste my favorite flavor in macaron form.
After the reimagining/remodeling/refinement of the space in September 2010, the Gourmand lunch menu disappeared… per se… it’s been replaced by the one course smaller and more literally titled “Four-Courses for $74.” Though my vegetarian menu exists only in the mind of the chef, the new regular menu is nearly as elusive. The vague chart of edible nouns, without the restriction of verbs and adjectives, allows the kitchen to cook like the Dow Jones: lead by the daily market fluctuations, diners preferences, and the chef’s own inclinations.
The professionalism of the wait staff was balanced by the playful jabs they made about my camera’s ‘priority’ in my dining experience. They’d explain each dish then ask if the lighting was okay. The relatively young age of the entire staff is unexpected at one of the world’s top 50 restaurants. It’s currently ranks as #50 of 50 in the world, according to S. Pellegrino… although, how did fizzy water get to be THE authority on world cuisine? So, who is the authority… probably Michelin, who shockingly gave this “hovel” only one star and not until the 2010 guide. But the youthful energy of the 33 year old chef liberates this restaurant from the weighty drudgery of dusty drapery and lethargic expectations of many of its contemporaries. The room floods with sunlight, dappling by the filter of Madison Square Park, illuminating each dish with divine love… making it all the more cruel to watch the 11 year old boy at the table across from me kicking his feet and poking his chubby fingers into his elegant kid friendly plates…
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010-3643