This wasn’t one of those birthdays that end in a zero which we’ve come to imbue with particular significance. It didn’t even end in a semi-auspicious five. Despite that, it had all the makings of being an extra-special celebration for me. Our close friend, u.e., had purposely rearranged his schedule so that he could fly here to dine with us. And he was bringing along a “date” — his mother, whom we’d not yet met. J and the Puzzle Genius would be rounding out our table for six. And the celebration dinner would be taking place at our favorite NYC restaurant, Eleven Madison Park.
Mother Nature was a teensy spoiler. Showers off and on during the day and — wouldn’t you know it? – torrential downpours just when M and I were ready to leave for the restaurant. Normally, we walk to EMP, but there was no way I was going to turn up looking like a bedraggled cat. However, the minute one drop of precipitation hits the pavements of NYC, try getting an empty cab! It took more than 20 minutes before we were able to snag one.
When we arrived, the others were already at the table. Hugs and kisses all around followed by oohs and aahs from me at the small deluge of wonderful gifts. The buzz in the room reflected our high spirits. As we sipped Champagne – a generous gift from EMP’s staff – and enjoyed the always delicious gougères and hors d’oeuvres, we anticipated with great relish Chef Humm’s 11-course Gourmand.
A few days before, we discussed the meal with General Manager Will Guidara. The Gourmand is not a published menu, and it’s fun to be surprised by what Chef Humm sends out. However, when we’d had dinner at EMP several weeks before, the couple sitting at the table adjacent to ours was having it, so it was hard not to notice what was being served to them. Three of the dishes we’d had before. However, with the exception of one substitution (for M, J and me) and a request for one addition, we told Will that we did not want any other changes.
As it turned out, Chef Humm had some surprises in store, so we ended up with fourteen courses.
Here’s the menu:
For three diners:
Sterling Royal Caviar
Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon, Panna Cotta
For three diners, including me, who preferred no caviar:
Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon
Panna Cotta with Nova Scotia Lobster
“Kumamoto Oyster Sundae”
Celery Sorbet with Yuzu and Toasted Peanuts
Santa Barbara Sea Urchin
Cappuccino with Peekytoe Crab and Celery Root
Torchon with Blis Maple Syrup, Pain d’Epices and Greenmarket Apples
Slow Cooked with Matsutake Sabayon and Nasturtium
Poached with Cauliflowr, Marcona Almonds and Raisins
Niman Ranch Pork Belly
Applewood Smoked with Black Truffles
Four Story Hill Sweetbreads
Seared with Fregola Sarda, Parmigiano-Reggiano and White Truffles
Kagoshima Wagyu Beef
Herb Roasted with Saffron Soubise and Braised Shallots
Grimaud Farms Muscovy Duck
Honey Lavender Glazed with Florence Fennel, Black Mission Figs and Spices
Black Mission FigsCarpaccio with Ricotta Ice Cream and Candied Prosciutto
Flavors of Autumn
Amedai Chocolate, Piedmontese Hazelnuts and Espresso
Mint Chocolate Chip
Ice Cream Sandwich with Araguani Chocolate
Now, were you expecting photos of this meal from me? Foolish you! With the Master Photographer in attendance, why would I even think of bringing my camera? You can view the set of u.e.’s photos here.
His review can be found here.
But I’m figuring this lo-o-o-ng post will surely put readers to sleep without at least a little eye candy. So, in a few spots, I’ll provide photos I’ve taken of dishes we’ve had before. For example, since every dinner at EMP starts with gougères, I’ve got plenty of photos of them. And the hors d’oeuvres are the same ones we had a few weeks ago, though the presentation for six people is different than it is for two.
M consulted with Wine Program Director John Ragan about pairings with six of the courses. I ordered my current favorite non-alcoholic cocktail, Devlin’s Delight. u.e. also ordered a non-alcoholic cocktail, he correct name of which we’re still trying to find out.
When it comes to EMP’s cuisine, for me, just about anything Chef Humm puts in front of me is bliss. Of course, I do have a few favorite foods. In the mid-80’s, when we were in France, I had my first taste of foie gras and was instantly hooked. Since I am the self-styled “Foie Gras Queen,” no birthday dinner would ever be complete for me without it, and Chef Humm did not let me down. In fact, he fed my obsession not in just one course but in two!
A silky, smooth, and ethereal Foie Gras Torchon when cut open revealed a lovely surprise: a small river of BLis maple syrup. Also on the plate were slices of raw apples and red wine-poached apple chunks. On the side, brioche-like pain d’épices flavored with cinnamon. Ah, sweet bliss!
