I have lost count of how many times we’ve been to Eleven Madison Park. But no matter. Each time we walk through the revolving doors and into that grand space, I’m struck anew at how gorgeous it is! It also feels like home because we have come to look upon the entire staff as family and they, in turn, treat us as such. By words and deeds, they are always as pleased to see us as we are thrilled to be there.
While we never need a special reason for going to EMP, it is always high on our list of choices for special occasions. This year, as last, it was M’s choice for celebrating his birthday in January. Thus, on a bitterly cold Monday evening, we arrived on the dot for our 8 p.m. reservation. We were immediately warmed by the smiling welcome from the ladies at the reception desk, as well as from the two dining room managers, Robert Kihlstrom and Megan Vaughn. Charming and vibrant, they both love what they do, and that zeal is always evident in their behavior, not just towards us, but towards all EMP patrons.
Although we usually don’t disclose to restaurants – even EMP — the fact that we are celebrating a special occasion, I accidentally let that information slip out when we had dinner with friends there in December. As it turned out, I’m glad I did because the staff had a surprise up their proverbial sleeve.
Just after we shed our outerwear, Robert (who had slipped away) returned holding a bottle of Champagne and informed us that Chef Daniel Humm was away, but Executive Sous Chef Fabian Beaufour was inviting us to join him in the kitchen at The Pass for hors d’oeuvres and a Champagne toast. “Would you be amenable to that?” Robert asked. Amenable? Was he kidding?! Like we were really going to turn down such a special invitation!
Buoyant with anticipation, we followed Robert into the kitchen where we were greeted by a beaming Fabian. All around us, there was the quiet hum of activity at the various stations. At one of them, I noticed a chef carefully dismembering a roasted whole duck and carefully carving the breast meat. Though we weren’t going to have that signature dish this particular evening, we’ve had it a number of times before, so seeing the preparation-in-action of what is truly one of the most luscious ducks on the planet Earth definitely got my appetite juices flowing.
We were provided with the plate of hors d’oeuvres and the little bowl of gougères normally served when diners are first seated at their table. Robert poured Champagne for the three of us, and we toasted M. I gobbled up all my delectable hors d’oeuvres and a few of the wonderful gougères to boot. But M only had one of his during our short kitchen visit, so the rest, along with the gougères and our unfinished Champagne, were brought to the table. Chatting with Fabian, we learned that Chef Humm was in Paris doing a stage in a hotel kitchen there as part of an “exchange” program. Although we were sorry he was away, we had every confidence that Fabian and the rest of the kitchen staff would provide us with a superb dining experience as has happened in the past when Chef Humm has been absent.
Approaching “our” table, I noticed sitting on it a propped up envelope. I immediately suspected it was from one of our very special friends, “the ulterior epicure,” who loves surprising us on special occasions. Seeing the handwriting, my suspicions were confirmed. On the front of the card, there was a hand-drawn string of wine glasses. The note inside read: “Life’s a wall (of wine) – so drink up!” We were pretty certain this meant he had made arrangements for the evening’s wine to be a gift, which was, indeed, the case when the bill arrived. A lovely, generous gesture which we both very much appreciated!
The “wall of wine” thingy is an inside joke. We discovered that when doing wine pairings, u.e. does not consume all the wine in every glass. Instead, he drinks just a little, then lines up the glasses. M started doing the same thing and dubbed the line-up, “The u.e. Wall of Wine.” We were about to embark on the 11-course Gourmand menu, which meant there would be 10 glasses of wine. When apprised of what M intended to do, our servers assisted in lining them up. It was a bit tricky because our corner table is a relatively small square, so eventually, instead of being a straight line, the wall became an “L” shape.
The Gourmand is no longer a printed part of the regular menu. Instead, it is now “Chef Daniel Humm’s Selection of Eleven Courses.” In essence, an evening of culinary surprises. They do, of course, take into consideration any allergies or dietary restrictions diners may have. (We have none.) And in my case, they are aware that there are a few foods which I won’t eat — for example, caviar – and always abstain from serving me those. At the end of the evening, we were provided with two printouts of the menu, including the wine pairings.
