Before you begin, there’s a bit of business to take care of. On the table at Eleven Madison Park, the three Michelin-starred restaurant at the very heart of Manhattan, you will find an envelope and a paperknife. As a preprandial glass of champagne is poured, you slit open your envelope to find within a card printed with four flavours – strawberry, cherry, celery and coffee – and are asked for your favourite of these, which will influence elements of the ensuing dinner. It’s a cute way to make guests feel they’re in some way contributing to the meal, as well as showing that this isn’t going to be a stuffy, buttoned-up evening of fine dining, but a long evening of fun and incomparable food.
Number 11 Madison Avenue was originally conceived as the tallest building in Manhattan, a hundred-storey proto-skyscraper; construction began in the 1920s, but thanks to the Great Crash of the 1930s, the project stalled and the building was tidied off at a mere 34 storeys. The ground floor restaurant – accessed via the grandest of entrances – is a classic Gotham space, with an original marble terrazzo floor, orange wood partitions, art deco sconce lights and hexagonal pendant lamps that resemble old-fashioned theatre floodlights. Though it’s on a bigger, brighter scale, something about the space reminded me of the Seagram Building and the (somewhat more staid) Four Seasons. It is a space that could exist in no other city than New York. Refreshingly for Manhattan, however, you can look out the bank of windows onto the trees and greenery of Madison Park – or, if facing inwards, should your eye drift upward, you’ll see the guests in an elevated private dining room, suited backs to you, gazing downwards upon something out of view, and looking for all the world like gamblers around a roulette table.
Among innumerable highlights is the reworking of another New York legend, the Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich
And there are fun games being played at Eleven Madison Park. Several dishes are idiosyncratic takes on Manhattan classics, from Waldorf salad to Baked Alaska (long deemed uncool, but I’m delighted to see it making a comeback). The instantly recognisable American half-and-half cookie appears twice, refigured as a savoury cheese sablé at the start of the meal and a sweet incarnation at its conclusion. Early tastes show off the kitchen’s virtuosity, and suggest an unexpected Japanese influence, with an emphasis on unusual, lightly confrontational textures and rich umami flavours: a morel mushroom custard is studded with fat orange pearls of sea-trout roe; a cluster of fleshy English peas with preserved egg yolk, lavender and lemon is all spring colours but possesses an almost autumnal scent that transported me right back to (I know, I know) visiting ryokans in rural Japan.
Among innumerable highlights is the reworking of another New York legend, the Katz’s Deli pastrami sandwich. On a board inlaid with waxed paper sits a slice of rye bread stippled with little gleaming dots of mustards and relishes, onto which one places fat slices of Eleven Madison’s house-cured pastrami (finished over a flame-burner tableside). Alongside is served a little bottle of soda flavoured – this far in, you might have forgotten making the selection – as per your selection from the envelope earlier. This is great fun, and superb. It is no surprise that in a restaurant whose menu changes with the seasons, this dish is a mainstay. What is surprising is how good celery soda turns out to be. If Eleven Madison Park ever needs a sideline, the restaurant could market this as the next big health drink.
It’s not all quirky, and in deference to diners who expect certain things from Michelin-garlanded kitchens, there is foie gras, done two ways; there is caviar, a spoonful served with baked potato ice-cream and the most delicate little potato waffle; there is Maine lobster. I lost count of the number of courses once it had passed fifteen. There wasn’t a dud among them, although I felt that perhaps there was slightly too much emphasis on reinventing classics – one too many perhaps? As superfluous, I’d pick the humorous “cheese course” – one of two – which involved a pretzel roll, a cow’s milk cheese and pickled green strawberry, was served with a bottle of stout exclusive to the restaurant, and tried to do too many things at once – but maybe I’m just bearing a grudge after I accidentally indicated to the server that I had finished when there was still a chunk of that excellent pretzel bread on my plate. Not that I needed any more food by that stage.
This is an assuredly contemporary and downtown reinvention of fine dining: there’s no dress code at Eleven Madison Park, apart from “no hats”. Anything else goes – including a barely-there, ultra body-con little leopard print number and the highest of heels. And everybody’s having fun. Correction: nearly everybody: the French couple at the next table were consistently, noticeably nonplussed by all the foof. The preamble for one course involves the staff bringing to table the inflated bladder of a pig, over which they ladle truffled stock, and invite you to touch the warm, translucent yellow, slightly obscene balloon. What comes to the plate a moment or two later is a single stalk of asparagus that’s been steamed within the bladder, alongside a circle of potato purée and a dribble of the truffled stock. My neighbours stared disconsolately at their nouveau serving. “Is this all there is?” they asked each other, stupefied, perhaps wishing they had opted for Daniel or La Grenouille for the big night out.
Not me: I was through that (in seconds, admittedly) and eager to try the duck, which is rubbed in lavender, coriander and cumin seed and roasted whole. Before the staff carve it, they present it to you at the table, a thick sprig of lavender stems protruding from one end of it, giving it the look of an extremely eccentric flower vase. Alongside this comes the theatrical highlight as the sommelier opens a bottle of an exceptionally good, exceptionally expensive 1981 R. Lopez de Heredia Rioja. The risk of opening a vintage bottle whose cork might disintegrate if drilled into is sidestepped by the use of port tongs: superheated iron tongs (again, brought to red-hot at the table) neatly detach the neck of the bottle; the wine is strained into a decanter, the bottle’s sharp edges are coated in molten wax; the wine is tasted; your correspondent swoons.
As far as dinner-as-theatre goes, this is an epic performance, with as many members of staff as there are diners – no small boast in a restaurant that seats 80 at a time. I was even allowed an intermission of sorts, taken behind the scenes into the huge, high-ceilinged and almost eerily calm kitchen, where members of the brigade queue up for regular “exams” on the ingredients, preparation and history of each dish. Here, preternaturally fresh-faced chef and co-owner Daniel Humm points out the A0 prints of Miles Davis that hang over the stations, and the posters which display descriptions befitting both Davis’s music – “Endless reinvention”, “Fresh”, “Forward moving” – and, such is the hope, the dishes this kitchen is producing.
Observing from behind a sort of crash barrier that prevents civilian visitors obstructing the kitchen activity, I was served a tumbler of a cracking liquid “sorbet” containing Laphroaig whisky, nitrogen-frozen lemon foam, little marshmallows, and sundry other magical components. Though I’m Scottish, whisky’s one of those tastes I’ve struggled to acquire; here at last, lacking its firewater throat-scalding heat and as delicate and fragrant as Earl Grey tea, is whisky I can get behind.
Humm gives the sense of a man who’s found new purpose in a restaurant which values collaboration, and contributions from the whole brigade; he’s no dictator standing aloof from his team, but more of a supervising editor, open to suggestions, but retaining ultimate control. For all that he is humility incarnate, his demeanour is a kind of ruse, because the food he and his team create personifies exquisite pomp. Humm and his staff know exactly how good they are. On another poster is one of the only phrases the Swissman had in English when he first came to New York, and which remains this kitchen’s deceptively simple motto: “Make it nice”.
Oh, and they do. They really do. C
Eleven Madison Park, 11 Madison Ave, New York, NY 10010, USA
+212 889-0905; elevenmadisonpark
Neil Stewart is the Arts Editor of Civilian and the author of The Glasgow Coma Scale, published by Corsair, summer 2014