Further on in the meal, the Wagyu beef was first presented to us in its uncooked state, then taken back to the kitchen to be roasted and plated. The tender meat’s excellent flavor was enhanced by an intense beef jus spooned tableside. Also on the plate were delicious caramelized shallots.
It was the side dish, though, that totally knocked my gustatory socks off. That would be the Foie Gras-Potato Cream with Braised Oxtails. Light-as-air creamy mashed potatoes on foie gras steroids and hidden inside, sumptuous braised oxtails. Rich! Rich! Rich! A heart attack in a little bowl. But what a way to go!
The Sea Urchin Cappuccino was a dish I very much looked forward to repeating. Actually, this made the fourth time I’ve had it. Frankly, I find it astonishing that I adore this dish because I’m not really a sea urchin fan. In other restaurants, it would take a lot of convincing to get me to try a dish in which it’s an ingredient. And you’d most probably fail. But with Chef Humm, I’m always willing to take the leap at trying things I would otherwise refuse because he has this wonderful knack of making them so approachable.
Thus, the first time I tasted this dish when he sent it out as a gift to us, I was shocked at its absolute deliciousness. We were told by the staff that it was one of the first dishes created by Chef Humm when he was cooking in Switzerland. Peeking into that lovely little bowl is like looking into a foamy coral sea. Dipping my spoon in and tasting the broth with the sea urchin and the crab, I find not a hint of fishiness; instead, the fresh taste of the sea has an almost sweet flavor. This time, there was the addition of a stick of herbed pastry, which I presume was meant to be dunked into the broth. I preferred to eat it separately.
I do have to admit to a conundrum about this dish. The first time, since it is “soupy,” I expected it to be warm and was surprised to find it at room temperature bordering on cool. I didn’t question it, and it’s been served the same way every other time, so I presume Chef Humm intends it to be that way. I’m not sure why because I think it would be even more phenomenal if he would heat it up some.
The “Kumomoto Oyster Sundae” was another great example of how Chef Humm can take ingredients I’m not usually fond of – in this case, oysters and celery – and masterfully combine them into an unusual dish that delighted me. One large plump oyster was nestled in celery sorbet beneath a celery-flavored froth. In addition, the small cup included a yuzu-flavored gelée. While I might still pass on the oysters, you can definitely pass me more of that celery sorbet!
The Scottish Langoustine also happened to include an ingredient that I detest: raisins. Ugh! Normally, I shun them like the proverbial plague. However, Chef Humm has found the secret of how to get me to eat them instead of pushing them to the side of my plate. Soak those little suckers in rum! Lots of rum! Et, voilà! A taste sensation! Actually, this entire dish was a taste sensation. A meaty, delicious langoustine was laid across a smooth and creamy rectangular bed of cauliflower panna cotta on which were dotted a few marcona almonds. At the table, servers poured a superb shellfish broth around the assemblage, then dotted it with olive oil. I thoroughly enjoyed the complexities of this dish, and you can bet I spooned up every last bit of that fabulous broth.
There is one thing Chef Humm has not been able to convert me to liking: caviar. It’s not as though I haven’t tried, but it totally turns me off! Therefore, whenever caviar is on the menu, he automatically provides me with a substitute. The first course Sterling Royal Caviar was on the Gourmand menu we had in August, so M had it then. This time, he decided he’d forego it. And, like me, J does not care for it. So, while the Puzzle Genius, u.e., and his mom – all of whom adore caviar – were served it, M, J and I were served a substitute.
The presentation was identical for all of us: a plate on which rested a closed caviar tin. When we removed the cover, those with the original dish were greeted with a layer of caviar, while the substitute contained, instead, a layer of thinly sliced lobster strips. What lay beneath the top layer was the same in both cases: cauliflower panna cotta, smoked sturgeon, and lobster gelée. I loved my version! A wonderful combination of flavors that was rich without being cloying. The potato blini that accompanied this were melt-in-your-mouth delights.
One other dish that was a repeat from the summer Gourmand was the Niman Ranch Pork Belly. It is served in a unique way. The plates arrive with the pork covered with a glass dome inside of which is smoke. When the cover is removed, the air becomes perfumed with the aroma of barbecue. One server was assigned to each plate for the removal ceremony, which they achieved in unison. (Note: They were so quick that our ace photographer didn’t manage to get a shot before the covers were lifted. However, I did get that shot when we had it before.) The small slice of pork belly was tender and moist. Alongside was a lovely swath of truffled vinaigrette whose superb flavor matched well with the very tasty pork.
