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Eleven Madison Park in New York City - 3 Michelin stars

Rating: 92.
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Where in Europe Michelin is often criticised (and sometimes rightfully so) for being too cautious or too conservative when awarding or taking away stars, the Michelin team in the United States are quite the opposite. In the US guides it's not uncommon for a restaurant to debute with two Michelin stars, or for a second star to be taken from a restaurant that had been promoted just 2 years earlier. When Eleven Madison Park went from one star (in the 2010 guide) to three Michelin stars in the 2012 guide, this was an exceptional achievement even in the US context. The last time Europe has seen such a quick ascent was in the late 80s when Alain Ducasse managed to obtain three Michelin stars within less than three years at restaurant Louis XV in Monaco. In the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, EMP quickly rose from number 50 to number 10 in 2012, and has been in the top 5 since (it occupies the number 3 spot in the current 2016 list).

Eleven Madison Park ("EMP") was originally opened as a neo-brasserie by restaurateur extraordinaire Danny Meyer in 1998, and it instantly received glowing reviews. Within two years it achieved a Top 30 position in Zagat's New York City Most Popular restaurants (2001 edition), and it secured a top 20 position in the 2003 edition. An outstanding result for a restaurant in a city that at the turn of the century experienced a restaurant boom, with around 300 new restaurants opening each year between 1998 and 2001 (source: Zagat). But Danny Meyer found that EMP had even more potential and wanted to take things to the next level. Enter Daniel Humm.

Daniel Humm started his training as a chef at a very young age, from working as a commis during the summer holidays when he was 11 years old, to an apprenticeship at the Kurhotel im Park in Schinznach-Bad a couple of years later. Later on he worked in the kitchens of a number of Swiss five-star hotels and around the mid 90s he managed to get a job as a chef in the kitchens of Gérard Rabaey at his legendary restaurant Le Pont de Brent (then 3 Michelin stars) on Lake Geneva, where he stayed for a number of years - a defining time in his career. In 2002, he became head chef at Gasthaus Zum Gupf in Rehetobel (some 8 miles from St. Gallen), and in the same year he was awarded his first Michelin star and was named "Discovery of the Year" by Gault Millau Switzerland. Daniel Humm was 25 years old at the time.

The following year, Humm moved to California and took on the job of head chef at Campton Place in San Francisco. On the West coast Humm's success story continued; in fact, two years later, in 2005, San Francisco Chronicle's restaurant critic Michael Bauer described Daniel Humm as "the brightest star to arrive in California since Thomas Keller". Meanwhile on the East coast, Danny Meyer had decided that Daniel Humm would be the one to offer the New York dining public a "far grander and more refined dining experience" at EMP. Humm moved to New York in 2006 and around the same time Will Guidara was appointed as EMP's new general manager. In 2011, Humm and Guidara became the owners of EMP.

EMP is open for dinner daily and for lunch Tuesday through Sunday. There's one, seasonal, 8 to 10 course tasting menu priced at $295 (excluding tax but including tip) and at lunchtime a 5-course bar tasting menu is also available, which is priced at $145 and is served at tables in the bar/lounge area. The restaurant also has a small à la carte bar menu (starters $24-$35, mains $42-$56, desserts $22). I had lunch with my husband at EMP on Saturday 20 August 2016 and we had the tasting menu.

Lunch started with EMP's savoury, Parmesan and apple take on the classic New York City black-and-white cookie, which arrived in a pretty string-tied box. I believe this savoury cookie first appeared on the menu in 2012, when EMP introduced a brand-new "close-to-four-hour ode to the romance and history of New York" menu. A fun and delicious start of the meal.

This was followed by an excellent selection of snacks, which had refined flavours and were very precisely seasoned, partly thanks to the use of flowers. There was pickled cucumber and jelly served on an amuse bouche spoon with honey melon, and a cucumber, cream cheese and crisp rye sandwich. Two great bites and the pickled cucumber had a lovely touch of piquancy from the pickling spices.

Goat's cheese cream was served with finely chopped yellow melon, and tomato coulis came with chopped (compressed?) watermelon. Both were intended to be spooned onto some crisp teff crackers. The goat's cheese cream and melon provided a lovely salty-sweet flavour combination. Equally lovely was the tomato coulis and watermelon, the latter delivering a nice subtle crunch. Best of all, though, was pickled cantaloupe served with smoky watermelon "leather". A glorious combination of sweet and sour flavours, and the leather added a wonderful touch of smokiness.

Homemade rolls, served with butter topped with cheese crumble

On to the first course, which was a beautifully presented dish of Peekytoe crab salad, elegantly dressed and covered with a thin layer of lemon jelly, a crisp 7-grain cracker and carefully arranged sliced courgette, which was seasoned with a sharp dressing. An attractive dish with light and delicate flavours, which were boosted by the lemon, and the cracker delivered a nice crunch to the plate.

Next we were served an indoor picnic - quite literally, including all the props like a picnic basket and a little blue and white picnic blanket. The picnic basket contained a lovely selection of delicacies. There was smoked sturgeon mixed with crème fraîche, served in a caviar tin, and generously covered with caviar from famous New York caviar boutique Petrossian, and accompanied by some thin and crisp toast. Summer ratatouille (finely diced red & yellow pepper, aubergine, and courgette) came in a glass jar, topped with some crème fraîche and trout roe. A second glass jar was filled with pickled mackerel and cherry tomatoes, and mildly sharp pickling juices. And finally there was a bottle with champagne and tomato water juice.

