Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, New York NY 10010; map); 212-889-0905; elevenmadisonpark.com
Service: Faultless, friendly, and accommodating
Setting: Airy, elegant half of the Met Life Building lobby with well-spaced tables
Compare to: Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges
Must Haves: Menu changes daily
Cost: $56, three courses; $74, four courses; wine pairings, $48/$58
"I want my old menu back," groused the gentleman under his breath as the waiter whisked away the bread course he had just tuned down. He was obviously a regular—the waitstaff all recognized him, asked him how he had been. They lauded the new menu against his protestations, using words like "creative" and "fascinating" to punctuate the radical change.
Eleven Madison Park's beloved $28, two-course lunch menu that our own Ed Levine raved about just under year ago is no more, replaced with a far pricier and more elaborate $56 three-course lunch that purports to be a tasting menu, but is really more of a prix fixe. Now in place of a familiar menu with a list of ingredients, didactic descriptions, and the names of purveyors, one is presented a square piece of paper with a matrix of primary ingredients.
Guinea Fowl, Pork, Squab, Beef
Chevre, Plum, Chestnut, Chocolate
I wondered if I would be required to circle my choices on the menu, to be handed to the kitchen in lieu of a ticket. According to the New York Times, the decidedly nontraditional menu is intended to foster a discourse between the diner and the kitchen. You pick the ingredient that interests you and your waiter will give you a more detailed description, although even then, the provenance of the ingredients is not revealed. The kitchen wants you to trust that they will pick the best available, which sort of makes sense. Do we care the brand of paint that Picasso used?
The new vision at Eleven Madison Park will take some getting used to—it is a conceit that requires more interaction, and changes the dynamic of ordering. But after, that the meal follows a traditional path, although one with more pomp and ceremony than before. The menu changes daily but regardless of what you order, whether fish or foul or four-legged protein, the extras are all the same.
The plump and cheesy gougéres remain on the menu, a familiarity that does not last long.
Next up, an heirloom tomato "tea" spiked with lemon thyme that comes skewered on raffia and accompanied by a Parmesan crisp. It was a flavorful brew, more savory than sweet.
An amuse of a goat cheese lollipop and a beet marshmallow rolled in red wine vinegar is a deconstructed beet salad of sorts.
The bread really is a course unto itself. Two miniature loaves—a baguette and an olive bread redolent with rosemary—are served with two large coins of butter, one made of goats' milk, the other from cow.
A first course of a foie gras mille-feuille comes served with sour aumeboshi plum and bitter almonds. I am not sure I agree with Anthony Bourdain when he called foie gras "one of the ten most important flavors in gastronomy," but this dish uses the liver in the perfect manner. It is not served in a huge lobes, but rather used in sparing amounts, its intense richness balanced by the other ingredients, rather than dominating them.
The main course of pork employs both loin and belly; it comes roasted with cherries, onion, mustard, and a rich jus that is served tableside, the waiter mindfully drizzling it on one's plate. It appears to be a similar dish to the one Ed Levine so enjoyed last year, but where as he found the loin to be a "comfortable pink," I found mine disappointingly cooked through and rather tough, to boot. The pork belly was wonderful, however: salty and succulent.
Dessert was a deconstructed vacherin stocked with enough nuts to last a a Madison Square Park squirrel through the winter: hazelnuts and pistachios, with chestnut and chocolate gelato, the plate dotted with grapes, raisins, and miniature meringues.
And finally, a caramel apple lollipop and sesame brittle.
There might not be a better indicator of a rebounding economy—not to mention Chef Daniel Humm's and general manager William Guidara's ambition—than the scrubbing of the bargain Eleven Madison Park lunch menu. Consumer confidence seems to be up, especially in the Madison Square Park area, where Eataly recently opened to much fanfare. And it seems that the time has come for Eleven Madison Park to operate on a level more appropriate to its four New York Times Stars, with a longer, more demanding, and pricier menu. In the words of Oliver Strand of the New York Times, Eleven Madison Park has transformed from an "overachieving neighborhood restaurant into one of the world's standard bearers of fine dining"—taking its place alongside Per Se, Daniel, Jean Georges, and Le Bernardin.
Ultimately it wasn't the price increase that so disappointed my neighbor at lunch. It was the the lack of familiarity, the disconcerting, albeit daring new menu, that caused him a "great sense of loss". But where something was lost, something extraordinary was gained.