After a night of a few too many Satan’s Circuses at The Library Bar and a sloppy cab-ride back to the hotel, I was in bed, loved but dehydrated, comfortable but doomed for the next morning. The inevitable hangover resulting from wine and whiskey and too much of both sent me dizzy across the room to the mini-fridge, gasping in futility for the sparkling water hours too late. Normally this wouldn’t have bothered me so much but I was visiting someone special for only 3 days, this morning being the last of those, and we would be having Chef Humm’s multi-course tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park for lunch. That would mean 4 hours of sitting in a naturally lit, white and floral room with other people, all wearing their Sunday best, with a constant stream of intricate dishes pouring forth to our table. These dishes deserved more than my numb, coated over taste buds. But I pulled it together, convincing my lunch companion that no, it will not be “torture,” and I ordered a Bloody Mary, which slapped me back into shape. Unintentionally, I also started a meal that would be focused on American cuisine in particular and ‘New York style fare with flare’ as its specific theme, with a pretty red-white-and-blue brunch beverage. While it didn’t exactly clear my palate at all, the horseradish and salty Worcestershire woke it up from a dormant state and insisted “Pay attention!” I did, however, choose to forego the wine pairing, a decision made particularly painful by my awareness of the Grand Award given to E.M.P. by Wine Spectator just last year and even more painful by the fact that my lunch companion couldn’t help but offer me sips of those beautiful Rieslings and Burgundies.
The tasting itself was very nicely composed, and never without thrill. The dishes, I thought, were not over-narrated at all, but instead explained just enough for us to understand; we were left alone often enough to explore what was in front of us without too much help. A stream of incredibly elaborate and smart dishes were punctuated with moments of simplicity and humility, moments designed with just as much, if not more, creative genius. There was table-side showmanship aplenty – things were mixed and ground and revealed in front of us. There was a marine biology lab and an anatomy lesson towards the middle. At the end, there was even a card trick. It was a history course of New York cuisine at times and a guide through the bounty of American agriculture always. It was educational and fun. Like going to a museum that doesn’t suck with someone you always have fun with. And it was definitely worth the switch to vertical, no matter how painful that was at first.
CHEDDAR: The tasting started with a savory take on a quintessentially New Yorker cookie (or so they say…), the Black and White, presented in a lovely little box tied with a ribbon. The flavors of the cookie also echoed Upstate NY – the sharp, salty cheddar biscuit and tangy apple fondant were reminiscent of the classic apple pie with cheddar baked into the crust. I appreciated the fact that we were left to figure this connection out ourselves instead of it being explained to us. A yummy little treat to get us excited.
OYSTER: A juicy, plump raw Long Island oyster that was glazed and topped with wood sorrel leaves, some crunchy toasted buckwheat and a mignonette of vinegar, shallots and pepper, which was converted into a snow. I really enjoyed the mignotte as snow, because it added an extra icy-cool shiver to the oyster, which was already very refreshing and cold. The buckwheat added an unexpected crunch and a hint of nuttiness, which didn’t overpower the sweetness or that beautiful marine brine of the oyster. The experience was almost like biting into an oyster snow cone.
CRANBERRY: A light salad course whose creativity I appreciated and whose subtle patriotism made me smile. But altogether, this one was a bit painful on my palate (maybe just because of the condition I was in…). Dish #2 was a reinvention of the classic roasted beet and goat cheese salad which, while I think is originally a French dish, is brought home with the addition of cranberries. Nothing more American than cranberries (cranberry sauce at Thanksgiving, Cosmopolitans sipped by those four old hags on Sex in the City…), which explains why it was the name of the dish. The essence of the berry existed in this dish mainly in the form of a light blanket of snow which was crumbled atop some beet snow and tiny cubes of roasted beet which were in turn nestled in a cushion of goat cheese foam. Some caraway seeds were also thrown in there and reminded me of rye bread, which would’ve been a nice accompaniment to the salad this was a version of. I found the texture and temperature contrast interesting and the dish itself was very pretty. However, the taste was not for me. I missed the warmth and grill-char of roasted beets, without which the beets left just a mineral, dirty earth flavor in my mouth. The cranberry snow was also a bit too acidic for me and, when combined with the afore mentioned beet flavors, was almost painful.
