Sunday, August 9, 2015

Eleven Madison Park -- Food for the Brain

I was lucky enough to be taken by my wife J to Eleven Madison Park, Daniel Humm's famed gastronomic palace, for my birthday on Friday. I don't review New York restaurants on the theory that there is ample, if not excessive, information available to those who care, and this is not a review. However, the experience was noteworthy and worth discussing, I think.

We had heard that the experience could be over the top and self-referential, but we found this not to be true at all. The staff was knowledgeable, gracious and efficient, and greatly enhanced the evening, which elapsed over more than four hours.

Indeed, far from being self-referential, the restaurant is totally devoted to its customers, showing great flexibility in responding to food allergies or aversions. We were a party of four and aversions included fish, shellfish, anything raw, eggs, beef and lobster. They seamlessly and elegantly worked around these issues so that everyone's 14-course meal reflected the philosophy and trajectory of the experience. For example, extruded cheese noodles were substituted for squid for one of our party, keeping the dish aesthetically consistent with the "normal" one while bringing a different, but legitimate, taste and texture, and truffles were substituted for caviar in one of great early courses.

The food was not over the top either, just consistently at the top. It is extremely market driven, and shows a nearly miraculous attention to detail and ability to extract the essence of flavor from the ingredients. As an example, a tomato that was not a tomato but a reconstruction of a tomato that was pureed and artfully reassembled and served over the water extracted from the tomato (the seeds are recovered and used atop the dish to further the illusion). More intense tomato flavor than even a perfect summer tomato. Similarly, a poached apricot was the most apricot-y piece of food that I have ever eaten. This accompanied a slice of spice crusted duck breast, along with two morsels of super-concentrated fennel made by vacuum compressing vegetable overnight before cooking it the next day.

Tomato salad with basil and red onion
Duck breast roasted with lavender, honey, apricots and fennel
The restaurant tries not to take itself too seriously and introduces notes of whimsy. J arranged for us to eat a course in the kitchen, which was a palate-cleansing shaved ice made on an antique ice shaver that was found at an antiques store in the Bronx.

Peach, ginger and lemon thyme snow cone
And one of the courses -- fish boil with corn and peppers -- was thrown onto a piece of thick paper with the diners being encouraged to eat with their hands.

Fish boil with corn and peppers
The final whimsical element was the fourth dessert, called "Name That Milk," which consisted of four different chocolate bars specially made for Eleven Madison by the Mast Brothers. We were supposed to match each bar with the type of milk used in its confection: cow, buffalo, sheep or goat (we did not do well).

So, you are asking if you have gotten this far, what about the food? I found that the dishes varied greatly, from sublime (caviar Benedict with egg, corn and ham, among others) to nearly unpleasant (a sunflower heart prepared like that of an artichoke). A lot of dishes (a few too many for my taste) featured pickled items, and there was a predominance of sourness or tartness. The first dessert was a delicious but very tart homemade farmer's cheese served with honey and interesting toppings, including an amazing sorrel sauce. It was followed by a dish composed of buttermilk sorbet made from the extremely sour whey of the aforementioned cheese, very tart yogurt and a trace of sweet milk solids. Next was a deconstructed cheesecake, also on the tart side. I would have preferred more sweetness for the dessert.

Sorbet with caramelized whey and yogurt
Cheesecake with white currant sorbet and raspberry vinegar
But the point is not that I found a little too much sour and tart among the many things we ate. Rather it is that all of these items provoked discussion and disagreement among our party of four. One of us  was ecstatic about the sequence of tart desserts, but then she is not a chocolate lover (there are those!). While the everyday world does not disappear from your conscientiousness, for a few hours the world of food, and thoughts about how it is prepared and where it comes from (and when) dominate, and that is a fine thing, for which I am indebted to Mr. Humm (and to J, who arranged the whole thing).

Bobby Jay

1 comment:

Susan said...

I'm exhausted reading this -- eating can be hard work! But also fun, and it sounds like you had a great time.