As we were to discover, the Gourmand is not a “start from scratch” menu but, instead, is built upon the 5-course seasonal tasting menu. Now here’s the thing. Back in December, friends of ours had reservations for dinner at EMP. We arranged to meet this couple for drinks at EMP, and then we had reservations for dinner down the block at Tabla while they were staying for dinner at EMP. However, once we were together, our friends insisted that we join them for dinner. It was hard for us to protest, especially after Robert Kilstrom, who was on duty that evening, said there would be no problem seating us, and that he would take care of cancelling our Tabla reservation. After perusing the menu, the four of us agreed to do the 5-course Winter Tasting and requested the addition of one item that is not currently on that menu but is on the 3-course prix-fixe: the foie gras terrine.
I think it’s obvious where this is going. Although M and I knew we would be doing the Gourmand in January, there was no way for us to know in December how it was composed. Thus, there were some dishes which were exactly like what we had in December, dishes modified in some way, and those which were completely new to us.
Here is the menu:
Royale Sterling Caviar
Timbale with Lightly Smoked Crème Fraiche and Balik Salmon
Dewazakura, Daiginjo, Yamagata Prefecture
Lobster and Lobster Broth
Liquid Sphere with Lynnhaven “Chèvre Frais”
Fruits de Mer
Ceviche with Satsuma Tangerine and Tarragon
Milz Laurentiushof, Trittenheimer Felsenkopf, Spätlese, Mosel-Saar-Ruwer 2006
Foie Gras Terrine
Mille-Feuille with Chicken and Black Truffles, Mushroom “Salad,” Foie Brulée and Brioche
Château d’Yquem, Sauternes, Bordeaux 1995
Coconut Poached with Shellfish Nage and Madras Curry
Raymond Usseglio, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhone Valley, France 2007
Nova Scotia Lobster
Poached with Crustacean Sabayon, Celery and Meyer Lemon
Latour Labille, Clos des Meix Chavaux, Monopole, Meursault, Burgundy 2005
Roasted with Riesling Poached Grapes, Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Oats
Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier, Clos de la Maréchale, Premier Cru, Monopole, Nuits-Saint-Georges, Burgundy, France 2004
Black Angus Beef
Glazed Short Ribs and Tenderloin with Jerusalem Artichokes
Château Deyrem Valentin, Margaux 1998 (en magnum)
Sorbet with Pineapple and Caramelized Puffed Rice
Jaillance, Clairette de Die, Rhone Valley, France
Gateaux with Coffee and Piedmontese Hazelnut Sorbet
Fèlsina, Vin Santo, Chianti Classico, Tuscany, Italy 2000
With the exception of the cheese course, when we made our selections from the cart, the entire latter part of the menu, beginning with the meat course, was an exact duplicate of the Winter Tasting Menu.
To be honest, beef is usually not the first thing I think of ordering in restaurants. Lamb, duck and other birds, such as squab and pheasant, are more my thing. However, if I am going to have beef, this is the way I want it! A tenderloin, its rosiness attesting to its having been cooked medium rare the way I prefer (though nobody had asked us), so flavorful and tender that a knife becomes dispensable. And those short ribs! Surely, they must have fallen completely off bone without being prodded before being plated. How amazingly soft and delectable! Along with the Jerusalem artichokes, there were some puréed potatoes. The plate was finished with a rich and very flavorful sauce – Bordelaise, perhaps? — spooned at the table. We were told that there was some guanciale, but I’d not sure how it was used. Overall, considering how satisfying this dish was, I didn’t mind one bit that it was a repeat.
Finger Bowls are not ubiquitous these days, but leave it to Chef Humm to make his look good enough to eat! In December, when the small bowls were placed in front of us, we all assumed it was a pre-dessert. Well, we all know what happens when one “assumes”… How embarrassing that would have been if we had dug in! The little white roll, accompanied by a sprig of thyme and flower petals, is a small towel. After the server poured a little liquid into the bowl, we unrolled the moistened towelette and freshened our hands. Cute and fun!
When I first tasted the white miso sorbet in December, I found the flavor strange. It certainly wouldn’t have made the top of my list of sorbet choices. But it didn’t completely turn me off. And as I continued to eat it in combination with the pineapple and puffed rice, it kind of grew on me. It was light and quite refreshing, as a pre-dessert should be. My reaction after having it a second time was pretty much the same.
We first had the Caraibe Chocolate Gateaux just after it was put on the menu in October during my pre-birthday lunch. Always excited to try new desserts, we ordered it along with another new one (the pastilla) and shared them. Then, we had it again in December. So, this was the third time. Frankly, I was a bit disappointed. While it is delicious – chocolate and coffee are a winning combination, and this creation is not overly sweet or cloying – chocolate desserts are almost never my first choice, my preferences running towards fruity desserts and those with crusts. M, who was seriously flagging at this point, took only a few bites and commented that he wished he had asked for sorbet instead. While I had no trouble finishing, it had kind of lost it charms for me. Although there was no other dessert on the menu that evening we’d not had before, if I’d had to choose a repeat, it would definitely have been the quark soufflé – one of my all-time favorite EMP desserts. Not a chance I could ever get tired of it!