SEA URCHIN: Next up, a silky smooth, creamy, bright orange custard of sea urchin with a very tender and subtle little baby squid and a Bay Scallop. An apple foam was added for some tang without the texture and a thin slice of green apple for both. The murky, kind of (almost) sick sweetness of the urchin was extracted very well and displayed on a comforting, velvety soft custard. The “baby seafood” playing around in this pool were very tender, soft but with a firm snap in the bite. The apple foam was great because its acidity perked up the palate-dulling sweetness of the urchin. A nice treatment of urchin, though a showcase more of craftsmanship than art.
STURGEON: Part 1. An egg shell filled with a savory take on the classic Italian zabaione (known in Italian resto’s in the U.S. as zabaglione), a light and ultra-airy egg custard which is more often a dessert. This one was laced with cubes of smoked sturgeon, which had the firmness of a juicy chicken breast and no particularly fishy flavor, but only a slight smokiness. The bottom of the egg shell contained a neat surprise, a bit of chive oil, which had to be scooped out with the sabayon. The latter had a very intense, green chive flavor which lifted up the smokey flavors of the cubed fish.
STURGEON: Part II, as part of a deconstruction of the traditional New York deli classic, smoked fish on an everything bagel with cream cheese. This dish was more of a spread, with things to choose from, rather than combine all in one bite. Sturgeon smoking in a bell jar above applewood embers, the fumes of which lingered even after the top was removed. A little tin of green Malossol Caviar cleverly pre-arranged with a fluffy layer of whipped cream cheese right below it. An adorable little jar of house-pickled dill cucumbers. A little plate with a piece of romaine sprinkled with some sesame and poppy seeds, a tiny ring of pickled red onion and a half hard-boiled quail egg. Some rye toast to layer all this on, in one’s own preferred combination. While I loved this dish, I thought the caviar was a tad unnecessary, as its salty, murky flavor stole the show when combined with the delicately smoky sturgeon, taking the attention off the protagonist of the spread. I ended up making one bite with the rye toast, egg, cream cheese and caviar and one with rye toast, sturgeon, onion, crumbled and lettuce (with the pickled on the side). My lunch companion and I did have a lot of fun with this dish though and appreciated that our waiter didn’t completely explain all of it, besides just stating that this was, in fact, an “Everything Bagel with Smoked Fish.”
And after a few “snacks,” the bread and butter, served in a burlap towel. The crescent rolls themselves were already very buttery and flaky, like a slightly firmer croissant. Thick, velvety smooth house-made butter, one flavored with sage, the other made with the fat of the aged wagyu we would enjoy as our main course. A really clever way to get us interested and hungry for the beef.
SCALLOP: Opened in front of us and demonstrated to us, still alive, as per the request of the kitchen. Like after tasting the first sip of a bottle of wine ordered for the table, my lunch companion and I both kind of nodded in approval. Then, prepared four ways and plated beautifully. There was a tender, plump juicy sweet disk of scallop grilled, with surprisingly crunchy, caramelized grill grooves left in its delicate skin. This and a very delicate disk of raw scallop sashimi was sitting in a combination of cubed, steamed scallop and an apple gelee that added a nice acidity to balance out the sweetness of the scallop. As a fulfillment of my savvy lunch companion’s request, they served us the scallop ‘nads as well. These had a great consistency, a little rubberier on the outside than I was expecting but smooth and mushy on the inside, with a distinctive briny taste. The deep red-orange hue of the scallop caviar also lit up the dish and made it all the more beautiful, even more so with the paper-thin radish slices and edible flowers it was decorated with.
