Making Do at 11 Madison Park

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Cheesecake with thin slivers of sturgeon, everything bagel crumble and a generous plop of caviar.

          The cheesecake is a long, skinny, delicious cut with thin slivers of sturgeon and a generous plop of caviar, everything bagel crumble, and a small tin of daikon and cucumber pickles served separately in a little tin box with the house’s signature rosette painted on top. Rich and complex and lingering on the tongue, the cheesecake doesn’t seem that small after all. The pickles are fun. Eleven Madison Park, it seems, is still celebrating New York but we’re dining at Ten Madison Park.

Thin ribbons of pumpkin as a starter for those who don’t want sturgeon.

          I’m guessing you need to be a regular or be somebody’s cousin or plan a year ahead to claim a table in these first few autumn opening weeks after EMP was acclaimed Best Restaurant in the World, then closed for its four-month summer makeover. Your only hope is a claim to one of the spots in the newly expanded lounge next to the noisy bar.

Chunks of smoked sturgeon float in a sabayon sauce in this eggshell.

          Lyn, a favorite dining pal, has sent me a link to the Architectural Digest report on Brad Cloepfil’s extensive EMP redo – the more symmetrical dining room, the expanded bar, new textures and colors, the reimagined kitchen. “We’re not changing the experience—just making it more EMP than it’s ever been and facilitating human connection,” partner Will Guidara is quoted. Want to read the AD piece? Click here.

          “Don’t you think we should go?” Lyn asks.

This is a shot of the room as it evolved before the most recent makeover.

          I’ve been chronicling the joys and perils of this space since 1998 when the big windows looked out at the noxious bramble of desolation that was Madison Square Park before Danny Meyer spurred the community to tame and restore it. The room itself was scrawny and awkward, like a suddenly-too-tall adolescent. “Clearly, it’s daunting to insert a restaurant into a sacred landmarked interior where nothing can touch the existing fixtures and invade the window frames,” I wrote. Click here to read Practice Makes Perfect.

          That was long before Daniel Humm and Guidara arrived and then, a few years later, bought the place. Long before there was a World’s Best Restaurant lottery. I’d been put off by the new team’s Grid menu and really annoyed by its New York-themed silliness involving magicians doing card tricks and grinding carrots at the table. Click here to read Starshine, my 2009 lament.

Some Madison Park regulars won dinner with me in an auction and we all shared manna from the cheese cart.

          But now I’ve read that the team has left the dippy stuff behind in the new $295 tasting. So, why not try it? One can never have too many human connections in these perilous times. I do happen to have a cell number for Guidara. He sounds trapped and even annoyed when I confess it is me asking to come on the following Saturday night at 7 pm. Better be outrageous than coy and cautious, I suppose.

This pretty tuna roll was a feature of that special auction prize dinner.

           We are offered a table with a banquette in the reconfigured bar for the abbreviated $155 bar tasting. I must pay $675.03 on my credit card to confirm the table. Should disaster strike, the tariff will not be refundable, but I can give the table away. Yes, I find this more annoying than grating carrots at the table. I consider bowing out but Lyn is gung-ho.

          The next day I get an email from Katherine, “one of our Maître d’s.” She is looking forward to seeing us and wants to know if we are celebrating an occasion and if we have any allergies, dietary restrictions, or if there are any ingredients “we just don’t like.”

My friend doesn’t like fish or seafood but the kitchen doesn’t mimd improvising.

          “Thank you, Katherine, for asking about our preferences,” I respond, thinking I am putting more time and thought into this dinner than the 80th birthday gala I staged for 200 friends. “One of our four does not eat seafood or fish. One person doesn’t eat foie gras or duck. But otherwise three of us eat foie gras and duck and three of us love seafood and shellfish. I do not eat grapefruit.”  No problem! The house accepts our challenge.

Forgive the grease on my lens and accept my word: Pastry chef Welker’s whole wheat rolls are brilliant.

          I’m early at Ten Madison Park. I know it’s a new logo but I don’t recall the old one. They have retained the revolving door. Three or four young men and women in dark grey suits waiting inside greet me. Would I like to wait in the bar? I decide to settle in the narrow strip of lounge. Would I like to order something while I wait? I ask for “New York water with ice.” One by one, various hands appear to be sure I don’t want something else to drink. The troops spend a lot of time returning the door to its perfect X position.

Cauliflower crumbles and fresh black truffles substitute for caviar on the cheesecake for the non-seafood eater.

          It’s amusing to watch the arrivals — some pilgrims shy or uncertain, some confident and pleased with themselves. Some are dressed for dinner in designer sneakers. There are jeans and wrinkled t-shirts. Clearly the Best Restaurant in the World doesn’t care how anyone dresses. Am I the only one disappointed?

Fresh cucumber and daikon pickles come in a little tin box alongside the cheesecake.

          The room used to be at entry level, but the redesign makes it two steps up. The first step is a black, 20-foot-long hunk of hollow metal made entirely from melted-down elements of the original kitchen. Well, why not? This duo broods about effect. “We question everything a hundred thousand times,” Humm has said.

