There are some terrific things to eat in New York. The challenge is squeezing them all in.
I think I’ve found the solution.
A few months ago Daniel Humm evolved the a la carte and degustation menus of his flagship restaurant on Madison Avenue into a 16 course food tour of the Big Apple; of it’s past and present, traditions, clichés and most celebrated snacks.
It’s been said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. The same applies to trying to explain a meal like this. It’s akin to capturing snowflakes- just when you think you’ve got hold of it all, it’s gone and all that’s left is a vague sensory imprint.
But here’s the nutshell. It’s staggeringly good stuff.
Rather than spoiling the magic with a procedural bite-by-bite regurgitation of the four hours we passed surrounded by high ceilings, white roses and plush banquets, here are five themes which unite the experience. Hang on. It’s quite a ride.
1) ‘Make it Nice’
This is one of the guiding mantras of Chef Humm’s kitchen. If there’s a choice between two paths, the refined, elegant, accommodating and beautiful one will be chosen. Make no mistake about it, for all the whimsy of a meal commencing with a box of classic ‘black and white cookies’ as amouse bouche, they’ll be presented in a white box, tied up with a ribbon. And the cookie is a four star savoury twist on the deli corner sweet; a fall-friendly melding of apple and cheddar.
This is high end dining, from the pearl shaped pebbles of ice underneath the oyster with mignonette, to the melding of sea urchin into a silken custard, studded with baby squid, bay scallop and apple.
Before tasting that I uttered the words ‘I’m not sure I’m such a fan of sea urchin’. It’s the combination of papaya muskiness with a texture that recalls mealy foie. This will not be a sentence I will ever repeat again. This small bowl of custard, lightened with foam is a firm contender for the most ethereal dish I’ve pushed past my lips in a long time.
Later a plate of lobster flesh, cooked in Meyer lemon butter so it sits right in the hushed sweet spot of perfectly blushed comes with a dark char of baby leek , powdered squid ink and onion powder. It’s like something angelic that’s been scooped up with traces of both fire and sea hitching along for the ride.
2) An Edible Tour of New York.
The tour of New York classics starts with the presentation of the gift wrapped black and white cookies; these will serve as punctuation, both capital letters and full stops for the excursions that follow.
The next station is the Lower East Side. Things get murkier when your glass of Bereche and Fils champagne that accompanies the first few tasting plates is topped up with Captain Lawrence Smoked Porter, from Pleasantville, New York. Smoke is the order of the day and the Black Velvet is the drink to take us there. Soon there’s a tall glass cloche, the sort that would normally house a taxidermied parrot swirling with smoke sitting on the table.
Inside is sturgeon, the glass cage drawing in as much smoke flavour as possible into the tranches of fish. To the side are fixings of great Jewish delis; there’s the crumble of an ‘everything’ bagel, caviar, cream cheese, light pickles and a half quail egg. It’s Russ and Daughters, wearing a tuxedo.
Later the tour takes in the city’s famed steak houses, when a piece of 140 day dry aged rib eye is paraded through the dining room. It’s a communion of bone and flesh best suited to the diets some of the skeletons in the Natural History Museum, some 60 blocks north.
Before the cooked beef arrives there’s an elegant cup of bouillion, restorative, deep and soothing to sip. ‘When I’m sick, I want this’; is The Hungry One’s first response.
The steak appears as a modest portion, seared and rosy, nudging next to the frilly delights of hen of wood mushrooms, potato crème, wilted spinach and a huddled mass of braised shortrib. There’s some marrow for extra gloss. The relief comes from the twinkling crunch of amaranth.
The last true tastes of New York arrive for dessert. There’s a quick lesson in the delights of egg creams ‘not made with egg, or cream’. A classic childhood drink of the boroughs, with the fizz of a soda and the melted softness of ice cream, this version is made tableside with vanilla malt syrup, organic milk and seltzer, care of one of the oldest companies in the city.
There’s room for cheesecake, but rather than a slab from Junior’s this dessert is layered in a glass tumbler, with strata of sheep cheese, port wine snow and crumbled walnuts. There’s a caramel sweetness, akin to a Nordic brown-cheese in there too.
It’s a sheer joy to scrape after, with the walnut pieces contributing a whisper of cookies and brownies and other baked goods with every bite.
The guided tour of classics closes with chocolate covered pretzels, and lastly, the bookend of another black and white cookie, this time sweet and soft, flavoured gently with apricot.