Speaking of repeats brings me to near the beginning of the menu, specifically to the second course, the Heirloom Beets. This was the fourth time we’ve had what we’ve dubbed “the spoons.” Included in two Gourmand dinners we had during the first half of ’08, the third time, it was a gift from the chef during our dinner in December. (Note: Our friends had never had it before, so it was new to them.) The super-smooth chevre followed by the “chaser” of beet juice bathed in wine vinegar is ever the palate tingler. However, we remarked to the staff that, at least for us, they might consider “retiring” it, please? They completely understood how we felt. Several mentioned that Chef Humm has, in the past, done a similar presentation using mozzarella and tomatoes, and that he would probably bring it back when the tomato season is again in full bloom. Somehow, we have managed to miss that. It sounds delectable, so we do hope to have the chance to experience it come this summer.
Another repeat was the foie gras terrine. But this was not really anyone’s fault but our own. Though it is on the 3-course menu, it is not on the Winter Tasting, so had we not asked for it to be added as an additional course in December, it would have been completely new. However, the kitchen did go out of its way to add a few very special touches just for us. As previously, the terrine was accompanied by a “Mushroom Salad.” However, in addition, they brought back an “oldie but goodie” — the foie brulée, which I always adored. Finally, there was the gilding of the proverbial lily by topping the brioche with a salted truffle.
As the self-styled “Foie Gras Queen,” for me, there is no such thing as too much foie gras! And this foie preparation is so spectacular that I could not imagine uttering even one peep of a complaint. Poor us! Having to have this ultra-smooth, mind-blowingly flavorful terrine again! Poor us! Having to endure, yet again, that died-and-gone-to-heaven brulée. And the sinfully delicious taste of that salted truffle! Horrible to end up swooning with delight!
That delight completely spilled over when it came to the wine pairing. At the beginning of the meal, M mentioned that when it came to the wine pairing for this course, he wouldn’t mind if he could again have the Château d’Yquem from the special “Page $28” available during lunch service. And so, the birthday boy’s wish was granted when the wine pairing turned out to be the Château d’Yquem, Sauternes, Bordeaux 1995. Since I have come to like sweet wines, I requested and was served a glass for myself. I drank some and saved the rest for dessert.
There was one other repeat dish, though with a slight change. That was the fifth course in which the turbot was substituted for the John Dory. In December, there was a major problem. Once they had completed pouring the nage at the table and I took my first bite, I discovered that the fish was stone cold, and the nage was barely tepid. With profuse apologies, our plates were whisked back to the kitchen, then returned a few moments later, completely plated and at the perfect temperature. Fabulous! This time, the temperature was still, in my view, not quite correct – happily, not cold but still not really hot enough for my taste – though we did not send it back. Nevertheless, the turbot was cooked to an appropriate firmness. The nage was again spooned tableside. And once again, the coconut and curry combo was a taste sensation, aided and abetted by bits of lemongrass (or was it cilantro?). A topping of crushed peanuts was a crunchy foil against the smooth texture of the nage. So, despite the temperature issue (which I did mention to Nathan, our captain), a superb dish!
As I’ve mentioned, there were some entirely new dishes.
The Gourmand traditionally starts with a caviar dish. Dispensing with the previous egg creations, Chef Humm went in a different direction. A circular disk of crème fraiche was the base for a layer of Balik salmon capped completely with a layer caviar. M was in swoon heaven! On a separate plate were four very small, warm blini. When those were quickly consumed, another plate heaped with them arrived, and I helped finish off these delightfully delicious, delicate little cakes.
The substitution served to me was also new. I have had many of Chef Humm’s veloutés, either as a full soup course during lunch or as the amuse during dinner service, and they are always first-rate. In this instance, the flavors of chestnuts and lobster in the broth were beautifully balanced and harmonized well. The circle of diced lobster had a subtle sweet briny flavor and also provided a contrasting textural component to the smoothness of the broth, which was poured tableside. A lovely start.
