Eleven Madison Park and Contemporary Fine Dining
NEW YORK CITY — I’m fond of saying that Toqueland is a chef site, not a food or restaurant site, and that I’m a chef writer, not a food writer. But I had such a wonderful dining experience the other night that I felt compelled to write about it.
The restaurant was Eleven Madison Park, and before I write another word about it, I want to be very clear that I was there as their guest. They didn’t invite me in for the purposes of a review because I don’t write reviews. In fact, one could reasonably contend that I had worked for my supper: On hearing of my upcoming book about the chefs of the 1970s and 1980s, EMP co-owner Will Guidara and his company’s Director of Strategic Development Aaron Ginsberg invited me to speak at one of the “Happy Hour” talks they sometimes arrange for their staff in advance of the nightly service. As my book is still a work in-progress, I asked if I might bring along a chef to fill in any holes in my research. They said “of course,” and I asked David Waltuck, formerly, of course, of Chanterelle, where he became the second American-born, Manhattan-based chef to earn four stars from the New York Times, and currently readying his new élan for an opening early this summer. At the end of the talk, as a gesture of thanks, Will invited us in to dinner.
To be honest, I hadn’t loved my last meal at EMP, in fall 2010. The execution of the food was excellent, but the “grid menu”–at that time, you selected each course based only on the main ingredient, with no other information–didn’t work for me, mainly because I’m more likely to choose what I want to eat based on supporting players rather than, say, the protein. In 2012, when EMP’s New York-focused experience rode in on a wave of media hype, including long “making-of” pieces in both The New Yorker and The New York Times, Pete Wells wrote a lack-of-appreciation piece in the Times that didn’t exactly make me want to rush over there. Reportedly, Guidara and his partner and EMP’s chef Daniel Humm revised the experience almost immediately after that article, cutting down on the waitstaff patter and scaling back some of the offerings, and have continued to hone the concept ever since. (Among other things, the grid system that was still in place when the New York theme was unveiled has been dropped altogether in favor of a tasting menu centered on EMP’s take on classic New York foods, and the evening’s narration has been minimized.)
Of course, with four stars from the New York Times and three from the Michelin Guide, Eleven Madison Park doesn’t need any love from me. That said, I am here to tell you that, as far as I’m concerned, they have not only successfully course-corrected, but also created one of the great dining experiences available in this country today, one that melds witty execution with seriousness of purpose; contemporary notions with traditional techniques and flavors; interaction and privacy; entertainment and dining better than just about anybody else who operates at their level.
Mostly what Eleven Madison Park is now, is fun, in a way that never seems forced or hackneyed, and is all but unheard of in restaurants of its high-falutin’ stature. And there’s a broader message to what I think they’ve achieved that made me want to write about them, so here goes. (If you already plan to dine at Eleven Madison in the next three months, I’ll preface this with “spoiler alerts” because some of the meal and its joys are based on surprise.):
Neither David nor I had been to EMP since the “grid menu” days, but we were both giddy with anticipation–we even called each other to synch up our attire, settling on sports coats, no ties. We arrived for a 6pm table, the room still bathed in sunlight, and were led to a table at the north end of the dining room.
We were welcomed by our captain, Cody Nason, a spry, fresh-faced impresario with a mischievous disposition. Cody asked if we had any food allergies, then casually shrugged and added, as if it had just occurred to him, “Is there anything you just don’t like?”
It was a refreshing question that ought to be asked more often, especially where tasting menus are concerned. I was especially grateful for it because I harbor a deep dark secret that it used to be hard for me to share with strangers: I don’t like raw oysters. I’ve long since stopped pretending I’m allergic, but sometimes when I ask a captain to please not include any in my meal, I can see in his eyes that he thinks I’m a rube.
Instead, Cody smiled and replied: “Well, we’re not going to make you eat any.”
This would be the fine-dining equivalent of, “You had me at hello.” (Indeed, an early course featured oysters and caviar; my bivalve was replaced with a braised fennel cup.)
On arrival at our table, we discovered an envelope and small knife on the table. Cody explained to us that inside the envelope was a card with one ingredient named in each quadrant. We were to poke the adjacent icon out with the knife, indicating our favorite of the four. As they were cherry, coffee, celery, and strawberry, we thought perhaps they had to do with dessert, so David chose cherry and I took coffee.
We were served a number of small plates: a savory black and white cookie of cheddar and apple; a morel custard with Maine sea trout roe; and English peas with Meyer lemon and egg yolk.
Then came one of the first of what by evening’s end I’d come to think of as “set pieces”: a rye bread round served with pickled ramps and dotted with mustard kisses. In a chafing dish alongside was housemade beef pastrami, a pair of tongs alongside, but not for use by the service team.
“We’re going to ask you to work a little,” said Cody. “You’re going to assemble your own pastrami sandwiches.”
And then came the pièce de résistance: two old-fashioned soda bottles were deposited before us; they contained drinks flavored according to our chosen ingredients on that card.
David and I had at it, assembling and digging into our little sandwiches. We were still early in the meal, but sitting in that glorious room, with sunlight still streaming in, sipping soda right from the bottle, and chowing down on high-class pastrami, I couldn’t help but think: “These guys have cracked the code.”
By “the code,” I mean that there are a lot of threads running though the dining world right now. It reminds me of what pundits said about Roger Federer when he first arrived on the scene: He had so many tools and talents that he needed time and experience to figure out when to deploy each of them, to find the sweet spot, the right matrix of options and strategy.
That’s how it is for restaurants right now. There are no shortage of tools and options: cutesy tabletop gadgetry, guessing games, modernist techniques, thematic menus. The upshot is that it’s an exciting time for dining, but it can also sometimes be a silly, unsatisfying, and/or just plain annoying time, and often at an outlandish price tag.
