Eleven Madison Park: A reason to visit New York.

Last May I travelled to New York City for a wedding and took the opportunity to also visit with friends and, of course, eat my face off. One of such meals to mix friends and eating was a noon-time visit to Eleven Madison Park. I had tried tempering my lofty expectations, but not two weeks before my visit, the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list had come out with EMP jumping up to the number 10 spot. Ah well. They’d just have to live up to it then!

Vilmart & Cie., Grande Réserve Brut, Rilly-la-Montagne.

We’d arrived early, and to while away the time, we trotted across the park to loiter in the fabulous food emporium that is Eataly. Most certainly more than a little torturous when you’re hungry and trying to save yourself for the meal ahead. Oh, and one has to pass Shake Shack. Twice. Make sure you’re of the disciplined sort if you decide to run that gauntlet.

When the time was upon us, we pushed our way through the ornate revolving door and stepped into the lovely space that is Eleven Madison Park: soaring ceilings, tan wood accents, bright white walls, and art deco touches. Shortly after we  had let our server know that we were all having the full tasting menu, the champagne cart made its appearance. While we weren’t there for an occasion, seated there with the crisp white linen table clothes under our fingertips and the light spilling in through the high windows, it certainly felt special. So just because, a flute of champagne made its way in front of me.

Now, the menu had listed 16 ingredients in a grid and we were to explore many (but not all) of them. However, let’s have a ridiculously long and delicious parade of appetizers first, yes?

Parmesan and black truffle cookie – a savoury riff off the New York classic.

Apple tea steeped with a bundle of thyme – very light and delicate. Came paired with a baby bite of brioche, perfectly trimmed quail eggs (sunny side up), and bacon. I love breakfasty things, and this was no exception. Especially with the higher ratio of yolk-to-everything-else.

Yogurt pops with lentils and curry powder; cool, tangy, and spiced. A good foil for the warm chickpea panisse topped with lemon zest yogurt.

Long Island clambake with chorizo, apple, and potato. Manila clams with chorizo and potato, manila clams with apple, lobster dauphinoise, and madeleines. The presentation of this dish was fantastic and the surrounding bites and chowder (in the pot) were lovely little tastes. Gimmicky? Sure. But it was fun – something long tasting menus sometimes lack.

Long Island clambake with chorizo, apple, and potato. Manila clams with chorizo and potato, manila clams with apple, lobster dauphinoise, and madeleines. The presentation of this dish was fantastic and the surrounding bites and chowder (in the pot) were fun little tastes.

At this point, we hadn’t even begun the actual courses listed on the menu. So how about that tour of the kitchen you asked for earlier? Well, sure!

Front-row seats in the kitchen tour at Eleven Madison Park.

The kitchen had been remodelled to accommodate a nook and short bar where patrons could view the goings-on and be out of the way. Here, we were regaled with tales of EMP’s genesis and philosophy. We also had a table-side drink prepared for us: the Jack Rose; a sphere of pomegranate mousse frozen in liquid nitrogen, cubes of lemon-soaked & compressed fuji apple, lemon syrup, and a scoop of calvados sorbet. Fun and delicious. After an enjoyable interlude speaking with the front of house, we continued to sip our drinks as we made our way back to our table.

Warm. Delicious. Sided with cow’s milk butter, sea salt, and goat’s milk butter.

Waiting for us was a rustic bag of bread and two butter options: cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Sea salt rounded out the accompaniments. It’s always hard to resist good bread and butter, and when it’s fresh and delicious, why try? I certainly didn’t! But not too much bread now, for we would at last begin the meal.

Butter-poached white asparagus with quail egg, shad roe, and rye. I believe that Splendido’s version at the end of David Lee’s reign still holds top spot for me, but this was the closest I’d ever gotten to having a repeat performance. And oh, have I tried many since.

Foie gras cured with buckwheat, buttermilk, and lemon. A little duck prociutto, sesame and balsamic vinegar too. I loved that this wasn’t the same old seared preparation of this rich ingredient. Lovely balance and refreshingly enjoyable. Paired with the 2010 Domaine Jamet Cotes du Rhone.

Whey: fresh cheese curds, caraway gnocchi, and spring herbs. Refreshing and light, despite the curds and gnocchi.

Meyer lemon & butter-poached lobster. With shellfish bisque and charred leek. This was my favourite dish – perfectly poached bits of lobster with those lovely toasty notes from the leek. Really unbelievably good.

At the table next door: a mysterious cloche filled with smoke. I found out much later that this was their tribute to Barney Greengrass, New York’s “sturgeon king.”

Beef roasted with wood sorrel and marble potatoes

Cheuflada: Pungent cheuflada cheese, pickled mustard seeds, and pearl onions.

The egg cream – orange, cocoa nib, and seltzer water. Hearkening back to soda fountains of yore with another table-side show.

Cheesecake: Goat cheese, cara cara orange, and vanilla

Lustau Moscatel Emilin Sherry. So good. Lovely raisin flavour with a wood & chocolate finish. Really enjoyable. Available through the LCBO Vintages site for $18! I just bought a bottle.

Chocolate: Sorbet with caramelized cocoa pastry, Meyer lemon, and olive oil.

Tea: Tommagang Estate, Southern Sri Lanka. And Black & Whites (sweet) to finish.

Elegant space, beautiful plates, fantastic flavours, and superb service. I found lunch to be very reasonably priced at $125 for such a superlative experience. In fact, I’ve had far more costly Michelin-starred meals and been less satisfied as the last crumbs were being brushed away (sob).

The general convivial atmosphere in our corner of the restaurant added another level of enjoyment to the meal. The many bottles peppering our affable neighbour’s table probably made it easier for them to swallow my otherwise impertinent inquiry of (and request to shoot) their fascinating domed dish. In fact, the dish was the catalyst for surrounding tables to chit-chat a bit. I love those moments.

On every level, this meal was top notch: visually, emotionally, taste-wise – and it was all woven together with fabulous service and excellent pacing. More than a fine meal, this was a dining experience. My expectations, though lofty, were met and easily exceeded. Eleven Madison Park’s top-ten designation from San Pellegrino is well deserved and ranks as one of my top meals, not just for 2012, but of all-time.

More shots  on flickr.