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Nick Solares

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Eleven Madison Park Prevails as a Love Letter to New York

With toned-down theatrics, the lauded restaurant still aims to wildly delight its customers — right down to the tea service

During a recent dinner at Eleven Madison Park, I sat thinking about pig’s bladder. Already one of most scrutinized fine dining destinations in Manhattan and the world, EMP has received even more than its usual amount of press in 2015. Both a four-star New York Times review in March and a nasty takedown in the September issue of Harper’s mention the pig sac. Chef Daniel Humm, who co-owns the restaurant with front-of-house maestro Will Guidara, had been riffing on poularde en vessie (a French technique in which chicken is steamed in a ballooned bladder) but swapping in vegetables for the poultry: truffled celery root in the winter, asparagus when spring came around. I was at the restaurant in late summer and trying to imagine which seasonal produce might most benefit from a shvitz in a veiny orb. Pattypan squash, maybe?

Instead, as the tenth course, a far less dramatic pork presentation arrived: grilled jowl covered with ribbons of watermelon radish and tiny onion flowers. The dish drew its electricity from the sauce, a stock of pork belly and knuckles and chicken wings depth-charged with white soy and ginger juice.

I didn’t miss the bladdery theatrics. The $225-per-person meal had already segued through some gentle stagecraft that thankfully never distracted from the actual pleasure of the food. A shallow bowl held what appeared to be a slice of plum tomato. Only it was more of a rumination on tomato: a pure-of-flavor tomato mousse covered with a basil scented tomato puree shaped to resemble a cross-section of the fruit, with tomato seeds, croutons, and pickled shallots scattered on top. Right after it, a tin appeared. The geometric patterns on its lid echoed the dining room’s stately Art Deco decor. It contained poached quail egg, bacon gelee, bits of ham, and corn puree resembling hollandaise; all together, they evoked eggs Benedict. A side of miniature English muffins drove home the theme. A generous spoonful of caviar sent it heavenward.

Bill Addison

Eggs Benedict in a tin with caviar

The Benedict winked at New York’s rabid brunching habits, one of the many cultural allusions Eleven Madison Park has conjured since 2012. That’s the year when the restaurant switched its lengthy tasting menu format to one that included high-concept conceits and nods to the city’s most iconic dishes. Sliced sturgeon emerged from a cloud of smoke released from under a glass cloche. The cheese course was an imagined Central Park picnic, basket included. There were tableside card tricks and history lectures delivered by the servers.

Their driving goal: To make every diner blissfully happy, usually through fun, but sometimes through quiet menu and service choices

Business did not drop off, but the new direction was met with derision about the shtick and the spiels, and most of the overt dramaturgy is now gone or heavily subdued. The impetus behind the showmanship made sense, though. Humm and Guidara, both still under 40, sought to reinvent high-end dining. Their driving goal: To make every diner blissfully happy, usually through fun, but sometimes through quiet menu and service choices. They’d both worked at the restaurant since 2006. Five years later, they bought the place from their boss, Danny Meyer, whose Union Square Hospitality Group opened it in 1998. With EMP under their charge, they envisioned it as a guidepost for the future of lavish hospitality: warmer, wittier, exacting, but without the guests noticing any of the backstage sleight of hand.

And they wanted their restaurant to communicate the essence of New York. Look at their peers around the globe. The restaurants awarded three Michelin stars (like EMP) and also perched at the top of lists like the World’s 50 Best Restaurants (EMP is currently ranked number five) all express an exaggerated sense of place, their home-base cultures amplified to luxury extremes. Noma has its lichen fixation. The kitchen at Spain’s El Cellar de Can Roca has plated creations to resemble the Catalan landscape. Lima’s starry Central invokes Peru’s terrain in similar ways. Massimo Bottura of Emilia-Romagna’s Osteria Francescana may pull a modernist stunt or two, but local ingredients like Parmigiano-Reggiano and prosciutto still moor his cooking.

Squid poached with peppers and artichoke and tuna (skewered on a tuna bone) with cucumber gelee; spice-coated duck with lavender (photo: Nick Solares)

What most defines New York City food culture? It isn’t stirring topography or regional specialties with roots in the Middle Ages. It’s the assimilated immigrant foods, most recognizably the Ashkenazi Jewish deli classics and Italian-American comforts. It makes sense, for the global audience Humm and Guidara seek, that black-and-white cookies re-imagined with cheddar and apple may start a meal, or that variations on pastrami or tomato-basil salad or cheesecake occasionally show up in the repertoire. Perhaps the restaurant’s most identifiable New York trait is its willingness to adapt in order to stay on top.

Right now the partners seem to have arrived at a middle-path approach to the restaurant’s direction: reverential toward its city’s culture without being heavy-handed, effervescent in service but sidestepping flamboyance. The most interactive course was a seafood boil of lobster, shrimp, clams, and sausage simmered with potatoes, green beans, and corn. The staff spread the boil across butcher paper on the table and sprinkled over lemon juice and a fennel-paprika spice mix. It struck me as a savory counterpoint to the splatter-art dessert of sauces and brittles and crumbles at Alinea.

Most dishes veered toward more elegant forms, like a foie gras terrine crowned with a gingered, glossy peach dome. That fruit and spice combination was echoed in a mid-meal jaunt to the kitchen (a customary intermezzo for guests), where a pastry chef made us snow cones using an antique ice-shaving machine and flavored them with peach syrup, ginger, and bright lemon thyme.

Peach, ginger, and lemon thyme snow cones

With snow cones, with savvy beverage pairings, with unremitting enthusiasm, the staff made every attempt to ceaselessly delight. Google "Eleven Madison Park" enough and all sorts of stories show up about the lengths to which staffers have gone to surprise and enchant: They’ve retrieved Shake Shack burgers for picky eaters, they’ve imprinted family business logos onto beer coasters, they’ve matched up servers and customers who hail from the same home state. The restaurant actually employs people with the title "Dreamweaver," whose job is to suss out exactly such opportunities for magic.

All they needed to do to thrill me was present the tea menu assembled by team member Chris Day. His list lays out 50 choices. If you’re looking for a lovely cup of Earl Grey or chamomile after dinner, it’s there. But for obsessives like me, Day or one of his crew of five will wheel up a trolley and prepare, say, a 1960s vintage pu-erh or a rare oolong Gong Fu style — steeping an abundance of loose leaves in quick succession and serving the brews in small cups. I sighed over a high-elevation Taiwanese oolong, the flavors shifting from vegetal to tropical and the viscosity becoming ever creamier. My editor, with whom I’ve shared many meals, laughed at my joy and commented that she’d never seen me so happy. It was just the kind of remark that Humm and Guidara aim for every day.

Photos: Interior and whole duck by Nick Solares; all others by Bill Addison

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