ELEVEN MADISON PARK – THE EMPEROR WITH NO CLOTHES
How do you go about rating a Michelin 3 star establishment on a small blog? One that happens to be voted the best restaurant in the US, the San Pellegrino No. 3 in the world? You go about with caution, with respect, with a sense of the higher purpose.
I started ticking of the world’s best restaurants one by one when they were first announced by San Pellegrino couple of years ago, and I must admit I had a marvelous time both at the Fat Duck and the French Laundry. Both were deemed to be the world’s best at that given time. I hadn’t visited El Bulli unfortunately before it closed, nor the Roca brothers establishment yet. However on a recent trip to the Big Apple, and given that the date coincided with my birthday, I thought let’s splash out and give EMP a try. After all it held the World’s 50 best afterparty, and if the world’s best chefs had a good time there, I sure as hell will too. I was wrong.
Here in EMP, there are far less iconic dishes, most change with the seasons and seasonal produce and most have a short life span on the menu. The magic is around serving these seasonal, yet strongly US tradition focused dishes with a French flair. I really don’t think they pull this trick off very well. EMP runs with a seasonal, daily menu that includes five nibbles, three starters, two main courses, one pre dessert and two desserts and then petit fours.
On the nibbles section we start with a cookie made from apple and cheddar. Yes, it’s a cookie, we nibble it quickly like mice. I should say at this point for a full disclaimer that we arrived at 9:30 to dinner for a late table (only one available) and the dinner ran for at least 3, 5 hours to 4 hours. By the end we were all pretty exhausted.
Next up various nibbles in beautiful lacquered boxes are folded out before us. Cucumber with cream cheese and rye, melon with goat cheese, cucumber with honeydew and mint and cantaloupe with smoked melon. Binding them together is obviously the smoked flavor of goat, the smoked melon, the rye and the creamy cheeses and the sweetness of melon, cantaloupe, et al. At this point it become apparent to me that we were in for a show rather than a taste sensation. Sure, the lacquered box was nice. But that melon? And the cucumber cheese sandwich? Heston throws in history, technique and sometimes magical wizardry. But this was something out of a nice tapas bar in Marbella.
Foie gras with strawberry and onion. We Hungarians really love our foie gras, therefore we are accustomed to extremely high quality. I like the fact that the acidity of the strawberry cuts through the fat of the liver, the cream of the onion gives it an additional texture and I like the plating. This was one of the more beautiful and better courses. A glorified bistro course. The Szechuan peppercorns would come back in another best course later on.
Next was the most memorable moment when we received our gougeres, or bread rolls, warm from the oven, flaky and incredibly buttery and fatty with a remarkable butter with grated sharp cheese on top. The rolls were out of this world and so was the butter. Bravo for this.
Next came caviar. Although the menu actually says foie gras, caviar and lobster, one of the big learnings at EMP was the absolute focus on non-expensive ingredients, once again paying to the bistro theme and when the big guns should have come out, then the was only a little squeak instead of a kaboom. Such was the case with our first picnic type hamper that came out with a luxury picnic course of pickled mackerel, caviar and cider. I’m not sure what I think of this course two months down the line, but the mackerel was a far better version of what I have seen on my dad’s fridge over the years. It had a nice pickled flavor along with the preserved veggies in the jar. The caviar was bigger than expected, perhaps lake sturgeon variety from the states with a brownish grey roe. The cider once again was a clever and nice match for the pickled, sweet, salty food but the total composition didn’t strike a chord.
Some words about the service at this point deemed to be the best in the world by some. Casual, nice, charming at times, but we had at least three or four servers circling around us and they changed during the course of the meal. WE started off with an energetic and nice lad and then ended with a jaded and too intimate guy by the end who rattled off the names of the dishes quicker than you could say 1-2-3. I find that a lot in US restaurants that the servers seem to be entirely robotic, reciting the origins and the ingredients of the dish without any emotions or interest whatsoever.
Corn. Incredibly sweet corn cooked on the cob, then cut off and laid on top of corn cream with cured egg yolk and clam. The corn variations provided the umami of this dish with the clams adding a nice backdrop. Once again I found this lacking in depth and substance. Sweet, grilled, corn, nice and crispy, with creamy textures underneath. Bistro, yes. Three star? No.
And then adding to further disappointment I received the Lobster boil. One of the main dishes of the evening, the star attraction. With heritage obviously coming from the US, this is served as a big pot of steaming lobster tails with veggies and pork and sauce. The big question for me is, how much does this three star course differ from anything I could get at the Maine seaside joint? Two well-cooked scampis one EXTREMELY small lobster part, more like a langustino tail, some pieces of corned beef looking bacon, some dill, some potatoes. Now I’m not sure the average EMP customer may go crazy for this saying that this is the best lobster boil they ever had, but for me this was as simplistic and as cheapskate as one could get with ingredients. Eat with your fingers, they say after plating it out from a big steaming pot. Go crazy. This felt like a huge rip off. Was it tasty? No.
Next the signature dish that everyone raves about: the duck. Honestly, this was the best course of the evening, albeit "just" a duck breast. A duck breast glazed with lavender honey and sprinkled with Szechuan peppercorns and aniseed. Yes, I really liked the cherry sauce next to it and I also liked the daikon radish strips that offered the crispy counterpoint to the rich and spicy duck. This was the second memorable course along with the foie gras. One side dish was also very nice with the smoked potato with pommes soufflé. The other I couldn’t quite understand how it related to the duck in any way. This was the panzanella variation- the tomato roasted and compressed with bread. Perhaps it was supposed to balance the rich sweetness of the duck with some acidity but it didn't work for me alongside these ingredients. Perhaps with something less spicy and sweet like a schnitzel.
Next up was a pre dessert that I didn’t take a pic of: Camembert with plum and basil- and then we moved on the desserts with an open-fire-roasted and glazed plum or apricot with a ricotta ice cream and oats. Yes, it really was a nice piece of fruit roasted and glazed with honey … with some ice cream.
By this point I was quite fed up. The play with the fruit roasted on a BBQ, the picnic hampers, the different type of boxes, with the “eat-with-your-hands” thing didn’t get me going in any way. The quality and the preparation of the ingredients certainly didn’t make me feel that something special was going on and the waiters were also growing more and more jaded and tired as the night progressed. This was midnight now, and the guy was grilling a lonely peach and a plum on a small Weber burner. This could have been a joke for a three star establishment but it was not. It was dead serious, meant to knock the socks of locals and internationals.
As a last course there was nice play on chocolate, but getting four bars of milk chocolate was definitely not what I was expecting as dessert. The four bars contained different types of milk coming from buffalo, cow, goat and sheep. We had to taste and match the chocolate types with the animal providing the milk. I can only hark back to Heston at this point who –after all the desserts and fanfare gave us a plastic map of Scotland and pasted jelly beans on the map shaped like whiskey bottles. Every gum bottle was made out different whiskey with a peaty, smoky or other flavor inherent to the production and the grain. An amazing trick at the end of dinner after a super memorable experience.
Here it was only fanfare, jaded waitering, lack of quality and quantity of three star ingredients, a play on American food heritage that just wasn’t creative or innovative enough and an all in all bad experience. I could go on and on about what I think makes a three star establishment or a San Pellegrino World's Best, but I think it would be useless. This one claims the title and the price range, but does not live up to the reputation. Truth be told: both my latest one star experiences in Paris beat the hell out of EMP.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue NY
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue NY