New York resto safari: Eleven Madison Park

What Humm does to plantains. Roasted. With black-eyed peas, ham and coriander.

It’s not often that a restaurant not only has staying power, but actually ascends to food-world pantheon domination at the age of 14. Fourteen! That’s, like, 85 in restaurant years. And venerable Eleven Madison Park has done it, earning a fourth New York Times star in 2009, a third Michelin star last year, and this year taking the Outstanding Chef Award at the James Beard Awards in May.

Opened in 1998, Eleven Madison Park always got high marks as Danny Meyer’s more grown up restaurant, but it didn’t have the buzz of Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Park. As noted for its grand, former-bank-lobby space (it was a setting for episode 30 of Sex and the City in 1999) as for executive chef Kerry Heffernan’s food, it hummed along with two New York Times stars. And, of course, as a Meyer property, the restaurant’s service has been top notch since day one (a friend showed me her exacting Gramercy Tavern employee handbook back in the early aughts—and I understood why service is so good). I ate there while working at the Time Out New York Eating + Drinking guide in 2000, and I remember thinking the food was very good, but it’s telling that I can’t recall specifics (and it’s not just because my brain is addled—I can remember specifics of memorable meals had 30 years ago.

Then in 2006, Meyer hired young Swiss Mister Daniel Humm as executive chef and with him came the buzz.

With just three days in New York earlier this month, on my must-do list was to eat at Eleven Madison Park. (Thank you onokinegrindz for transferring your reservation to me. He woke up at 3am to make the booking!) Before I even touched down at JFK (on board the inaugural Hawaiian Airlines non-stop flight to New York) the experience began: I received a phone call a week before my lunch reservation and a guy who sounded like he was smiling while he spoke (but smiling like an old friend glad to hear from, not phoney-service smiling) asked me if I had any dietary restrictions or if I was celebrating something special. I sheepishly replied that I am not eating wheat, and he said not to worry, their menu has plenty for the non-wheat-eating.

Wednesday, June 6: I walk from Chelsea to the Flatiron District, the sun shining, the tourists milling, soaking up New York’s New Yorkiness for my New York lunch. Linger under the emerald leafiness of Madison Square Park. And I’m at the barely distinguishable Eleven Madison Park—camouflaged in this forest of stately slate gray insurance and bank buildings—where I met my cousin, artist Pamela Matsuda-Dunn, who is a great cook. The minute you walk inside, you feel wanted, welcomed, in a calm, relaxed way. Some servers are young, but amazingly I heard not a hint of vocal fry. It’s as if good, clear speaking voices are part of the job requirement. Not a single person in the whole place made me want to roll my eyeballs or wonder about their mental capacity. That may be a first. For sure I’ve never experienced that in Honolulu. (Hawai‘i restaurant managers—aloha goes far but has a limit, at some point competency has to come into play. For reals. (Shortly after I returned to O‘ahu, I was at one of my favorite restaurants and the super nice, friendly server waved a fistful of dirty forks in my face as she stacked our plates like she was cleaning up at her mom’s Thanksgiving dinner. *sigh*)

The four-course lunch is $74. But you get so much more than four courses. There are two rounds of amuse bouches, and a pre-dessert (the famous reworked egg cream made of orange syrup, whole milk from upstate infused with cacao beans, olive oil, and seltzer and—tastes like a Creamsicle, frothy cloud of a Creamsicle). Just the way the vegetables are chopped with machine-precision makes the price seem like a crazy deal. And that service, as much as the food, had me pretty much wanting to hunker down on my banquette through to dinner. Don’t make me go back to the real world!

I got alternative wheat-free amuse bouches, the best wheat-free bread I’ve ever had (three kinds! From Brooklyn baker Everybody Eats.) And they looked every bit as amazing as my cousin Pamela Matsuda-Dunn’s regular-menu items. A half-moon of rhubarb and teardrop of pickled ramp on a wheat-free triangle of crispbread (Pam got the Eleven Madison Park longtime signature of smoked sturgeon sabayon served in an eggshell).

The minimalist menu is a white square card. On it are four rows of a single ingredient. Row one read: Beet  Hamachi  Asparagus  Foie Gras. That’s the first course. I chose Foie Gras (with choice of hot or cold—I asked for chef’s choice). Pam went with Hamachi. Then we waited. In the meantime here comes a glistening quail’s egg atop a gluten-free cracker, accompanied by a cup of smoked-apple tea with a bundle of thyme steeping in it. The best apple cider I’ve ever had. The vinegary sweet melding with they yolky bite.

The foie gras arrived cold. In fact it looked like an elegant salmon salad. The liver had been cured, rolled, frozen, and shaved and was like…butter. It came with a blot of a dark sauce of soy, sesame and balsamic vinager and it went perfectly with the Morgon 2010, a fruity Beaujolais recommended by our attentive, fabulous server Chris Day.

Next up was Plantain. Something I ordered in down-and-dirty Caribbean spots. Here a slice is roasted, served with a ham-and-black-eyed-pea puree and topped with diced ham and peas. Sublime. After that I picked Pork—red-wine braised cheek and belly meat with a slice of guanciale, asparagus, peas and picked ramps, all topped with an acorn tuille.

Pamela had hamachi marinated with horseradish, fresh whey curdes with caraway gnocchi and spring herbs (it looked like a tiny garden on a plate), morels with tripe (a visual play—you could hardly tell the two apart) and snap peas.

We were dazzled, and dessert dazzled us even more: Chocolate sorbet with wheat- and dairy-free chocolate cake dotted with hazelnuts, and chamomile sorbet with coconut, jalapeño and lime sauce—they tiny daisy made the whole unbelievable fairy-glen composition.

During lunch Pamela told the waiter that in another lifetime I was an editor with the Time Out New York Eating+Drinking Guide (I took her on a review of Sushi Samba many moons ago). Maybe that’s what spurred what came next: A tour of the kitchen. We were beside ourselves (I’ve since learned that this is a regular offering for food fanatic diners). We were escorted through the servers’ chamber—which features artwork by staffers—to the gleaming, huge kitchen, shiny copper pots hanging above the stoves. The army of cooks was calm and collected. Captain Tim Belaus led us to a station where pastry chef Becky prepared us a dessert that involved using liquid nitrogen to turn apple jack into slush, and pomegranate sorbet into a frozen ball. She placed the ball atop the slush in a highball glass and Pamel and I promptly cracked them open. A frozen, intense version of the classic Jack Rose cocktail.

Executive sous chef Bryce Shuman chatted with us. How does he collaborate with Humm? “We all collaborate—but it’s always chef’s vision. He’ll have an idea and he’ll ask to see something, we make a rough draft, chef will taste it—and he’ll shoot it down,” Shuman said with a chuckle.

Hawai‘i eaters, if you take the new Hawaiian Airlines shuttle to New York, put Eleven Madison Park on your agenda. (You need to make reservations at least two weeks in advance.)

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