CARROT: Around halfway through the meal, a server attached a metal meat grinder to the side of our table, and shortly after brought us each a board with tiny little bowls containing various traditional and not-so-traditional steak tartare accompaniments, as well as two little squeeze bottles. Next, a single, whole cooked carrot was brought to the table on a plate and then fed into the grinder to produce a thick, baby-food mush of the vibrant orange carrot. The idea behind it shined through clearly – a steak tartare with all of its accoutrements except using a meaty vegetable in the place of beef, employing a preparation which is traditionally Eastern European or French (although I guess steak tartare can also be considered a New York steakhouse classic) but on an ingredient that is rooted (no pun intended) to New York’s Hudson Valley, the Paffenroth Farms carrot. The place from whence this carrot hails is known for its deep, rich black soil which retains some of the minerals of the lake that once occupied the area, resulting in veggies with very deep, mineral flavor. The accompaniments to choose from were apple mustard, sunflower seeds, a raw quail egg yolk, smoked bluefish, chives, mustard grains, freshly grated horseradish, pickled apple cubes and sea salt, as well as the two squeeze bottle condiments, a mustard oil and a spicy carrot emulsion. A very thin slice of rye bread was also included to slap the carrot mash on, once you’ve flavored it with the add-ons of your choice. I had mixed opinions on this dish. While I really enjoyed combining the deep earthy flavor and the sweetness of the carrot with all of the different elements of the board, it ended up being a bit too light for me and I missed the meat, wishing I could poke that bright yellow yolk over blood red flesh instead of what I could not help knowing was a humble root vegetable. The sweetness of the carrot was also off-putting and no matter how much sea salt and mustard oil I mixed in it lingered, clashing with the smokiness of the bluefish and the clean heat of the horseradish.
LOBSTER: This course was by far one of my favorites. Tight-skinned, crisp claw meat poached in plenty of lemon-flavored beurre blanc to bring out the creamy smooth texture and sweetness of the flesh. Around the lobster meat were a few stems of charred leek, which were smokey from the grill, sweet where caramelized and spicy, fresh where left green. The root-end of these leeks were fried until they were crispy (much like pan-fried noodles) and covered with some kind of charred herb, to give one the illusion of the leeks having been pulled freshly out of the soil. These crunchy elements were a great contrast to the delicate texture of the lobster flesh. There was also a beautiful, jet-black bisque of shellfish with squid ink added (no doubt) for color. This had a beautiful briny, salty twang to it, which acted as the deliciously evil step-brother of the angelic beurre blanc. A wonderful and visually stunning seafood entree.
PARSNIP: Surprisingly, this was one of our favorite dishes, flavor-wise. The parsnips were roasted until moist and tender, and topped with sesame seeds and proso millet (better known as bird-feed) whose nuttiness brought out the somewhat similar nutty sweetness of the vegetable. There was a crispy, thin parsnip chip stuck into the soft flesh of the roasted parsnip, the juxtaposition cleverly echoing the versatility of this under-used ingredient. A beautiful green parsley sauce was also included on the dish and added a nice herbal freshness and zing to the sweet, caramelized flesh of the parsnip.
SPOILER! 140 day dry-aged beef. Coming up next…
BEEF: And on to the big ta-da!, preceded by a dish that did not look like much at first, but turned out to be the one we would talk about the most, weeks after the meal. A broth made of the 140 day dry-aged beef we were about to have as our main. The essence of this beautifully funky, musky beef already peeped out at us somewhat shyly in the butter served with the crescent rolls. It came back full-force and showed us the good stuff in this warm beef broth. The broth was intended as a palate teaser and it sure did it’s job. It had incredibly deep, salty and musky flavor with the very soul of the beef seemingly trapped within the dense but clear liquid. Warm and salty and comforting, with the added fun of sipping it like a tea instead of fooling around with a silly little spoon. Liquid gold, pretty much.
BEEF: And then it came, with all its funky grandpa musk, a chunk of prime rib served rare and one served well done. The two pieces were separated by some delicate but gummy grilled chanterelle mushrooms. Some of the cooking liquid from the beef was flavored with cherry (if I recall correctly) and made into a very flavorsome jus on the bottom. I appreciated that the well done portion was left alone, its flavor and texture maintained in pure form for us to taste. The rare piece, however, had some micro-crisp toasted amaranth on top which added a wonderfully crunchy and busy texture to the bloody meat, waking up the palate a bit to focus on the flavor expressed in the flesh. It also had a disk of bone marrow lain on top, flavored with sage, which hydrated the already very juicy beef, making it all the more buttery and smooth.
