Friendships can start in the darnedest ways. This one began with a t-shirt. Actually two t-shirts. In September, M was in Hong Kong with u.e. feasting on Chinese food, so I took J to EMP for lunch. As we were finishing our meal (photos here), one of the dining room managers, Robert Kihlstrom, strode towards our table carrying an EMP bag. What was this all about? While I’ve occasional taken home leftovers, this time, I’d devoured every delicious morsel, so it couldn’t hold a doggie box. A take-home treat from the kitchen, perhaps? No, he said with a twinkle in his eye and a Cheshire-cat-like smile, then went on to explain. In honor of the restaurant’s being awarded its fourth star by the NY Times a few weeks prior, a woman who is, as we are, a foodie and a huge EMP fan, had made up a batch of specially inscribed t-shirts for the staff. According to Robert, she told him that if there were any remaining, he should give them to any patrons who loved EMP as much as she did.* And, he continued, he couldn’t think of two more enthusiastically vocal supporters than M and me. Well, I certainly couldn’t argue with that! He then pulled out one of the shirts on the front was emblazoned the words you see in the photo.
Thanking Robert for the thoughtful gesture, I asked him for the woman’s e-mail address so I could thank her as well. Back in our apartment, I promptly wrote a short note and sent it off, hoping it would not land in her spam box. A few days later, I received a reply. (Sigh of relief!) What followed was a flurry of back and forth e-mails. Things clicked between us, and the bud of a friendship took root.
When I learned that she has a blog, where her nom de plume is Family of One, I immediately checked it out. What a delight! A gifted writer, she relates the stories of her life, including her dining adventures, wittily and with engaging details. I urge you to go there and be entertained.
We hatched plans to meet. She lives in Miami but comes to NYC several times a year. Her next visit would be just before Christmas. We decided that we would meet for lunch. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you where! She told me that while she’d had many dinners at EMP, she had never had lunch there and was eager to experience it during the daytime, especially when I described how magical it was to sit in that gorgeous space with the light streaming in through the enormous windows. This would also allow Family of One to continue her tradition of having her pre-Christmas dinner at EMP solo.
The weekend she would be arriving, I had a packed schedule: our traditional Chanukah dinner in our apartment on Friday evening, a family get-together at a restaurant on Saturday evening, and theater tickets for M and me on Sunday. Lunch with Family of One would be Monday. But as the time for her visit drew closer, and we grew more and more excited, we agreed there was no way we could be in the same city and, in fact, be so near each other since her hotel was only blocks from our apartment, and wait until Monday to see each other. So, we decided to meet for drinks on Sunday evening in the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Park Hotel – conveniently located a few short blocks from our apartment, and where she had reservations for dinner that evening at Maialino.
Then, for some added drama, along came the big snowstorm of December ’09. I hadn’t checked the weather on Friday, so I found out about it that afternoon when my brother called about our Saturday plans. Snowstorm? What snowstorm? When we left NJ on Thursday, none of the weather reports on “NJ Traffic & Weather Together” or on the Weather Channel had mentioned a major storm coming our way. The snow would be arriving on Saturday, so we cancelled dinner with the family because my brother and other relatives were coming in from L.I., and it was looking as though they could be getting 16 to 20 inches! But our area in NJ was not going to be any better off. A call to the guys who plow our driveway assured us that it would be taken care of so that we would be able to get into our house when we returned on Monday night.. (They were true to their word, which was a good thing because there was a foot-and-a-half of the white stuff.)
When we finally met in person, it was almost more like a reunion than a first time. The three of us spent a lovely hour together before she went into Maialino for dinner, and we went back to our apartment. Tomorrow couldn’t come soon enough for me!
Arriving at EMP promptly for our 1:30 reservation, we found Family of One, who had come in just before us, already seated at the round table closest to our usual corner two-top on the lower level. She said she was loving what for her was a new vantage point, so different from her usual perch at the rear of the upper level.
It was obvious that the staff at EMP was as excited about this meeting as we were. In fact, when General Manager Will Guidara stopped by to chat, he told us that our meeting had been mentioned at the staff gathering that morning. It had become an EMP “event,” and many of the staff came by to say hello and to tell us how thrilled they were that it was happening.
As we were settling in, “The Matchmaker,” arrived at our table. That’s what we’d laughingly dubbed Robert. He brought with him the Champagne cart, and gifted us with glasses of the bubbly. In high spirits, we toasted our friendship.
Then, on to deciding what to eat. M and I were surprised to learn that Family of One had never before seen the inside of a menu at EMP because she has always left things to Chef Humm’s discretion, and he composes a tasting dinner for her. Thus, she had never had a full portion of any dish, so it was something she was gleefully anticipating during this lunch. We all agreed to order three courses from the regular menu, plus dessert. Family of One and M both chose the same three dishes, while I was the outlier with only one course in common with the two of them. (You can see the full set of photos of our lunch here.)
