June 10, 2016
It’s a bit after you’ve been seated, but not before the Champagne cart has come sidling up to the table, aimed at seduction. And not before you’ve opened the little gift box sitting so innocently on that creamy tablecloth. Inside you discover two little black and white cookies. These are not sweets: take a bite and your mouth fills with the savory pleasures of Cheddar and apple. And we’re off!
There are choices to make, courses to consider. Still, when the man mentions asparagus will be one of them, he neglects to note that it will arrive in its own private air-filled pig bladder.
There is, in other words, a great deal of drama when dining at Eleven Madison Park.
And when the pig bladder is burst open what is revealed? One single, perfect spear.
Luxury is very much on offer. To begin: a beautiful wooden tower breaks apart to reveal oysters (Widow’s Hole) on a bed of ice, sprinkled with caviar. Another tier holds little rye crisps encircling a puree of morels….
another produces fava bean croquettes topped with various pickled vegetables and, most wonderful of all, spring radishes and peas to dip into whitefish salad popping with tiny pearls of roe.
And then there is more opulent caviar:
served with tiny English Muffins and corn and ham-infused Hollandaise. The notion? You create your own little Caviar Benedicts. Eggs, in other words, and eggs.
None of these courses, of course, were considered courses. The real meal is about to begin. For starters you can choose the most beautiful fluke you’ve ever seen, marinated in grapefruit and perched on a bed of bright spring peas. On top? An Easter bonnet made of tiny sprouts, sprigs and blossoms.
On the other hand, you might have chosen foie gras instead of fluke.
And you would not have been the least bit sorry.
Lobster’s up next, a perfect little claw, poached in butter and served with two intense sauces: one lemon-drenched, the other made of the lobster’s own juices. On top, a punctuating bitterness of dandelion.
Now that asparagus, with all its attendant pomp and circumstance.
And then the main courses:
This intensely aged beef was, hands down, one of the finest pieces of meat I’ve ever indulged in. Just a couple of bites, but the flavor resonates in your mouth long after the steak itself has vanished.
This duck , glazed with honey and lavender, was no slouch, but what I particularly appreciated was the rhubarb; crisp and cinnamon-scented, it is rhubarb reverently treated as a vegetable instead of the usual fruit.
On the side, the a remarkable morel custard, like the most extravagant chawan mushi you’ve ever encountered:
Then there was cheese, not an ordinary slab, but sly little muffins hiding a warm nugget of Camembert baked into the middle. It was accompanied by two little spring compotes – rhubarb and sorrel – to slather on the top.
And then desserts – strawberries,
and finally Baked Alaska, which exploded into flames.
One of the great pleasures of dining at Eleven Madison Park is watching the light fade in that big, windowed room. As twilight falls the atmosphere changes dramatically giving you the sense of being in a theater where you are privileged to be on stage.
Tonight, just as the sun sank away a passerby leapt up to press his middle finger against the window. He was not visible, just that prominent finger. I was probably the only one who saw it, but in that moment he broke the fourth wall, brought reality crashing into the restaurant.
It made me ask myself, again, if luxury dining is something to feel guilty about, and I sat there for the longest time, pondering that question.
It is, admittedly, an idea that is rarely far from my thoughts. But at this moment, sitting in that comfortable seat, surrounded by solicitude as course after course of lovingly prepared food was presented for my pleasure, the question became especially acute.
There are no easy answers. We each indulge in luxuries of one kind or another – art, travel, theater, clothing, private schools – each ask ourselves if we should not be spending the money on others instead of ourselves.
But this is the main thing I took away from that wonderful dinner: if you’re lucky enough to celebrate the occasional meal at Eleven Madison Park, you had better revel in it. Because being blase here is just not okay.
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