What’s it like to eat at the best restaurant in the world? And what can other purveyors of luxury goods learn from the master of luxurious experiences for the well-heeled? Recently, the Dandelion Chandelier Staff Photographer and I decided to investigate.
Eleven Madison Park holds the honor of being ranked as the best restaurant in the US – and now, first in the world – on the most recent list of the world’s 50 best restaurants (aka “The Perrier List”). It also has three Michelin stars and 4 stars from the New York Times, so by any measure the restaurant helmed by Chef Daniel Humm can be considered among the best places for a luxurious meal in the world.
We hadn’t dined there in a couple of years, suffering from the New Yorker’s syndrome of having brilliant options all around us and basically taking them all for granted and therefore missing out on some of the world’s best experiences (we assume this malady also infects those in London, Paris, Tokyo, Sydney and many other ports of call).
So, what made us make an urgent reservation for a meal at Eleven Madison Park (hereafter to be referred to as EMP)? We read recently that the restaurant would be closing at the beginning of the summer and temporarily relocating to the Hamptons while a comprehensive renovation of the kitchen, dining room and private rooms is undertaken. The plan is that when everyone returns from the beach in September, a new interior will await. We have extremely fond memories of the current décor – it’s essentially unchanged for the past 20 years, and it’s been the scene of many happy meals for us. So in the spirit of a last loving look at a space that speaks to our spirits, we made a pilgrimage there in mid-March to experience the 8-10 course seasonal tasting menu. And boy, are we glad that we did!
What a luxury to slow down and have a really nice meal at a well-run establishment. We couldn’t do this on any kind of regular basis, but we decided to have a leisurely Friday lunch and it was one of the best times ever.
The luxury experience begins soon after you book your table. I received an email from the charming maître d’ about a week before our scheduled visit to ask if we had any questions, or if there was anything that he could do to help personalize our experience. I gave him a couple of suggestions, and asked a few questions, and he promptly responded and promised to do his best for us (full disclosure, after receiving his initial email, I mentioned that I am the author of a luxury lifestyle blog – but based on the online reviews I read, this email is standard treatment for all guests, as is the subsequent personalization of each diner’s experience).
Upon arrival, we were warmly greeted by name and led to a table in the splendid dining room. It’s wildly romantic, but in a fresh and urbane way, not like the cloying old-school dimly-lit temples of cuisine that used to define a big night out. It was a bright sunny day when we went, so the double-height windows filtered in streams of late-winter light. The flowers were all snow-white, adding to the sense of brightness and airiness. We like sitting on the upper level, as it’s a bit quieter and more private – after we asked for a slight change in our table assignment, we immediately got the corner booth that we had our eyes on. It was an ideal perch from which to survey the dining room, with its refined balance of warm wood, stone floors, black-and-white prints of Madison Square Park and the Flatiron building, Art Deco light fixtures and crisp white tablecloths. Not too cool, and not too warm, it’s graceful, modern and chic, in a Dior-Grace Kelly kind of way. We reflected on how in its early days, this decor defined a new vision of modern luxury – not stuffy, not overly quiet, unafraid of natural light. The tabletop elements carry on that same spirit: clean-lined simple stemware and cutlery, and white earthen plates and serving piece with red-clay rims (instead of the expected fine bone china). The table settings convey a feeling of confidence and sturdiness that plays well with the softer elements of the room.
As we settled in at our table, adorable little bites began to arrive (you can find photos of most of them in our slideshow below). First up, a “black-and-white” savory cookie made with cheddar and apples – as our gracious headwaiter observed, “It’s like a really fancy Cheez-it.” We made ours disappear in a New York minute. Then came a fanciful and witty presentation of a quartet of root-vegetable based amuse-bouches: satisfy, celery root, parsnip and rutabaga, each nested inside a series of wooden boxes stacked like Russian matryoshka dolls (or bento boxes). We ordered champagne – because, why not? At our captain’s suggestion, we opted for the NV Bérêche et Fils Champagne Brut Réserve. If you like your bubbly on the dry side, you’ll love this, as we did. In a few more weeks, it’ll be rosé season again (yay!) and you can opt for the Laherte Frères Rosé de Meunier Extra Brut NV.
After quaffing your aperitif, you’ll find a nice selection of wines by the glass as well as by the bottle – for the record, we chose a glass of Domaine Eden Cabernet.
If alcohol at lunch is a non-starter for you, there’s an inventive list of “soft” cocktails that we also felt obligated to sample (all in the interest of research, of course). The “Jandies” is a refreshing combination of pineapple, lemon, agave, jalapeño and sparkling water; the “Paradise City” – grapefruit, cream, passion fruit, vanilla and sparkling water – is like a very high-end creamsicle float.
Then came the caviar! And wow. Ours was served “brunch style,” in a round tin layered with smoked sturgeon, ham and a pickled egg yolk, accompanied by a tray of tiny exquisite English muffins. There was a bit of a tussle over who would get to finish these little darlings off, and not a crumb remained when it was over.
The tasting menu allows guests to make a few choices, in addition to being showered with delightful surprises. The first was a choice for the “salad” course. I had kohlrabi salad with horseradish and sunflower seeds, and the Staff Photographer had scallops marinated with leeks and potato slices. We were still giddy from the caviar service, so I’ll confess that we didn’t give this course our full attention. We remember that both dishes were plated beautifully, but we couldn’t actually tell you what they tasted like (due to the lingering distractions of the aforementioned Tiny English Muffin War).
