It was February 6th, 2014 and I was browsing an email newsletter from "I Know The Chef", a service that allows members to book prime time reservations at popular restaurants and receive VIP service. At the bottom of the email, a same day 7:45pm table for 4 at EMP opened up and was available.
My heart skipped a beat. I had recently picked up Danny Meyer’s book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business” which chronicles how he opened EMP as well as the challenges faced and lessons learned while employing the power of hospitality and service in the food industry.
Eating at Eleven Madison Park (ranked 4th in the world with 3 Michelin stars) has been a dream of mine ever since moving to New York in the summer of 2007. From my early exposure to Shake Shack, where I learned what a real quality burger tasted like, to the venerable Gramercy Tavern where I received some of the best service in recent memory, EMP would be the crown jewel that would meld both concepts at the highest level.
Without hesitation, and with 3 empty seats to fill, I had called and confirmed the reservation with IKTC’s Joshua Stern who was a pleasure to deal with. Luckily, over the next 2 hrs, I was able to find 3 of my friends willing to drop $225 for a dinner happening in a few hours.
At 7:45pm, we all arrived and marveled at the entrance tucked away just steps away from Madison Square Park’s Shake Shack.
We were greeted warmly by the host and as he led us to our table, I marveled at the high ceilings and the warm glow of soft light - a balance between formal and cozy.
The host saw that we had bags with us and within seconds, these hooks magically appeared out of thin air. They clamped on the tables and held our bags with ease. I’ve never seen anything like that before and thought it was the coolest thing in the world but my female companions assured me it was quite common. Still, bonus points for great service as most places wouldn’t do anything about your bags and assume you’d leave it on the dirty floor.
After settling in, we were given an envelope and a letter opener. None of us had any clue what was going on as we opened the envelope and 4 cards tumbled forth silently on the tablecloth. Each person at the table picks one ingredient and their forthcoming dishes would be built around that ingredient in different variations.
Our earl grey tea arrived shortly in these gorgeous ceramic cups and saucers handmade by Jono Pandolfi, a dinnerware designer who plies his trade from an abandoned factory in New Jersey and supplies dinnerware to some of NYC’s top restaurants such as EMP, Nomad, Atera and so on.
A gift box wrapped in twine was dropped off at our table and Sharon squealed like it was Christmas morning.
The box contained savory black and white cheddar cookies with apple filling which tasted like elevated Cheez-Its.
The oyster dish was not too briny and the creaminess of the vichyssoise worked hand in hand with the salinity of the caviar to produce a perfectly balanced bite. The table agreed that we could have put down a dozen more easily - what a tease to only experience one.
The next dish showcased EMP’s renown whimsicality. While the scallop, covered in a scoop of apple snow and marinated with pine and water chestnut, was cooked perfectly, the star of the dish was….the actual dish; an actual scallop shell that shined like a pearl.
The reason why the shell stayed put on top of Pandolfi’s plate is because it was wedged on a bed of sand (which isn’t edible, trust me).
The next dish was even more creative in terms of plating and flavor. What caught my attention first was the luminescent mother-of-pearl spoon wedged perfectly in the slot on the wooden block. Next to it, a cross section cylinder of bone, perfectly smooth to the touch.
As Claudine demonstrates in the photo below, simply puncture the creme fraîche disc with the spoon and scoop gently. You will be rewarded with the most tender bite of beef tartare with caviar and smoked bone marrow.
The theme of beef continued as four heavy wooden blocks with carefully inserted waxed butcher paper landed at our table with a satisfying thud. The dish paid an homage to New York delicatessens.
Set in front of us was a gourmet open faced sandwich with house cured pastrami, rye bread with mustard and endive. The best part of this dish was clearly the tender pastrami, clearly of the highest quality and even more luxurious in marbling than Katz’s Deli. Everyone took a few pieces and arranged it on top of our rye with mustard.
To wash down our sandwich, we were given housemade sodas based on the flavor we selected at the onset of the meal (my cranberry soda was perfectly tart).
While I understood the homage to such an important slice of New York culinary history, I couldn’t help but think that I could have just gone to Katz’s to get a pastrami sandwich because essentially this is what it was. It didn’t seem that “elevated” to me and I was mildly disappointed.
The bread course was delicious - house rolls with the flakiness of croissants served with duck fat butter and salt. In this instance, the limited quantity of one roll per person was probably for the best.
The next dish was a miss for me due to personal preference. I like my foie seared, the hunkier the lobe the better (like Betony’s). EMP’s foie gras, cured with sunchokes and served with fermented mustard greens, was rolled up delicately and wasn’t as foie-intense as I had hoped.
The rollercoaster continued and hit a snag. A Waldorf cookbook which looked marvelously aged was presented to the table along with a short description of the history of the recipe. A trolley cart containing the ingredients for the salad arrived at the table soon after.
We watched as the chef deftly sliced, diced, and prepped the celery, apple, cranberries, blue cheese, and walnuts.
After we finished the salad, the top of the bowl came off to reveal a hidden compartment containing granola and yogurt.
I wasn’t surprised to see a perfectly sized notch in the bowl to hold the spoon. These thoughtful details are present in each handmade piece by Pandolfi after a collaborative process in which the chef discusses his needs and purpose for each dish.