Ruminating on the evolution of Eleven Madison Park since Daniel and Will bought the joint from Danny Meyer, I feel a kinship with them. It seems to me that they’ve been engaged in the same type of creative endeavor that writers often are: they’ve been working out a number of “big ideas,” continually revising them as they search for their voice and the right way to express it. I hadn’t visited the restaurant in four years, but from what I’ve read and the people I’ve spoken to, it seems to me that as they’ve shed the grid format, moved to tasting menu, and stripped away some of the narration, they’ve been going through a process not unlike workshopping a play. That play had its bumps along the way, but now, in its current incarnation, is a Broadway smash.
The front of the house cannot be undervalued in this appreciation. Once upon a time, the most we asked of our finest waiters and captains was that they be able to carve your meat tableside, or ignite a steak Diane without setting the house ablaze. At Eleven Madison Park, the tableside presentation is elevated to an art form. Cody was a born performer; I suspect he might even have or have once harbored acting ambitions. The most showstopping bit of derring-do he performed was assembling two Waldorf salads from a number of ingredients he rolled over on a cart. Before assembling them, he deposited a massive, first-edition Waldorf cookbook on our table, informing us that there are only twelve copies extant on planet Earth, and that Eleven Madison Park has procured seven of them (this is not enough for all tables to fondle one, so we were among the lucky few that night; I half-imagine that Humm and Guidara have some Indiana Jones type, or at least an office-bound intern, scouring the planet for the remaining five.) Cody explained the history of the salad and how the restaurant has both honored and broken with it in their version, as he assembled two of them for us. It’s no exaggeration to say that the presentation was polished and professional enough for the guy to have done it on the Today Show. When he finished, and placed our bowls before us, I had to stifle an impulse to rise up and applaud.
Between the workshopping of the concept, and the showmanship in the dining room, it isn’t just New York culinary traditions that Daniel, Will, and their team pay homage to, and are now a part of, it’s also, in spirit, the Great White Way. Broadway had such dynamic duos as Nichols and May and Penn and Teller; fine dining has Humm and Guidara.
David summed up this notion brilliantly when he smiled and said, “Dinner … and a show.”
(It should also be noted that the parties that Humm and Guidara throw throughout the year, from their Kentucky Derby soiree to the already legendary Beard Awards after parties are without precedent in the industry and beg comparisons to other New York legends such as … oh, I dunno, maybe Schrager and Rubell?)
Of course, that performance wouldn’t have meant anything (at least not to flavor-first adherents like David and myself) had the salad not been worthy of its introduction, which it was. But wait, there’s more: When you finished the salad, you lifted the bowl in which it was presented and found a soup, fashioned from the same ingredients as the salad, lurking beneath. A spoon–one end slipped into a notch in the side of the vessel, the other resting on the rim–appeared to levitate over the soup, its well containing the soup’s garnish. It, too, was delicious.
And that, my friends, was just one course of our fifteen-course adventure.
Humm and Guidara also seem to have figured out the essential role of pacing in a meal. I mentioned Indiana Jones above. Steven Spielberg once said that when he and George Lucas were laying on the beach in Hawaii, hashing out what would eventually become Raiders of the Lost Ark, they realized they had to space out the action set pieces, to give the audience a chance to catch their breath. I was reminded of this toward the end of the savory processional when, just before cheese and dessert, came three relatively straightforward presentations: asparagus braised with potato and black truffle, although the asparagus was cooked en vessie (in a pig’s bladder), which was shown briefly to us before it was whisked away and plated; poached lobster with beets, ginger, and nasturtium, although it featured a beet ribbon no doubt produced by modernist means; and a meat course featuring three preparations of lamb accompanied by roasted lettuce and onion blossoms — to have the main event be so conventionally arranged was a bold move that worked; it grounded the rest of the meal, allowing you to eat food that felt familiar and classic.
After that pause in the dramatics, there was another showstopper: “You’re going on a picnic,” said Cody, as he presented us with a basket from which protruded a torpedo of a pretzel. He left us to unpack it and inside were fresh, housemade cheese, a parsley condiment, pickled strawberries, and a beer, brewed especially for this course by Ithaca brewery. The presentation was complex and fun, the food itself couldn’t have been more simple, or satisfying.
[I should mention that while we were treated to a few treats reserved for special guests and friends of the house, such as a kitchen visit, and an introduction to a technique known as port-tonging by which the neck of a wine bottle is removed to avoid a cork disintegrating, everything I have written about herein is a part of standard-issue EMP experience, although–amazingly–much of the menu changes quarterly.]
There were other fun touches before the night was through, many of them also New York-themed, such as chocolate-covered pretzels with sea salt, and a more traditional, sweet black-and-white cookie that brought the meal full circle.
This next comment is for sure founded on what I call an FWP (food-writer problem), but it was also noteworthy that while satisfied, we didn’t feel uncomfortably full at evening’s end; in fact, we strolled over to Gramercy Tavern for a nightcap and then I walked David home to the Village before hailing myself a taxi to Brooklyn. How many tasting menus leave you with enough energy for that?
It was extra-special to share this evening with David, and touching to see the respect he was accorded by the staff, many of whom are surely too young to remember Chanterelle in its heyday. He was also a living reminder of how things change in baby steps. Once upon a time, it was audacious for two young Americans to open a restaurant with the name Chanterelle, not preceded by a “La” and to have no dress code, women on the service floor, and a menu of French delights conveyed in English. Today, anything goes, and the revelation for the team behind Eleven Madison Park seems to have been that it was time to dial things back a touch, to find balance and a place for tradition in an experience that also emphatically, delightfully moves the ball forward.
I can’t wait to go back.