3) Food as Theatre
The edible tour touches on some aspects of the theatrical, but there are other courses in the progression of the meal that take it to a whole other level. It might be the trip to the kitchen which some patrons are taken on. Ours came a third of the way through. We were invited up to the pass, to see the serene precision of the team and served cocktails fashioned from liquid nitrogen. A Shirley Temple, with house made grenadine has never tasted so good.
There was the dome of smoke housing the sturgeon. There’s the parading of the beef. And during dessert there’s even a card trick, harking to the shysters that once populated the New York streets. To give any more away would spoil the pleasure, but rest assured, it’s cheeky, it’s fun and it’s a sly and novel way to present a course. The restaurant may have received some flack from the New York Times for it’s hokey introductions to dishes, but rest assured, these are kinks which have been well ironed out.
Instead of a traditional cheese course a wicker basket is delivered with the simple directive. ‘It’s time for a picnic’.
It houses a loaf of warm-pretzel dough. There’s a wedge of Vermont wash rind, aged at Greenwich Village’s famed Murray’s Cheese shop that’s been bathed with beer. There are grapes and a pot of plum mustard relish. And to drink with it, there’s a speciality brew, made by the Ithaca beer company; a picnic beer.
And then there’s the carrots. There’s a moment exactly half way through the meal when one of the chefs will emerge and affix a meat grinder to the side of your table. Into which he’ll process a trimmed, cleaned, cooked and outrageously orange Paffenroth Farms carrot.
The resulting pillowish pile of orange is transferred to a decidedly Japanese wooden board housing eight small bowls of garnishes; each one an education on the true dimensions of a fine brunoise (read, tiny). You can season and flavour your tartare to your own heart’s content. Be like The Hungry One and tumble everything in; the smoked blue fish, the minced chive, horseradish, sea salt, pickled ginger, pickled quail egg yolk, apple and mustard flowers. Add some squirts of spicy carrot vinaigrette and mustard oil and muddle away.
Or you can choose a more restrained path, dabbling with just the apple scents. Whatever you do, don’t leave out the pickled egg yolk. Beneath a thin, puckered meniscus it runs like a Kandinsky print, spilling yellow over orange; gilding it all together. It’s tartare and it’s carrot. But it’s a reinvention of both.
4) Endless Reinvention
There’s a print in the kitchen of Eleven Madison Park that spells out the ideals of Miles Davis; namely, continuous reinvention. Mr Davis is there in the dining room , in a soft soundtrack that murmurs behind the gentle passage of plates and conversation. The sense of reinvention is most obvious in the way Chef Humm has with humble vegetables. There are few others, beyond Magnus Nilsson and Rene Redzepi who can elevate a root in this way. Beyond the carrot, I’m talking about a dish of parsnip, prior to the beef.
It’s braised with lime and sesame, shining a light on its natural banana-sweetness. Balancing over the top is a dried tuille of the same, as brittle as the maple, linden, gingko and London plain leaves which are traced onto the windows and fall in the park across the way.
5) A Friendly Face to the City
Perhaps the most striking aspect thing to take away from the nearly four hours spent here is the friendly face it puts on this town. New York can be harsh to a visitor, from the three hours it can take to navigate JFK immigration, to the pushing on the subway, and sneers when stopping to consider a map. This is a city that can foster aggression, from the boots up. Yet there has been extraordinary work done to make the staff here some of the most charming around. It rolls from the smile of the floorstaff when spying The Hungry One elected to finish the picnic beer straight from the bottle ‘I think it tastes better that way too- it’s refreshing to see that in here- thank you’, to the turn of Chef Humm around the dining room, to check and chat at the close of the meal, to considerate parting gifts on departure. After mentioning our plans to fly to Miami for some sunshine on Christmas Day we are presented with a gift bag containing aloe lotion and sunscreen- just so we were prepared. In another bag there’s a mason jar of house made granola. We certainly had no need for dinner after a meal of that magnitude. And now breakfast for the next few days was covered as well.
A meal like this doesn’t come cheap. But when you’re talking about 16 courses of world class food, an eating tour, lunch (dinner and breakfast too) and a show, it’s much easier to swallow. It’s a meal that lives loud in my memories, now more than two weeks on. This is one New York experience that I heartily endorse.
Is it worth a trip to the Big Apple alone? It just might be.
Bravo Chef Humm. Bravo.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010, United States
Eleven Madison Park is currently ranked as number 10 on the San Pellegrino, Best Restaurants in the World list for 2012. Chalk up one more for our insane ‘Quest for the best‘