Bill: $295 tasting menu per person
11 Madison Ave
New York, NY 10010
Contact | 212.889.0905
Exactly a month after Tina and I treated ourselves to a lunch at the New York institution that is Eleven Madison Park, Chef Humm curtailed the tasting feast and altered the menu, essentially revamping the hours-long experience his restaurant was known for.
The fourteen some odd courses would be pared down to seven, and service less theatrical. Those changes came as it held the highest praises from key critics.
But Eleven Madison’s mantra was never about staying still. They challenged themselves in fixing something that wasn’t broken, and so far have been the better for it.
As New York Times’s Pete Wells put it, diners would leave in a “mental blur” after such an elaborate dining production, which Humm was growing wary of. He must have heard me and Tina groaning half way through the meal (I know, boo hoo). But he’s right in that a diner would rather walk away remembering all the dishes than talking about the sheer amount that was just taken in.
Still, I’m glad we were able to experience the beautifully curated tasting before it went away, as it had become an event so quintessentially New York — not just in its locale but as its inspiration.
You’re seated with the first dish already placed on the table — a pair of savory, bit-sized cheddar black and white cookies in a stringed-up takeout box. Then instead of taking away the napkin rings, they’re used to hold toppered egg shells filled with a sturgeon sabayon and chive. This creamy mousse is a mere four spoonfuls, but just bold enough to get you going for the meal, which hits you quickly with a two-bite oyster pie. The oyster flavor is incredibly subtle here as you munch down on the delicate pie crust dipped in a light veloute sauce.
The first real masterpiece, visually speaking, comes next in the form of truffle-marinated scallops enveloped in several cross-sectioned leeks, piped full of creamy black and white sauces. That’s followed by what I felt was one of the more memorable dishes of the night: a deconstructed eggs benedict. A small tin container is stacked full with egg, ham, cauliflower cream and topped with caviar. That small tin can comes full circle later on when it holds the day’s menu printed out on a string of circular paper for you to take home.
The heavier dishes continue with a beautifully slice of seared foie gras, the size of a roll of quarters. It’s topped with smoked eel and single leaves of crunchy brussels sprouts.
A mini-intermission occurs at this point, before a cart is wheeled to your table with a member of the staff ready to explain the history of the Waldorf salad. This story unfolds as your Waldorf salad is prepared before you — a few shavings of a green apple and blue cheese, a sprinkling of walnuts and pruned grapes. The salad is all but a few forkfuls, but then the salad plate also serves as a lid to a bowl, where you’ll find the Waldorf served in the form of soup. Altogether, a refreshing touch to an old-school creation, and a nice pause to the pomp and circumstance.
They ease you back in with a light but artful bouquet of hen of the woods mushroom, roasted with horseradish. It’s a pretty one-dimensional flavor profile, but gone in a couple bites. The earthiness is the perfect setup to the stunning duck that’s about to come.
They’ll bring out a whole duck for your viewing pleasure, but while the herbal seasoning and lavender garnish are visually captivating, the savoriness of an actual slice of that duck, paired with a light mustard sauce and collard greens and apple, tops all the senses.
A second intermission of sorts happens here, and we literally had to sit back and consider whether or not to dip into the cheesy fondue. But dip we had to, if not for the upcoming bill, then the irresistible aroma of the soft salted pretzels that came as a dipping utensil with the fondue. All of that came alongside a salad, which was a smart interjection to the heavy leg of the meal, and surprisingly effective in resetting us for the desserts.
The dessert portion of this epic meal is nothing short of genius.
They start with a simple, classic presentation of a uniquely complex creation: a botrytis ice cream paired with a Seneca Lake Riesling. Known as “noble mold,” botrytis is the fungus behind the grayish spots that appear on old chocolates. Made into an ice cream, it exudes a light earthy flavor, served here with bitter almond and ginger crumble.
Things crescendo quickly with the next dessert: the milk and honey custard with bee pollen ice cream. The construction is wondrous, like something found in nature. A fresh mound of snow-like custard topped with icebergs of dried milk foam that melt in your mouth after a second of crunchy, meringue-y texture. With a light tap, the dome cracks, and a pool of honey oozes out. It’s a perfect spoonful anyway you want to mix and eat it, or even just stare at it.
The meal ends with a lovely interactive dessert made for Eleven Madison by the Mast Brothers. A set of wrapped chocolate bars comes in a wooden box, and it’s your job to taste test for what kind of milk each is made from – cow, goat, buffalo or sheep.
Your stomach will be begging you to stop at this point, but the game is too irresistible not to play. Plus you’re so close to the finish line. We suspect most diners end up doing what we did, which was to take the tiniest nibble possible of each bar. The one made from cow’s milk tastes like most of what you’ll find in the candy aisle, while the rest have a sort of gamey taste that fell out of my comfort zone.
Regardless, this penultimate “entree” comes with a prize to close things out, even if you ended up getting only one answer correct like we did. And that’s a sea salt, chocolate covered pretzel and glass of sparkling (nonalcoholic for us).
The surprises don’t end just because the meal did. Each diners gets to take home a glass jar with air-tight lids filled with fresh granola.
Each element of the meal, from the moment you walk through their doors down to the very last bite is though out and immaculate. The question is if you can have too much of a good thing, and Humm’s 14-course extravaganza borders on yes. But if his new, less-intimidating menu is any indication, Eleven Madison won’t just be a place of masterful dining, but one that demands revisiting.