REVIEW #9

Eleven Madison Park

Few restaurants have been making as many waves recently as Eleven Madison Park. The restaurant was already outstanding when Chef Daniel Humm purchased it from restaurateur Danny Meyer, but Humm has taken it to an entirely new level. He reduced capacity 30% and completely revamped the menu, eliminating á la carte ordering. At first, diners received a card printed with a grid of 16 ingredients (such as “Carrot”, “Lemon” and "Chicken") and chose between a four-course or five-course tasting.  The New York Times rightly described this menu as “almost an abstraction”. The rationale seemed to be to allow for nimbleness, an ability to pivot on a day-to-day basis depending on market availability, diner preference and the chef’s creativity.  It was an interesting concept:  Most tasting menus are predicated on the assumption that the chef knows better than the customer what he should try and lean heavily on an established roster of classic dishes.  Here, the tasting menus were bespoke and the customer was the designer. Diners customized their dish through dialogue with their server.  In the months that followed, the menu evolved to a lengthy (and lengthily narrated) tour of cuisine that was, in one way or another, historically connected to New York.  Today, the 15-course tasting menu is served with many of the same dishes, but the narration has been heavily pared back.  "I have to change to stay the same," proclaims Eleven Madison Park's website, quoting Willem De Kooning.  A sign that says "endless reinvention" hangs in the kitchen.

Humm's cuisine is difficult to describe, or even to categorize. But his culinary style does bear some trademarks, including the use of classic technique (reductions and foams), inventiveness, whimsy, concentrated flavors and stunningly beautiful presentations that are especially to be commended for their deftness with colors.  There is surprisingly little fish outside of shellfish, which makes a meal a much different experience than at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare or Le Bernardin.  Some courses are straightforward, unadulterated bliss (a 140 day dry aged rib eye, about which more below, and a lobster poached with leeks, black onion and shellfish bisque), while others have the unexpected torque that is found in the dishes at Corton and Atera (heirloom cranberry snow with beets, goat cheese and caraway).  There is an overemphasis on making things interactive and fun which sometimes comes across gimmicky:  waiters subject a carrot to a meat grinder they have clamped to your table and then proceed to instruct you to mix a tray of 10 or so different ingredients (smoked bluefish, pickled quail egg yolk, grated horseradish, toasted sunflowers) into it for a carrot "tartare"; one course involves your table being given a picnic basket filled with cheese washed in pale ale beer, grapes, a pretzel and pale wheat ale from Ithaca; at the end, waiters perform a card trick to "predict" your last dessert, which has, it turns out, been hidden at your table all along.  These theatrics are performed so earnestly thought that they are almost forgivable.

Most of the dishes at Eleven Madison Park are successes, and a few are home runs.  One dish involves a glass dome filled with apple wood smoke being brought your table.  It contains smoked sturgeon over embers, and is served with a salad of bibb lettuce, pickled onion quail egg cut in two and bagel crumbles, along with sturgeon caviar and rye, house made pickles and toasted rye bread.  It is a haute homage to the lower east side.  The 140 day dry aged rib eye with amaranth, hen of the woods mushrooms and a side cup of braised oxtail, foie gras and potatoes is as good as any steak we've ever had.  An impossibly rich broth made from the rib eye is served immediately before the dish, and its flavors linger on the tongue long afterwards.

The wine list is also spectacular, with an enormous selection of interesting and affordable wines by the glass and half bottle.  If you wish to begin the meal with a sparkling wine, why not try the Val de Mer, a bone dry Crémant de Bourgogne from Chablis, rather than going the more traditional (and expensive) route of Champagne?  If that doesn't suit, wine director Dustin Wilson can expertly navigate you through the 120 pages of other options.

It is serendipitous that, as this ambitious restaurant scales new heights, it is already housed in one of the most magnificent settings in New York, with soaring ceilings, marble walls and oversized windows. Eleven Madison Park now has the food to match its grandeur.

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INFORMATION

Midtown South
11 Madison Ave.
New York (at 24th St.)
212-889-0905
Mon-Fri, noon-1pm, 5:30pm-9:30pm; Sat, 5:30pm-9:30pm
    Daniel Humm, Chef
    Chris Flint, Chef de Cuisine
    Angela Pinkerton, Pastry Chef
    Dustin Wilson, Wine Director
    Will Guidara, Restaurateur

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