The sommelier pours wine for my friends’ $95 drink matching.

          Now our foursome has arrived. I had anticipated stepping up on the compressed old stove to check out the room, but instead we are led off to the side without a chance to view the new splendor though there is a window into the kitchen if we aren’t in a rush. The bar is only sparsely occupied. My friend Lyn and I sit on the inside banquette.  The guys face us, their backs to the room. I don’t recall exactly the welcoming words of our server — Jennifer, it says on the bill. Does she introduce herself? The style is casual friendly. My friends are pleased. But I prefer a certain distance. Am I a pill? My perfect waiter moves silently, anticipates my every need and doesn’t say, “you’re welcome” or “my pleasure,” if I say thank you. I don’t really want to know her name.

The foie gras with cabbage is more decorative than delicious.

          The guys order the $95 drink pairing. “I always enjoy wine pairings,” one of them explains to me. “It’s an education and an opportunity to explore wines that I would never choose on my own.” I used to enjoy a series of wines chosen to complement a parade of dishes too, but now I mostly drink a glass of red wine, maybe a glass and a half. I would find an exotic beer with Amagansett salt served with my cheddar cheese pretzel pastry disruptive.

          Sturgeon in a rich sabayon, smoked with olive oil and served in an eggshell is the first course. The non-sturgeon eaters are served a less-than-thrilling triangle of sweet potato tart. One of my companions lets me taste his edible chestnut “shell” stuffed with chestnut and black truffle.

Little neck clams with fennel and lemon are chewy and taste of the sea.

          That long, thin triangle of cheesecake is a hit for all. The non-caviar eater has cauliflower with his, under petals of black truffle. I’m impressed by the somersaults designed to please finicky eaters. A waiter delivers bread:  warm, whole-wheat laminated rolls, flaky, a bit like croissant but salty, not sweet, wrapped in a beige tweed napkin and served with a round of cultured butter topped with a baked Dorset cheese crumble. Who is the pastry chef? I ask. Executive Pastry Chef Mark Welker’s bread is better than anything so far.

Humm got the idea to do pumpkin as they passed fields of them on the way home from the Hamptons.

          You could say I don’t have a right to complain about anything since I’m clumsily shooting photos with a smudged lens. I will assure you anyway that the little neck clams with fennel and Meyer lemon are very decorative but unpleasantly chewy. As one of the guys observes, the middle course of pumpkin roasted with seaweed and bacon — too sweet, too smoky — chosen for its early fall pervasiveness, makes him long for winter to come faster.

The duck is rare and meaty and crunchy on top with crushed lavender and an apple alongside.

          Tonight’s version of foie gras, layered with cabbage and apple — for those not having seafood — is not a liver’s greatest moment. But that’s a small grumble considering I’ve moved on to the excellent glazed honey duck — really rare, paved with a crunch of peppercorns and lavender, anchored on a sticky sweet puddle alongside a small baby apple. This, it seems, is the house classic.

Lyn loved the butter-poached lobster with potato and chanterelles that replaced the duck.

          I certainly don’t need it, but our server brings another round of bread and I cannot resist. After the superlative bird, the bread and my dessert, a French-toast-like pretzel bread with a custard of of New York cheddar cheese, mustard and beer, are the tasting’s most brilliant offerings.

This dish of red balls is deceptive. Some are cranberries. Some are pear. Some are filled with ice cream.

          There is a choice of desserts. Lyn’s scarlet spheres of pear and variations on cranberry – a mousse, an ice cream, and the fruit glazed with cranberry syrup — is brilliant. Everything looks so similar, you don’t know till you start eating, they’re all different.

          Our server sees me tasting my friend’s ovals of shortbread cookies and ice cream and brings me my own dish. Not that I need it, but I finish it anyway. The final gambit is a perfect candy pretzel, made of white chocolate blended with crushed pretzels, one half dipped in dark chocolate.

I got an extra dessert. Chocolate sweetbread filled with vanilla ice cream and vice versa.

          It seems to me that we have been sitting for a very long time as the bar grows more hectic and new arrivals crowd past us into the dining room. A clutch of swarthy men off a party bus move into the bar. The non-shaved bristle goes with the tieless elan. They don’t seem to fit the stereotype of aspiring gourmands. My friends are so caught up in conversation, they scarcely notice. Perhaps it would help if I drank more.

A white chocolate twist blended with crushed pretzel is served half dipped in chocolate.

          All three of my companions love the bar tasting. “It’s imaginative and provocative and the best value,” my friend’s guy observes. They’re eager to return and taste the winter menu.

11 Madison Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets. 212 889 0905. Lunch noon to 2 pm. Monday through Friday. Dinner Monday to Thursday 5:30 pm to 9:30 pm. Friday and Saturday till 10 pm.

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2 Responses

  1. Avatar CHERYL STARK says:

    Beautiful food, it must taste great.

  2. Avatar SALLY ARNOLD says:

    Thanks for the great overview of the bar tasting. Am going to try this next time I am in NYC. So glad to have heard the owner and chef speak here in Melbourne when they were announced as world restaurant no 1.

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