Eleven Madison Park, the restaurant of chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara has a worldwide reputation. It has won all the accolades from Michelin’s 3 stars, four stars in the New York Times, not once but twice and is now ranked as the third-best restaurant in the world.
With such a reputation it is difficult to go wrong. The restaurant team and its chef are known for innovation but that innovation does not necessarily come from the cooking which is impeccable but is neither showy nor using the latest tricks to hide behind produce that might not always be exceptional. It rather comes from a boldness to be different and from creating a sense of fun in what some might consider to be the stiff world of high gastronomy.
Note: This is a spoiler alert. If you intend visiting Eleven Madison Park anytime soon, you might want to skip reading this as the element of surprise might be ruined.
What strikes you when you book a table at the restaurant is that there is the Tock booking system which means that you book and pay in advance of your experience. It is a system that is being used more and more and one which needs to be encouraged particularly as restaurants struggle with no shows.
The first impact with the restaurant is to a certain extent cryptic. What you notice when you visit the restaurant website is that there are no details in the menu section except that the chef will use seasonal ingredients. The element of surprise is kept till the end even if the staff go out of their way to find out about any allergies, food preferences or particular dislikes.
The impact when you arrive at the restaurant is also surprising. The atmosphere and noise feels like you have arrived in a buzzing brasserie or bistro. Indeed, the restaurant was a brasserie before it became a temple of high-end gastronomy.
The execution, the theatre at the table and the element of surprise are all things that leave a lasting impact on the dining experience at Eleven Madison Park. There were certainly no flaws with any of the dishes presented when we visited.
One word comes to mind when trying to define the dining experience at Eleven Madison Park. That word is cool. Where else would you have a surprise gift placed for you at table before you even arrive? Where else will you be given a chocolate puzzle to decipher after your dinner and where else will you be given a delicious gift to take back home with you?
It is in these details that the restaurant can be defined as cool. But it is also innovative and forward looking. When dining can look complicated, Daniel Humm and his team excel in keeping things simple. That level of simplicity is very deceptive until you taste the food. And then you are stunned not only by the quality of the ingredients but also the technique that is not visible but which is evidently there in the preparation of the dishes.
This was not cooking to show off but rather cooking to please the taste buds. My wife and I walking out of the restaurant reflected that some of the dishes may have been a bit too simple in terms of presentation. But this is a deliberate choice of the chef and one that you need to take into account. Ultimately what remains are memories. And those memories come from the exceptionally cooked lobster, from the egg benedict caviar and an aged duck breast that was crusted with honey, lavender and spices which to date remains the best duck I’ve eaten anywhere in the world.
The restaurant has a certain buzz to it. It’s busy, the acoustics also give you an impression of busyness and that works despite the fact that you might expect a certain amount of formality for a restaurant of this type. Could it work outside New York? Probably, but being in New York makes it all the more attractive.
A bit about the meal
We started off with a savoury cookie made with apple and cheddar which was served in a gift box that we found ready on our table.
The amuse-bouches that follow are parsnip pie with a crust that is delicious. It is thin and light and perfect. There is Rutabaga with Celery and Walnuts, Salsify with garlic and thyme and the star of the quartet, celery root prepared with black truffle.
The next dish is a clever take on Egg Benedict. In this case, the chef served a pickled egg yolk with caviar, eggs benedict with smoked sturgeon and diced ham and the English muffins to accompany the dish.
My wife ate scallops marinated with leek and potato while I had the sauted fois gras with smoked apple. Both dishes were perfect, the smoked apple balancing perfectly with the sweetness of the perfectly cooked fois gras.
What followed was a lobster that was smoked and steamed with fennel clams and bouillabasse. It was steamed in front of us and then finished in the kitchen. The flavours combined perfectly to make for another impeccable dish.
We were then served with a sweet potato smoked with mustard seeds and apple while I had delicata squash roasted with bone marrow and pumpkin seeds. In this case, the point of the dishes was not about the ‘luxury’ ingredients but rather showcasing what can be done with humble seasonal ingredients.
This preceeded the main course. Mine was the duck served with honey and lavender glazed with onion and plum. This is a dish which will remain etched in my memory for a very long time. My wife had a composition of mushrooms served with farro and onion. The two dishes were accompanied by brussels sprouts roasted with blood sausage and lemon and variations of parsnip with juniper.
The dessert was a poached apple with buckwheat toffee cake and apple sorbet which was another memorable dish. The second, a chestnut cheese cake with sweet potato custard and chestnut honey ice-cream was maybe less interesting particularly when compared to the freshness and acidity of the apple dessert.
To finish off, the restaurant served four different bars of chocolate made from cow’s milk, buffalo milk, goat’s milk and sheep milk and you have to guess which is which. Not as easy as it sounds but adds to the fun and is a memorable way to end the meal.
The meal ends with an Apple Brandy that is placed at your table and a chocolate Pretzel with sea salt which is so delicious you are tempted to ask for more.
Daniel Humm is at the top of the game. Here was a stunning example of what thinking outside the box really means.