BEEF: As a side dish, a small cup of a rather upscale shepherd’s pie – a smooth, creamy puree of potato flavored with rich foie gras and some braised oxtail lurking on the bottom. The oxtail was incredibly tender and fell apart into juicy, moist shreds of meat with the perfect amount of flavorful braising liquid around it. The combination was sensational and probably the most comforting out of any of the dishes we tried. It was, in my opinion, a bit too extravagant to be a side dish. It was probably a play on the classic steak and mashed potato dinner, but the oxtail was so salty and delicious that it took maybe a bit too much attention off the dry aged beef, which clearly was the protagonist not just of the entree but of the entire meal. But what I would do to have some of this stuff in the fridge right now…
GREENSWARD: Next up, an afternoon picnic in Central Park, with a pale wheat ale in the midst of it all. A cute little basket was brought to our table and introduced as “everything you need for a picnic,” which encouraged us to explore the contents for ourselves. Inside we found a bottle of deliciously hoppy Picnic Basked Pale Ale, produced by Ithaca Beer Company specifically for E.M.P., a coarse salt speckled, chewy pretzel which used the aforementioned ale as its yeast component, some pumpkin mustard which was flavored with the ale, and a little box containing a pungent brie whose rind was washed in the ale as well. It was nice to see beer utilized to the full of its potential and in such a creative way. Also, if E.M.P. is encouraging guests to drink beers in a park in the U.S., I’m fully on board with that suggestion…
MALT: Next came a traditionally New Yorker dessert drink, the egg cream, which became particularly popular in Manhattan soda fountains in the 1960s, along with its more indulgent cousin, the milkshake. A cart was pushed out and it was prepared in front of us. Malted milk syrup, vanilla beans and milk are combined in an ironically casual Libbey tumbler, which is then filled to the brim with seltzer from an old-school seltzer bottle (which brought me back to Argentina with a violent fit of nostalgia). If I remember correctly, a few drops of olive oil were also added to the foam, for a mature, green, kind of nutty flavor. Egg creams are not really my thing at all, as the thinning of milk with water creeps me out for some reason, but I very much appreciated the showmanship of the dish and it did effectively switch my lunch companion and me into dessert-mode.
MAPLE: With a New Yorker theme running through the entire meal, I was hopeful for Bourbon as either a digestif or a dessert ingredient. I got it. Thick, sweet maple syrup already very rich in flavor, barrel aged with Bourbon, which gave it an additional depth. Truly a heavenly combination… The syrup was drizzled over a light, creamy milk shaved ice, which soaked it up and diluted the rich, aged flavor just a bit. Below the ice were a few crunchy layers of maple pecan praline that were sweet but did not stick to my teeth too much. This, in my opinion, was meant to be a reinvention of Bourbon pecan pie and had all those toasty, roasty flavors I love about the latter dessert, but with a more interesting texture.
WALNUT: New York Cheesecake. A cliche but one that exists for a reason. Eleven Madison Park’s version was made with a dense swirl of sheep’s milk cheese perched atop a vibrant maroon Port gelatin, which had a very aged, sweet flavor and a sweetness which contrasted well with the acidity of the cheese. There were also small gelatinous cubes of a thick, walnut-flavored paste which added a nice smokey element to round out the flavors already expressed in the dessert.
As we eyed the dessert hungrily, a waiter also brought over a deck of cards with an ingredient displayed on each card, and asked us to choose one each out of the pile. Then, after a few seconds of slight-of-hand nonsense, he reveled that there was a piece of chocolate flavored with the ingredient on the card we picked hiding under our dessert bowl. And there it was, a piece of dark chocolate flavored with hazelnuts (for my Nutella-loving pleasure). My lunch companion picked buttered popcorn and his chocolate was on point with the flavoring as well. While I thought the trick was a bit gimmicky and corny, it did remind me of a street performer (a fast-talking wise guy) entertaining rush-hour pedestrians on Broadway and thus, it seemed to keep in line with the whole New York theme.
PRETZEL: But after the magic trick, it was still not over. Out came a wonderfully crisp pretzel, covered in dark chocolate and speckled with coarse sea salt. Served along with it was some Apple Brandy which I could not indulge in due to my unfortunate condition… But it smelled fantastic.
CHOCOLATE: And it ended as it had started, but sweeter. A Black and White cookie, this time coated with the traditional vanilla and chocolate fondant, with a layer of tangy and sweet apricot jam in the middle. Fruity, sweet and light. The perfect end to the meal.