December 21, 2009 | BITE: My Journal

Starshine at Eleven Madison Park

Our captain is serious and psychic about our cheese needs. Photo: Steven Richter
Our captain is serious and psychic about our cheese needs. Photo: Steven Richter

        I am at Eleven Madison Park this wintry evening fulfilling an auction pledge, waiting for the couple who bought my reviewing dinner for two. “Welcome. We’re expecting you,” says the hostess as we arrive. Well, of course, it’s me, you’ll say.  But as we are offered a choice of waiting in the bar or in a lounge I never noticed before, I watch her. She is expecting everyone. A parade of suits come by to back her up at the check-in.  Even walk-ins get a welcome. There seems to be a small executive army marching the aisles, conferring, whispering, eagle-eyeing. Runners deliver trays. Waiters and captains rush in to place dishes on the table in unison. This is not just the fabled Danny Meyer service (which I have sometimes seen falter). It’s a kind of theater, the theater of four stars. At first it’s a bit too much for this paranoid New Yorker, so many smiles, the perky greetings, the bows and scrapes, it’s an American parody of Michelin three star service – friendlier, a little too much. But then I relax and decide to just wallow in it and discover it’s not a parody at all, it’s a deliberate translation. I suppress a nervous giggle because it’s real. In August, Frank Bruni said farewell to restaurant critiquing, dropping four stars here. Now, there’s no reticence. They’re playing four stars at a competitive level. 

Too pretty? Avocado-wrapped Hawaiian prawns is a revelation. Photo: Steven Richter

        The room was always spectacular, but in 1998 when I first reviewed Eleven Madison for New York, it looked out at the noxious bramble of  desolation that was Madison Park before Meyer spurred the community to tame and restore it. The room was scrawny and awkward like a suddenly-too-tall adolescent. But something amazing has happened. The light has changed. The space is different. The details are impeccable. Is it possible the charming pastel frieze is new? Or simply more visible now? Eleven Madison Park has grown into its bones. Meyer had thought it should be a brasserie. Then one day he decided the space called for something more grand.

       That’s when Swiss born Daniel Humm moved into the kitchen with five of his staff from Camden Place in San Francisco and a quiet evolution began. I picked up the approving hum and dropped by. But I was put off by carrot sorbet and five foams of which only one had its own flavor. The miniscule rectangle of pig that had people raving annoyed me. Dollhouse food.

         Then, this year, at Daniel Boulud’s annual benefit came a shock of exquisite, barely jelled shrimp by Humm that took me back to crustacean miracles I remembered from the legerdemain of the Swiss legend, Frédy Girardet. So now we’re back. A server brings a small bowl of warm gougères to eat while we wait. A fresh bowl and the chef himself welcome our guests. 

         “Do we have any aversions or allergies?” Humm asks. Clearly his hand will be on every plate. We are still sipping Champagne when the amuse bouche arrives. A collection of whimsical twists on dessert: beet root marshmallow with vinegar powder, a macaroon of apple and foie gras, celery root and goat cheese napoleon with Meyer lemon and black truffle, fried sweetbread in a mini cone. Amusing indeed.

Sea urchin cappuccino with Peekytoe crab is not my uni dream. Photo: Steven Richter

        Sea urchin is a sure way to my heart so I’m shocked that sea urchin cappuccino with Peekytoe crab and celery root is cool and lacking essential brine. The Hawaiian prawn roulade, an upscale play on a California roll, wrapped in overlapping avocado scales and jeweled with pansy petals and sorrel leaves could easily get away with just being pretty. But it’s a delicious riot of textures and flavor as I drag it through a rivulet of Greek yogurt dotted with crab roe.

        It’s the fashion now to roll Dover sole.  Never mind how glorious it once was laid out like a fish, simply grilled at the old long-gone Pavillon.  Here, with brioche crust, a purée of nasturtium and a sabayon of Matsutake mushrooms, its majesty suffers. It’s just a fish. But I like the chef’s fetish for serving the mushroom both raw and cooked on the same plate. I’m weighing how I feel about his addiction to flowers.

This small rectangle is chef Humm’s signature suckling pig. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve nothing but cheers for the iconic crackle-topped rectangle of suckling pig meat, except it’s still too small, and apple saffron purée cider jus is too sweet for me. Not that I’m hungry. I can scarcely do justice to the next dish, splendidly rare herb-roasted venison with its complex purée of vegetable brunoise and gingerbread, black trompette mushrooms and black mission figs – again raw and cooked. I’ve already eaten enough and drunk more than I meant to, tempted by wine director John Ragan’s brilliant choice of provocative wines, especially generous because our guests are regulars and wine collectors too.

Gingerbread puree and figs two ways accent herb-roasted venison. Photo: Steven Richter

        I try to resist the rolling temptation of the cheese cart. But our captain adds an irresistible creamy plop to Steven’s choices and I slip into you-only-live-once mode. It’s three hours now and I’m getting my second wind. “Kir Royale” – cassis, lemon, meringue chunks and Champagne emulsion - arrives in a glass atop a ceramic pillow. Is it awkward and silly? (“We have an artist in Brooklyn doing some plates for us,” Humm tells me next day).  There is fig carpaccio, too, with ricotta and candied proscuitto.  And a ganache of Araguani chocolate (Valrhona’s blend of two rare Venezuelan cocoa beans) with sweet potato Dauphine and chestnut honey.

Could you resist that lovely ooze? I couldn’t. Photo: Steven Richter

        Macaroons arrive in seven creative flavors: violet, peanut butter and jelly, salted caramel popcorn, cocoa nib. I don’t taste them all. Just most. And then the gels and truffles that come after. It feels like we’ve been here for hours.  Indeed, we came on Friday and it’s Saturday now. I can’t say just any meal at Eleven Madison will come close to ours. I’d like to see Humms’ food get simpler. You may love it just the way it is.  Clearly Bruni did. 

***

Now all the changes live up to the room’s lovely bones. Photo: Steven Richter

        “I felt I’d underestimated this gorgeous volume of space as a brasserie,” Meyer says.  “It was successful but I wanted it to be grand.” In 2005 Meyer had asked his partner Richard Coraine to do a cross country search for a new chef. When Coraine said Humm’s food stood out, “I hightailed it to Camden Place,” Meyers recalls. “Daniel’s sophistication belies his age. I wasn’t thinking stars. But Daniel had four stars at Camden Place and he is highly aspirational. The Marathon. Pike Peak. Whatever he puts his mind to.”

         Humm is clear: “Our goal was to create a four star for the new generation, not so stuffy. Great servers are important but it should be fun, too.” It was decided to make all their changes slowly and subtly without announcing it. Designers Bentel and Bentel took the room down to 110 seats from 170. Banquettes came out. New chairs and tables arrived. The big wheels previously devised to add light on the landmark interior came down and tubes carrying light softened the room. A glass wall opened up the bar. A lounge arrived to the left of the entrance. Flower designer Roberta Bendavid got a bigger allowance for flowers. “Everything changed,” says Humm: silver, glasses, china, the logo, web site, business card. “The only thing we didn’t change was the name.” Of the menu, only the gougères remain.

         In my first review for New York magazine, I wrote, "Odds are, Danny Meyer and his Union Square partners will be fussing with Eleven Madison till it works."  I could never have guessed.

Eleven Madison Park at 24th Street. 212 889 0905. Lunch two course tasting $28.  Dinner three course prix fixe $88, five course tasting $125, eleven course tasting $175. Lunch Monday to Friday noon to 2 pm. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:40 to 9:30 pm’ Friday and Saturday to 10 pm.

 

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