I love Dover Sole, and the wonderfully creamy, rich matsutake mushroom sabayon applied tableside was seriously delicious. Unfortunately, while the fish was perfectly cooked, it was not hot enough. It wasn’t stone cold, but the less than ideal temperature kept the dish from being what would otherwise have been a knock-out.
The surprise of the evening for me was how blown away I was by the Sweetbreads. While sweetbreads are one of M’s favorite things, I’ve only eaten them a couple of times when they’ve been tiny accessories to veal dishes. So, this was my first full-fledged head-on experience, and this particular sweetbread nugget was the size of a small fist. The very crisp coating on the outside covered an appealingly soft-textured interior. (Though the menu says it was seared, it seemed to me to be doing a great imitation of deep-fried.) The fregola sarda, which reminded me of Israeli couscous, was of Goldilocks quality: not too al dente or too mushy but just right. Suffused with the flavors of the Parmagiano-Reggiano and the white truffles, they were wonderful.
The dish we requested be added to the menu was Chef Humm’s signature whole Muscovy Duck glazed with honey and lavender. Although J and the Puzzle Genius have had it before, and M and I have had it several times, the incentive to include it was two-fold: u.e.’s mother had never had it, and u.e. told me that after having it once before, he’s dreamed of eating it again. It really is so spectacular that for us to have it again (and again) is not exactly a punishment. Roasted to perfection, the duck’s meat is exceedingly tender, moist, and flavorful. And the incredibly crispy skin leaves me shaking my head in wonderment every time. It is without a doubt the best duck on the planet!
One of the nice things about my birthday falling at this time of year is that it is fig season. I adore figs! Delicious slices of Black Mission Figs accompanied the duck, along with a small square cake of confit. A lovely sauce was spooned tableside. Yet, again, bliss on a plate.
Black Mission Figs were also the focus of the absolutely incredible pre-dessert. Quartered slices of figs lay on a bed of fig sauce, and a quenelle of creamy ricotta ice cream sat atop a little mound of finely chopped pistachios. A truly luscious combination of textures and flavors!
Before this came the cheese cart from which we each selected our preferred cheeses. As usual, I went for the milder ones. Then, after the pre-dessert, we were served two desserts.
First up, a combination of chocolate, espresso, and hazelnuts. In the middle of the plate, a bar of hazelnut ganache covered by a thick coat of chocolate; on the right, an espresso-flavored bar; and on the left, a large quenelle of chocolate ice cream. All delicious. However, to be honest, I’m not sure why they’ve named this “Flavors of Autumn.” When I think of autumn, I think of apples and pears and pumpkins. In fact, there is now an apple dessert on the menu. Maybe they should consider calling that one “Flavors of Autumn” and renaming this one.
Next came the Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream Sandwich, a dessert M and I have had before but in a different presentation. This time, instead of being stood on its side, the ice cream was laid flat, and one thin chocolate disk lay on too so that a small lit candle could be planted in the middle on the plate presented to me. And the staff had apparently overheard us commenting about the Puzzle Genius and u.e.’s mom both having birthdays coming up soon because their plates also sported candles. A thoughtful gesture!
The meal ended as usual with EMP’s sensational macarons, though there was a change in how they were served. Previously, a server presented them on a large tray, and diners selected the ones preferred. (They’re all so delicious, I always chose one of each!) This time, assorted macarons were brought to the table on elegant tiered silver stands.
Yet one more delightful surprise. I and the two other birthday celebrants were each presented with one king-sized chocolate-raspberry macaron.
We were at the table for nearly seven hours. Yes, you read that right! When told about that, the Puzzle Genius’s sister quipped, “In that time, you could have flown to Europe!” True enough. However, that would be out for me because I stopped flying in 1972 (a topic, perhaps, for another post). In any case, the joy of celebrating my birthday at EMP came not only from doing so in our favorite restaurant in NYC and in the company of those most dear to me, to say nothing of the exquisite cuisine, but also from being surrounded by one of the world’s best staffs, so many of whom graciously stopped by our table to offer their best wishes. We get immense pleasure from the fact that they have embraced M and me as members of the “EMP family.”
The last table to vacate, we made our way to the reception area where a bevy of staff members awaited to bid us adieu. EMP-embossed bags held boxes of macarons (we asked to take them with us) and of pâtes de fruits, a folder containing a flat copy of the menu with “Happy Birthday!” printed at the top, and one more memento: a caviar tin into which was fitted an accordion-style menu. A unique remembrance of a bliss-filled birthday.