In an interview with Chris Malloy from January 2013, Pandolfi explains that "I factor in what the food is going to look like," he explains. "But it's more about working with the chef to understand their aesthetic. And then, to some extent, they're going to evolve and adapt to what you give them."
While this bowl exemplifies Pandolfi’s creativity and EMP’s desire to delight and surprise its diners, it could also serve as an example where there was more flash than substance. At the end of the day, fancy presentation and bowls aside, the course was boiled down to salad and granola.
After taking a stream of pictures, Claudine’s iphone battery was on its last legs. A server promptly dropped off an external charger so we could continue taking pictures. Really classy move.
This warm and fuzzy feeling was short-lived when the next dish was served two ways, first cold then hot. We were told that it was lobster, razor clams, sea urchin and kale but the portions were small even for a tasting menu. The cold version had lobster salad inside the claw, an uni panna cotta, and razor clams with pear and kale puree. For the warm version, after eating the 1 inch piece of amazing lobster tail, thumbnail-sized piece of uni, slice of pear, and the best piece of kale I’ve had, my stomach grumbled for the entree.
Enough foreplay already.
Our prayers were answered shortly after we finished the next course, a sphere of braised celery root sitting in a pool of the most intense black truffle jus. The celery root puree next to the sphere helped balance out the earthiness of this dish.
We looked up when a scent of lavender became stronger as the server brought by a copper pan with the signature dish, Lavender and Honey duck.
Rubbed down with honey, the duck is then sprinkled with a mixture of lavender, cumin, coriander, and Sichuan peppercorns. Thinking that the duck would be set down on the table for us to devour, I almost yelled “Wait, nooo!” when they took it back to the kitchen to carve.
While waiting on the duck, we imbibed a cup of umami-laden duck broth flavored with duck sausage and a cracker with gruyere. While I fantasized about eating 10 more of those crackers, our duck arrived. A generous slice of duck breast with roasted rutabaga and the most decadent jus. Loved the crackling skin flavored by all the spices, especially the Sichuan peppercorns and its numbing effect on my lips.
What’s this? A mini picnic blanket with a handsomely fashioned picnic basket and ceramic plates resembling paper plates? Hands down, the most inventive way to serve a cheese course.
We all smiled as we reached into the basket to retrieve the goodies: cow milk cheese by Jasper Hill Farms in Vermont, a bottle of Ithaca Beer Co’s Picnic Basket Ale that was brewed exclusively for EMP, a brick of dried fruit, a jar of onion marmalade, and a nice hunk of pretzel.
Now the onslaught of sweets. First we had one of the best desserts I’ve had all year, a sweet potato curd with espresso meringue and orange sorbet - perfect trifecta of sweet, bitter, and sour that made me want more dessert.
Our wish was granted when we had a tableside demonstration of Baked Alaska along with an explanation of the history behind the dish. To be honest, I was too mesmerized by the meringue that was enveloped by blue and orange FLAMES to pay attention to anything else.
After a moment, they returned with four plates of Baked Alaska, each one containing the ingredient we selected. My cranberry sauce had the perfect tartness to balance the sweet meringue although Claudine's maple version was pretty addictive.
We were nibbling on a rack of chocolate covered pretzels with sea salt and admiring our last parting gifts, sweet black and white cookies and a jar of their famous homemade granola when we were approached by the manager who let us know it was time for our kitchen tour.
I had a fanboy moment when I took a moment to read the motto that greets you right in the kitchen entrance.
I watched in awe as various kitchen staff began wiping down counters, leaving no crevice untouched.
The time was past 11pm and the whole brigade worked together as a team to keep things looking spotless as the last few remaining desserts went out.
Awaiting us was one last special surprise, a scotch sorbet using liquid nitrogen, ginger juice, honey syrup, Laphroaig scotch meringue.
Check out my video below for a glimpse of the process.
Four hours later, we were finished. Despite the highs and lows, I was still glad to have taken the journey along with my friends. The meal was entertaining with beautiful dinnerware that combined beauty and function, pairings of flavors I’ve never had, and concepts designed to engage the participants (picnic basket + the NYC deli homage) that might have looked great on paper but fell flat.
Tasting Menu: It took our party of four about four hours from start to finish so budget your time accordingly. There will be dishes that wow but some will be misses. Overall, still happy that they are constantly pushing the envelope and experimenting.
A la carte: If you want to try some dishes a la carte without the tasting menu, the bar has a limited menu and they take walk-ins.
Service is an integral part of any meal, even more so magnified and a source of pride for EMP. The staff was accommodating without being obtrusive and kept an eye on us in the shadows, only appearing magically when we needed them the most. Like ninjas.
Bang for Buck: For the price point, I expected more substance and larger portions. In comparison, a recent dinner in August at Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare yielded a bounty of my personal favorites: Hokkaido Uni with black truffle, Osetra caviar atop sweet corn sabayon, Norwegian King Crab with foie gras in egg custard, Maine lobster, roasted duck, Miyazaki A-5 wagyu, Golden Eye snapper with broccolini, chanterelles, and heart of palm. Each dish may not have been as creative but they scored high in the taste department.
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