Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ingredients are King at Eleven Madson Park

This is not the first time Eleven Madison Park has been reviewed on this blog; we ate there about a year ago and were very favorably impressed. But Eleven Madison Park is, in some ways, almost a completely different restaurant than it was a year ago. They've revamped their menu, not only in terms of the dishes offered, but also in terms of the concept. Now, rather than a list of dishes accompanied by descriptions, EMP's menu consists of a grid. Each space is occupied by a single word, such as "coffee" or "chicken" or "anise." You select either four or six items. The idea here is that the preparations of each dish will change frequently (made malleable by seasonal ingredients and chefly inspiration) or may be tailored to diner preferences. An interesting concept in principle, but it suffered in execution on the day we ate there.

After explaining how the menu "worked," our server did not then follow up with any dish descriptions. Rather, it was on us to ask. There were probably over 25 different dishes on the menu, and it felt awkward to ask about more than 3 or 4. Plus, once a dish was described to you, it felt sort of churlish not to order it (or was hard to process and remember all the details); almost as if you thought it didn't sound good. So, ordering was kind of a gamble. Some of the throws of the dice payed off, others didn't.

We chose the 4 course option, as it was lunch and we didn't want to spend the whole rest of the groaning we'd eaten too much.

As was the case the last time we ate at EMP, we got a lot more than four courses. There were several amuse bouche dishes, as well as palate cleansers between courses - among them were some of the best bites out of the whole meal.

The first amuse was a silky chicken veloute served in a coffee cup and accompanied by brioche toasts drizzled with truffle butter and chives. This dish blew me away because it was simple yet incredibly elevated. Plus, it tasted fabulous - hands down probably the best thing we had.

The second amuse was also quite special, a light lemon and Sturgeon sabayon with chive oil and small bits of sturgeon fish, all served in an egg shell. I'm not into really fishy things, so this dish immediately made me nervous, but I needn't have worried. The seafood flavors were subtle and well balanced by the lemon and chive oil.

For the first course, two of us chose the cold foie gras preparation, a mousse served with pineapple, pickled onions, and brioche toasts. On the side was a foie gras creme brulee (which struck me as quite original). The pineapple was an especially inspired sweet accompaniment.

The other two of us chose the prawns. These were served cold, poached and presented in a briny broth (also cold) alongside a green apple granita. As with other times I've had prawn combined with sweet elements (I'm thinking here of a prawn prepared sous vide with vanilla bean), it just didn't quite work for me. The prawns and broth seemed overly fishy and didn't, in my view, pair well with the cold apple granita. My husband, however, really enjoyed this dish.

For the next course, three of us chose the butter-poached lobster served with roasted chestnuts and a butternut squash puree. The lobster was rich and cooked just right; the pairing with the butternut puree was very wintry and satisfying. I could have done with fewer chestnuts.

My husband's second course was crab. This turned out to be King Crab served over a housemade egg tagliatelle pasta and a lemony butter sauce. It was very, very good and incredibly rich. Other main courses included a beef fillet with bernaise sauce topped with seared foie gras, chives, and sweet caramelized onion. This was (as you might guess) rich and decadent. I had the pork loin, which was served alongside a crispy/fatty pork belly with parsnip puree, horseradish and pear.

The desserts were the weakest link in the meal - poorly described (even by their single descriptor) and the least well-executed. Two of us had the dish described only as "chocolate." Oddly, there was very little chocolate present in the dessert. It might better have been labeled "squash" - there were butternut squash ice creams, caramelized winter squashes, and so on. Very little chocolate was present, and what was there didn't pair well with the squash. I had the "lemon" dessert, which was pretty good. There was a little lemon cake topped with lemon curd, candied lemon, and lemon foam.

All in all, I like the idea/concept EMP is trying with their menu, but found the execution spotty.