Eleven Madison Park is unabashedly candid about striving to be the best restaurant in the world. Instead of producing an off-putting earnestness the restaurant proclaims greatness, as if it is merely waiting for the recognition it knows it deserves. And seeing as this is the top rated US restaurant on the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants, the accolades are pouring in and it is easy to see why. Over three and a half hours the kitchen produces 14 small courses that are inventive, playful, and despite the sheer quantity of food, never overwhelming. Like many fine dining establishments, the service is impeccable, but instead of feeling overly formal and stiff, the service is attentive, casual, and unobtrusive.
Worried that jet lag would ruin any evening meals while in New York City, I opted to book lunch as the main eating event for the day. I had just arrived that morning off a 16 hour non-stop flight from Johannesburg and after a cup of coffee and a quick saunter around SoHo, we hopped in a cab to the restaurant. New York City was cold and the rain sprinkled intermittently throughout the day and I had the overwhelming desire to spend the day sleeping in bed, but spending a leisurely lunch with my mom in the spacious art deco room overlooking Madison Square Park was the perfect way to enjoy the afternoon. Windows wrap around the corner space and the trees whose leaves form the Eleven Madison Park logo are visible in the park. Tables are spaciously placed at a distance from one another so that you never feel as if you are encroaching on a neighboring tables’ conversation – a problem that most space-constrained New York City restaurants face.
Never forgetting their New York City location, the kitchen at Eleven Madison Park pays homage to classic New York dishes and the first bite to come out of the kitchen takes on a favorite – a black and white cookie. This savory version contains fall flavors of cheddar and apple and if there had been a box I would have happily gobbled every single one. The fourth course was the only course that I thought was a bit of a miss and whether that is because it had to modified from a course that contained shellfish or because it contained oregano (which I detest) I don’t know. Red pepper was the main ingredient and it was served with sheep’s mild yogurt noddles and tiny bits of tomato and artichoke. The kitchen quickly redeemed itself with a dish that still continues to amaze. On the plate was what appeared to be a single slice of tomato with miniature cubes of red onion and two garlic croutons barely larger than the head of a pin. Of course this was no ordinary tomato, but had been carefully reconstructed to look like one from a concentrated tomato paste.
The next course was another homage to New Yorkers and their obsession with brunch. Placed in front of us was a small eggs benedict with a pickled quail’s egg, fresh corn, ham and teeming with caviar. A tray with the tiniest English muffins accompanied the eggs benedict. Our seventh course was a shared dish – a montauk fish boil with corn, peppers and beans. Despite being a fine dining restaurant, the cutlery was shoved to side in favor of digging in with your hands to enjoy the fresh and tasty seafood dish. The eighth course was perhaps the most surprising. Not because it was the most inventive or flavorful, but because I had know idea you could eat sunflowers. To announce the dish, a plate teeming with sunflowers was placed on the table while it was explained that our next course would be prepared similar to that of an artichoke heart. The final savory main course was perhaps the most perfectly executed and beautifully presented slices of duck breast I have ever had. It was roasted with lavender, honey, and served with nectarines and fennel. You could almost smell the sweetness which was in no way cloying as the entire duck was presented at the table looking like a work of art.
Next was a series of dessert courses. My favorite being a make your own sundae concept where a number of ingredients from honey, to grapes, to sorrel, to different types of oats were placed on the table along with a dish of farmer’s cheese. Our fourteenth course was a game. Four chocolate bars, scorecards, and pencils were delivered to our table. Our task was to taste the chocolate and identify what type of milk (cow, sheep, goat, or buffalo) was used to make the chocolate. If you were running out of things to talk about with your dining companion by this point, this surely was the dish that would keep the conversation going. Although the chocolates are made by a Brooklyn based chocolatier, this course epitomized everything that the restaurant is about – whimsical fine dining without taking itself too seriously. It was one of the most enjoyable meals I have had anywhere in the world.
The kitchen delivered an amazingly sophisticated meal that always kept the diners in mind. Despite the parade of dishes, we left feeling satiated but not unduly full. It was the perfect table to share with my mom.
- Cheddar: Savory Black and White Cookie with Apple
- Tuna: Marinated, with Cucumber
- Eggplant: Slow-Cooked with Shelling Beans and Mint
- Pepper: Salad with Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, Tomato, and Artichoke
- Tomato: Salad with Basil and Red Onion
- Caviar: Benedict with Egg, Corn and Ham
- Foie Gras: Seared with Plum and Thyme
- Montauk Fish: Boil with Corn and Peppers
- Sunflower: Braised, with Green Tomato and Sunflower Sprouts
- Duck: Roasted with Lavender, Honey, Nectarines and Fennel
- Farmer’s Cheese: Sundae with Honey Grape, Sorrel and Oats
- Whey: Sorbet with Caramelized Milk and Yogurt
- Berry: Cheesecake with White Currant Sorbet and Raspberry Vinegar
- Chocolate: ‘Name that Milk’ and Pretzel with Sea Salt