(entry not complete. Check my entry on Geoff's Twitchen for the final version. These are just my public notes!)
Pushing in through the heavy revolving doors, embellished with the restaurant's trademark 4 silver leaves, I was wondering the whole way over how much merit Frank Bruni's recent 4-star review held. I never take any critic's word for gold--not even NYT's, but I really don't like walking into my food adventures unprepared. I want to know what to look for to experience the restaurant, food cart, food truck, whatever it may be, at its fullest potential. (I'll start thinking about dropping into $70+pp meals "unprepared" more frequently when I have a fatter wallet and a slimmer waist)
Eleven Madison Park, now a member of the Danny Meyer empire, it was certain that the service would be great, as all his restaurants are famed for. Reaching the hostess desk and well into my first course, I actually felt awkward. The staff was attentive, but it was to a point where I felt every single floor staff's eyes following my every step, waiting to catch me if I tripped to be followed by very formal and very rehearsed-sounding lines with glued on smiles to see if I was alright. This all under the immensely high ceiling, I felt uncomfortable.. almost naked! But something was still different. It retained the formalities of a fine dining restaurants, from the ironed-cloth tables, the stiffly dressed patrons, and the strangely in-your-face waiters, but the atmosphere was still off. In a good way. Despite my initial feelings however, I get no sense of snootiness from the service. Danny Meyer trains them well. They're formal, but very welcoming and eager to serve.
Though what surprises me the most is not the service, but the whole experience. The menu was not extraordinary in the creative department. I wasn't as blown away by the creativity of the technique or ingredients as I've been at Dan Barber's work at Blue Hill, but the whole experience was nothing short of wonderful. It was an endless delight in my mouth. Don't order the angus beef as my date did though--what sensible food-lover would order that in such a place anyway? (see what I mean about doing even the smallest bit of research before hitting up a dining spot?)
The infamous round of amusebouches are served promptly, but I am still distracted by the salted goat's milk butter sitting next to our basket of sourdough. There are few places with starters that I fondly remember.. One being the perfect cow's milk butter at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and the other being Andrew Carmellini's fluffy sheep's milk ricotta drizzled with olive oil at Avoce. And now this simple goat's milk butter has just made it as the top three. Delectable. I forced myself to stop, lest I get full before the meal even starts, and begin with the amusebouche.
From left to right:
greenmarket radish: I always love the bright pink color of baby radish and the crunchy taste of summer to start was cleansing
salmon on cucumber: unmemorable, but it helps make the next piece even better...
strawberry over foie gras. The sweetbread in the pastry cone? I'm glad that was my last bite. Loved it.
Further notes (it's been 2 weeks since I've eaten here and I'm going to stop narrating this for you and just copy and paste my notes that I wrote after that night):
Foie gras paired with sauterne. heavenly
farm fresh egg, frog legs, truffles. excellent, but the foie gras steals the scene.
Halfway through my second course, I realize I've been scratching at my arm to unusual points. The one bump in my entire dining experience: a mosquito. I had four bites.. scratching furiously, waitress immediately comes over asking if I'd like a shawl, thinking I'm chilly.
My favorite personality is the Maître Fromager. after sparring a bit to see just how interested or perhaps how versed I was in cheese, he seemed to open up and act more naturally. The lines seemed less stiff and rehearsed and spoke as if we were simply acquaintances with a mutual adoration of cheese. What I love about American service is its casualness. Their willingness for conversation. Perhaps that's what threw me in for a loop when I first walked in. Nonetheless, with this fine cheese-man serving us, I instantly forgave the stiffness of the rest of the staff. Don't get me wrong, while they were stiff, their efforts seemed genuine. The same feeling you get when you see a little girl dressed in her mommy's clothes, earnestly trying to pass off as an adult. They were young, fresh bright smiling faces that seemed like were forcing out lines the way they wouldn't naturally flow.
Sauterne 93 paired with Twig Farm Soft Wheel (raw goat's milk, twig farm, VT- very lovely, very pungent just the way I like it. mushroomy), shaker blue (raw sheep's milk, Old Chatham NY- an aftertaste even I had trouble handling, but I love the creamy richness when I first bite), breibirousse d'argental (pasteurized sheep's milk, Lyon France- amazing. Absolute bliss when followed with the delectable sauterne. This cheese puts me on cloud 9).
classic menu items are usually overrated. esp in the dessert dpt. with the usual chocolate baked goods or creme brulee, but even after being completely filled to the brim with cheese and very much in heaven, I tell my date, "the dessert is going to have to be out of this world for me to be the slightest bit impressed after that amazing cheese run"
The dessert comes. I'm already disinterested when I see a chocolate covered bar with pretty gold foil--I'm not a chocolate person. My attention is caught by the popcorn and ice-cream though.. intrigued by their description on the menu. I go for the ice-cream first. I'm mind-blown. I've tried strange flavorrs before, but something about the popcorn flavored ice-cream just throws me in for anoher loop. I love it. This helps me decide to give the chocolate a chance. A bite. Peanut butter!!!! My date describes the dish (admittedly with less enthusiasm than me) as reminding him of Butterfingers. He's kind of right. Expensive butterfingers indeed. But you know what? I love Butterfingers. And I loved that popcorn ice-cream. And I love caramel... I ended my dessert by popping the few pieces of caramel popcorn to top it off. Perfect.
- all macarooned out after Lauduree in Paris a few months ago, but love their macaroons here.
I sadly missed out on the Sea Urchin Cappuccino and Duck.. but I'll be back.
Victoria's Rating: A+ (for Awesome Plus)
(article can also be found in condensed form at Geoff's Twitchen)