The dish we all ordered was one of the new ones on the winter menu, Spaetzle with Braised Organic Rabbit, Pommery Mustard and Spinach. And a WOW of a dish it was! I’ve never been a fan of rabbit, but as with other instances regarding foods that I’m tepid about, Chef Humm roped me in here. The spaezle were perfectly executed –light with no hint of gumminess — the rabbit was succulent, the spinach provided a hint of bitterness, and the sauce bound it all together with the perfect mustard accent. Have I mentioned that this dish was fabulous?!
For my first course, I chose another new dish, Big Eye Tuna Tartare with Radish, Yuzu, and Sesame. The pristine tuna, coarsely chopped, along with the crisp, tangy radishes and the citrusy flavor of the yuzu, made for a lovely, light starter.
Family of One and M started with the Balik Salmon with Pommes Dauphine, Frisée, and Crème Fraîche, which M and I had had before. Chef Humm has turned M and me into Balik salmon addicts. (Happily, Russ & Daughters carries it.) In addition to strips of salmon, the dish includes a small tartar “cake,” flavored with tarragon and bound with a little cream. The pommes dauphines were perfectly fried. Ergo, the coating covering the smooth, creamy potato nuggets was light and crisp. The salad provided additional flavors and textures. The components of this dish worked extremely well together.
For the third course, I selected the Bone Marrow Crusted Beef Tenderloin with Braised Root Vegetables. Beef is usually not the first thing I go for; I’m more of a lamb/duck person. M has had the marrow crusted beef a couple of times before, most recently in November, but with different accompaniments (saffron onions and braised onions). Whenever I’ve tasted the beef, it has been delicious, so I finally had to order it for myself. Cooked perfectly (medium rare), the meat was melt-in-your-mouth tender and incredibly flavorful. The Bordelaise sauce, napped tableside, raised the flavor profile to an even higher level, and the wonderful root vegetables were done to a T!
So, yes, the beef and the veggies were terrific. But here’s the thing. The real reason I ordered this was so that I could have the additional side that comes with it: Potato Cream with Braised Oxtails. I first encountered this blow-your-gustatory-socks-off little bowl that sent me into swoons of ecstasy during my birthday dinner when it was served alongside the wagyu beef. (If you haven’t already done so, you can read about that dinner here.) It was also served to M in November, and I double-checked with our server to be sure I’d be getting it. Still sumptuously rich and achingly delicious!
Family of One and M had the Boudin Blanc with Savoy Cabbage, Whole Grain Mustard and Poached Seckel Pear, which had been on the menu once before quite some time ago. M had it then, loved it, and was thrilled to revisit it. Family of One was equally delighted with it and enjoyed every last bite.
The meal began with the always sublime gougères and two very tasty hors d’oeuvres: macarons stuffed with foie gras and black pepper sablées with celery root and black truffles. Shortly thereafter, we were served an amuse, Sunchoke Velouté with Pear and Hazelnut Foam, which we’ve had several times before and remains a true treat for the palate. To his always silky smooth veloutés, Chef Humm’s likes to add a bit of textural contrast, something a little crunchy. In this case, it’s tiny dices of the pears.
Then, a surprise gift arrived. Executive Sous Chef Fabien Beaufour, who was in charge of lunch service, sent out a small plate: Radicchio Tardivo with Buffalo Mozzarella, Basil and Persimmon. Another new dish on the menu, it was a wonderful contrast of textures and flavors: the crunch and bitterness of the lettuce versus the creaminess of the mozzarella and the intense sweetness the persimmons.
Fabien came to our table towards the end of the meal, which gave us the opportunity to not only thank him for the superb meal, but also to bid him “Au revoir” and wish him well because he would be leaving EMP at the end of the month.
Fairly stuffed with so much deliciousness, when the always wonderful tart cart arrived, we decided to pass and end the meal with something lighter, EMP’s excellent sorbets. Family of One requested just one scoop of cassis, while M and I had three different flavors: cassis, chocolate, and passion fruit. Yum! Yum! Yum!
Lastly, there were plates of the delicious macarons.
It was pure joy for Family of One and me to be together in that special place that means so much to us both, being taken care of by the ever solicitous staff, and dining on Chef Humm’s sensational cuisine. We gabbed like two old friends, yet with so much more to discover about one another. I should add that M and Family of One got along famously. No surprise, really, as he found her as charming and delightful as I did.
The afternoon went by all too quickly. As we collected our coats, the staff was beginning the ballet of setting the stage for dinner service. And so, we left EMP’s magical grandeur, passed through the revolving doors, and came back to the real world.
We hugged and said our good-bys. As I watched Family of One head across the street and through Madison Square Park back to her hotel, I rejoiced in the knowledge that our budding friendship had now taken deep root.
*Addendum: Family of One told me that she had never said anything to Robert about giving any leftover t-shirts to other EMP devotees. That sly devil made it up. And we’re awfully glad he did!