Our friends at Eleven Madison Park have this habit – and a lovely habit it is! – of surprising us with something special when we’re celebrating our birthdays. A few years ago, for Michael’s birthday, they created two special cocktails — one alcoholic for him and the other sans alcohol for me – which they labeled with our surname. And, of course, there was the fantastic surprise they orchestrated for my birthday last year which will be difficult for them to top. But that hasn’t stopped them from finding new ways to make these special occasions super-special.
January 26, 2012. Michael’s birthday. Head Sommelier Jeff Taylor had poured the Krug (a gift from the house), and our captain, Brandon, had taken our order (the tasting menu), when Will Guidara came to our table. He extended birthday felicitations, we thanked him for the Champagne, and we chatted for a bit. Just before leaving us, he told us there would be a surprise coming our way. So, we said to each other, they’re at it again! What would it be this time?
IT arrived at the end of the amuse parade. Actually, we could smell it coming our way — the aroma of wood smoking — as Chef de Cuisine James Kent approached carrying a round tray covered with a glass dome which he placed in the middle of the table.
“No peeking!” he instructed and left. Well, other than lifting the dome, there was obviously no way we could tell what was hidden by all that white smoke.
As we waited with eager anticipation, servers laid plates in front of us containing several garnishes: Belgian endive, a hard-boiled quail egg cut in two, a few ultra-thin red pepper rings, and a crumble which we were told was made from an “everything bagel.”
They also placed three other accompaniments on the table: a caviar tin which held crème fraïche topped with two garnishes, a small glass filled with house made pickles, and a plate holding thin slices of toasted rye bread. (Note: We were later told that the crème fraiche would have been covered with caviar, but I don’t eat it, and Michael eats it only in very small doses.)
Finally, Chef Kent returned for the reveal. When he removed the dome, there was a round metal rack with legs sitting on the metal tray. Underneath the rack were a mass of greens and other foliage.
What lay on top had our eyes popping out: six gorgeous slices of smoked sturgeon.
Wow! We sat staring at all of it for a moment, stupefied, then recovered and dug in. I divied up the sturgeon slices.
We schmeered some crème fraïche on the toasted bread and topped it with some of the sturgeon. We schmeered some fish slices with the cream and ate it without the bread. Fantastic both ways! Loved the crisp endive, the sweet red peppers, the perfectly cooked egg, and the crumble with the flavors that top an “everything bagel”: salt, pepper, onion, and garlic. Then, there were those pickles. Great snap and great flavor made them totally addictive! After we had finished everything else, there were still some pickles left. When they came to clear our plates, there was no way we were letting them take those pickles. We munched our way through them during the rest of the meal.
While the entire dinner was, as usual, superb, this surprise was the highlight. Here was Chef Humm serving what is considered a classic New York/Jewish food, smoked fish, but doing so in a creative and classy way. They told us that they knew it would be particularly meaningful to us because we were practically weaned on smoked fish, pickled herring, and all the things that comprise what is known as “appetizing.” It is what we traditionally serve at Yom Kippur’s break-the-fast.
One big difference with this surprise as opposed to those that came before: other diners would get to experience this wonderful treat. Plans were to serve it as part of the tasting menu. However, they weren’t quite ready to do so. The rack was especially designed for them at a shop in Brooklyn, and they were waiting for more to be finished. So, Will and Chef Humm asked me not to write about it just yet and to temporarily embargo my photos.
A few weeks ago, the equipment arrived, and this treat has now been served to other diners. We’ve had it a second time, and it was just as wonderful. There was one small change: the crème fraïche was topped with beads of lemon “caviar.”
Our sincerest thanks to our friends at EMP for another extraordinary surprise. We hope other diners, Jewish or not, will appreciate this “Homage to Jewish Appetizing” as much as we do.
To see all the photos from this birthday dinner, click here.
To see the photos from the second dinner, click here.