A pleasing and playful course. Terrific summer ratatouille, precisely balanced with a delightful crisp crunch from the vegetables and with not a single raw note to be found. The sturgeon and caviar was nice and refined, the crème fraîche adding freshness and just the right touch of creaminess. 

My third course were slices of steamed sweetcorn, served on top of creamed corn mixed with clams, and crunchy bits of toast, garnished with some grated, cured egg yolk. A delightful dish with wonderful corn flavours. First you get fresh and juicy corn kernels with their nutty sweetness, followed by the intense richness of the creamed corn. Great use of this summer vegetable, that at the time of my visit, was at the height of its season.

The fish course was decribed on the menu as "lobster boil". The words 'lobster boil' instantly evoke images of a feast of juicy red lobster, but it turned out to be a somewhat disappointing dish that was a feast for the eyes only. Presented tableside, in a nice copper pan, was a minimalist snack for two with 1 small prawn, 1 baby clam, and 1 tiny piece of lobster each. Admittedly there also was a small (baby) red pepper filled with shredded lobstermeat (seasoned with dill), and a small piece of chorizo sausage. Some bean puree topped with beans was served on the side. Even though I coudn't find fault with the execution, I was surprised by the skimpy amount of seafood in this dish. Maybe I'm just greedy.

Lobster boil - this was for two.

This was followed by EMP's signature, lavender honey glazed duck, served with pickled daikon and cherry compote. The duck is roasted whole with a delicious glaze of lavender honey and a mixture of fragrant spices such as fennel, coriander and cumin, resulting in wonderful crisp and flavoursome skin. The meat on the other hand was moist but could have been a bit more tender. Perhaps removing the tendon from the fillet (it was still there) would have helped? That said, I did like the combination and the duck jus, seasoned with warm spices, was exquisite. 

There were also two side dishes to accompany the duck: some delicious grilled corn with corn cream and thinly sliced crisp garlic and a roasted tomato salad with a Caesar-like dressing. Two eonjoyable side dishes that were both great on their own, but flavourwise they didn't add anything to the duck. 

Before dessert we were served a delightful cheese course of highly addictive Camembert (from Hudson Valley) brioche buns, accompanied by some plum puree and basil cream.

Dessert was cantaloupe, barbecued tableside, brushed with wild flower honey, and served with creamy cantaloupe ice cream, a honey and cantaloupe gastrique, crème fraîche, an almond-flavoured biscuit, and some cream lightly flavoured with orange. A lovely and elegant dessert with a very satisfying combination of flavours, but at the same time it was hardly the most intricate of three-star desserts.

The meal ended with a chocolate tasting/game: four bars of chocolate made with four different types of milk (sheep, cow, goat, and buffalo). It was a lot of chocolate, but it was certainly a nice and fun ending of our meal. 

Daniel Humm and Will Guidara are not men who rest on their laurels. In their 2011 publication "Eleven Madison Park, The Cookbook", they write: "this restaurant has never been satisfied with its current point of success" and "we've always been about endless reinvention". They have remained true to this ethos in spite of all the praise and all the accolades heaped on EMP. Many people who have been propelled onto a pinnacle, find that they want to stand absolutely still. Not Humm and Guidara, who changed course in 2012 with their theatrical ode to NYC and again in 2016 with this more minimalistic and pragmatic menu, intended to offer the diner more choice and freedom.

It is an approach that seems tailored for the New York city dweller who is eternally busy - remember the scene in Sex and the City, in which Carrie shouts at a person who literally bumps into her on the street: "You're soooo busy"? It is designed for diners who do not want to spend too much time in a restaurant because there are other things to do, who do not want to eat too much because they don't want to be full, and who do not want to be interrupted by the waiting staff because they don't care how the duck was prepared exactly or where the turbot is from. A casual experience for a casual diner. But I am not a casual diner when I am at EMP and I think I am not the only one. These days a top 3 position in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list also makes you a destination restaurant, with people from all over the globe wanting to visit. These guests will want as intense an experience as possible and a restaurant like EMP should cater to their needs as well. 

When I cross an ocean to eat at a restaurant, I usually don't have many other things to do that afternoon, I do not mind leaving the restaurant feeling a bit full and I do want to know every detail about the food. So I guess I am not what EMP considers its typical guest. And perhaps this is why I did not feel that sense of choice and freedom. It is equally possible to over-engineer the experience by lots of theatrics, as it is by imposing simplicity and dictating the importance of conversation at the table. If a restaurant goes so far as to decide what I want from my experience there, we come close to the "nanny-restaurant" and that is not a concept which appeals to me.

But at the end of the day, my appreciation of a restaurant is determined by the food, by what is actually on the plate. The food is certainly very much in sync with the season, to an extent even that it usually only found in France. The precision, attention to detail and the execution of the dishes were excellent (with the exception of the duck), but the innovation on which the restaurant prides itself seemed to be more off the plate than on it. If you take away the picnic basket, what are you left with? 

I would like to stress that this was my first meal at EMP and perhaps it is interesting for more regular guests to experience a new variation on the EMP theme from time to time, but when I limit myself to the actual meal today, the menu clearly lacked the level of intricacy and luxury that the new generation of three Michelin star restaurants in Europe and the US normally does deliver. The quality and presence on the plate of the ingredients did not make up for this. I agree with Humm that there is no need to serve 25 or so courses - a chef should be able to express himself in 6 to 8 courses and at the right place, even three courses can make your head spin. Today this didn't happen. Sometimes less is not more. Sometimes less is just

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Posted 12-11-2016


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