It’s not a luxury meal without the appearance of lobster, and the seafood course was insanely delicious and theatrically presented. The wait-staff brought out a large copper container with lobsters in the shell on a bed of seaweed; they poured a glass of seawater over it to create steam to further the cooking process. Then they whisked it away and served just the lobster tail – having been both steamed and smoked – with fennel, clam and bouillabaisse. A very fancy clambake, indeed. It took a reasonable amount of restraint not to lick the plate clean.
Next up? More root vegetables. We were offered a choice of either smoked sweet potato with mustard seeds and apple, or roasted butternut squash with bone marrow and pumpkin seeds. We each got one so that we could try both, and the verdict was that while the squash was more photogenic, the sweet potato was like ambrosia. Note to self: don’t judge a root vegetable by its appearance.
The third decision required was our choice for the main entrée: one of us went with the duck (glazed with honey and lavender, with plum and onion), and the other with the oxtail (braised with chestnut and black truffle). If you were in a winter mood (which I was) the oxtail was ideal – like curling up après-ski in front of a fireplace: rich, comforting, and soul-warming. The duck was more refined: covered in peppercorns, it was elegant and delicious. The entrees were accompanied by roasted Brussels sprouts with blood sausage and lemon, and parsnip with “variations on juniper.” The parsnip was almost as much of a knock-out as the sweet potato, and the Brussels sprouts were just mad-crazy delicious: incredibly rich, with crispy charred outer leaves – and surely both were low-calorie, ‘cause they’re just vegetables, right?
We were invited to come back and have a look at the busy kitchen while we took a rest before the next course. The kitchen staff was uniformly friendly and professional – we chatted about the Miles Davis photos on the walls and our host explained that years ago a restaurant critic had said that EMP needed “more Miles Davis” in its attitude (the implication being that it was too stiff and fussy). They took it to heart, put his photos on the walls in the kitchen, and distilled his essence into 11 principles that they want EMP to stand for, including “cool,” “fresh,” “adventurous” and “inspired.” We felt all of that on our visit, so mission accomplished! And what a smart idea to invite guests into the “back room.” It feels like a privileged inside view (who cares if everyone gets to do it? It still felt like a special VIP treat).
While in the kitchen, we were offered one of the most inventive little bites I’ve ever had. Maple syrup season is starting, and while we observed the kitchen in operation, we snacked on fresh maple syrup poured over apple “snow” and twirled onto a swizzle-stick. If you’ve ever read “Little House on the Prairie,” this “sugaring” ritual should sound familiar. As a life-long devotee of anything New England, for me this was a little slice of heaven – Vermont on a stick!
But wait: there was more. Back at our table, we were served the hearty “cheese course:” a baked potato stuffed with cheese and black truffles, called a “Cato Corner Hooligan,” accompanied by a fresh bitter green salad to tame its richness. Are you kidding me? So good.
Incredibly, we still had dessert to look forward to. And it didn’t disappoint – the captain brought out a miniature cake covered in snow-white meringue rosettes, and torched it while we watched – voila! Baked Alaska! If you had asked me prior to this meal, I would have said that I don’t like Baked Alaska. I would have been totally wrong. This one featured apple cider and vanilla, along with nutmeg, cardamom and cinnamon. I think it deserves a moment of silence. It was that good.
Of course chocolate is a must for any truly memorable meal, at least in our books. EMP makes chocolate even more appealing, which hardly seems possible, by serving it as part of a fun table-wide game. We were given 4 chocolate bars and a small card with sketches of a cow, a buffalo, a sheep and a goat. The game is to taste each chocolate bar and figure out which kind of milk was used to make it. We failed miserably, but it wasn’t for lack of earnest effort: we managed to make almost all of the chocolate disappear in our dogged quest to understand the nuances (and this after an enormous amount of food already consumed, proving once again that no matter how full you are, there’s always room for chocolate).
Oh, and then they brought us chocolate-covered pretzels. And glass jars of granola to take home to eat at breakfast the following day. Because, you know, we really hadn’t had enough food already and we needed just a little bit more.
By that point we were ready for a nap, and the staff kindly let us be as we sank into a blissed-out postprandial stupor of the type that we usually only feel on Thanksgiving Day. The Staff Photographer and I agreed that the experience had been like a trip to a great amusement park: thrills, surprises, some rides we liked better than others, but overall a cathartic and highly enjoyable experience. But sadly, all good things must come to an end.
As we arrived at the front door, our coats were already out of the coat-check and being held open for us to slide right into. Nice touch, that. It’s a hard place to leave, but the staff at EMP make it as painless as possible.
And we have a couple of lovely souvenirs. In addition to small round tins with the day’s menu printed on them, we were given a customized memento. Before arriving, we had mentioned to the Maître d’ that one of us was celebrating a professional accomplishment. That was duly noted, and we were given a personalized recipe booklet to mark the occasion which will allow us to take the spirit of this lovely place with us as we move on to a new chapter.
We can’t tell you if this is truly the best restaurant in America – that’s way too subjective for a definitive ruling. All we can say is that this team has nailed some of the most crucial elements of modern luxury: the experience is delightful, surprising, personal, pleasurable, fleeting, and visually stunning. Not a single detail was overlooked. As we headed back into the real world, the Staff Photographer and I were in agreement: this was one of the best meals of our lives.