When the plates holding the Fruits de Mer were put down in front of us, we literally gasped at the gorgeous colors. The processional of lobster and scallops, interspersed with each other, was surrounded by an intensely orange liquid dotted with specks of green and red (I don’t know what they were) and small swirls of oil. The seafood, citrus, and tarragon made a dynamic combination. The ceviche was “cooked” so that both the lobster and the scallops were just right — neither overly firm nor too mushy. The citrus flavor was intense without being too puckery, and there was just the correct hint of tarragon so that it did not become overwhelming. In every way, this was a perfectly executed dish. Sensational!
Though there was a lobster dish in December (poached in butter with dried figs and star anise, and napped with a mushroom sabayon.), the preparation this time was new. When done by capable hands, as is the case at EMP, the technique of butter poaching the lobster ensures meat that is never tough or stringy, but rather, always tender and flavorful. The sabayon, spooned tableside, had a subtle seafood flavor and was rich without being cloying. Chef Humm chose not to busy the plate with a lot of competing flavors. The single slice of cooked celery provided a pleasing counterpoint to the sweetness of the stars of this show – the lobster with its sabayon sauce. Another winner!
Speaking of the star of the show brings me to the Roasted Organic Pheasant. The moment this dish was set in front of us, the aroma emanating from the plate was totally intoxicating, a portent of what was to come once I dived in. The pheasant breast meat looked juicy and succulent which, indeed it was; the mahogany skin was oh-so-crispy; and the jus, napped tableside around the meat, had deep, rich flavor. There was a small swatch of delectable parsnip purée (one of my favorite vegetables); there were mushrooms and oats, which added other flavors and textures; and finally, there were the slightly puckery Riesling poached grapes, which totally bowled me over. This was a brilliant dish. Eating every last morsel was another died-and-gone-to-heaven experience! Without a doubt, it was my favorite dish and the highlight of this menu.
Despite the fact that I am not a cheese-a-holic nor a maven on the subject, I always enjoy the cheese course at EMP. I think it has a lot to do with the “ceremony” of the cart. Megan Vaughn is in charge of EMP’s cheese program and, in the past, she has guided us through the course. This evening, it was Eamon, one of our particularly favorite servers, who did the honors. He has charm and sophisticated that belies how very young he is – 23. And his in-depth knowledge concerning the particulars of the cheese assortment was astonishing. As always, we were asked what kinds of cheeses we prefer. I like mild cheeses and, definitely, no blues. Eamon pointed out the appropriate possibilities from which I made my selections.
Etude, Pasteurized Goat’s Milk, Andante Dairy, Petaluma, CA
Brillant Savarin, Raw Cow’s Milk, Hervé Mons Affinage, Normandy, France
Manchester, Raw Goat’s Milk, Cibsuder Bardwell Farm, West Pawlett, VT
Michael likes a broad range, including the “stinky” ones. As it turned out, he agreed with two of my choices (the Etude and the Brillant Savarin) and added a third: Epoisses, Raw Cow’s Milk, Berthiaume, Burgundy, France.
All my cheeses were delicious. I chose the Etude particularly because it was produced especially for EMP. As he prepared our plates, Eamon, who hails from California, provided us with fascinating details about Andante Dairy and its cheesemaker, Soyoung Scanlan.
The wine pairing was done with Michael’s selections in mind: Moulin Touchais, Coteaux de Layon, Loire Valley 1993.
After dessert, we were presented, as always, with a tray of assorted mignardises. We chose a few and asked that they be boxed to go. Michael finished with some tea.
But the evening was not quite at an end. Robert and Nathan did something extra-special. They transferred the “wall of wine” glasses from our table to one of the adjacent, much larger round tables. After lining the glasses up in their proper order, they proceeded to bring out unopened bottle of the wines which had been paired with each course and arranged them behind the corresponding glasses, so that we could take a “souvenir” photo. They said they had never done anything like this before, and it was obvious they very much enjoyed doing it.
This meal yet again showed how masterful Chef Daniel Humm is at composing tasting menus which contain a wide range of flavors and textures. It was also evidence of his superb ability to create dishes which are both subtle and complex. He’s got the proper portions sizes down pat, and Fabian, along with the superb kitchen crew, did a spectacular job of executing each and every dish. The fact that we had had several of the dishes before did not in any way detract from our overall enjoyment because there were so many “Wow!” moments, thus ranking this Gourmand very high among the several Gourmands we’ve had during the past two years. We now look forward to seeing what magic Chef Humm has in store for us in the next Gourmand when the season changes.