Restaurants can sometimes make me feel a certain way. Some places make me feel cool, or like I might at least be cool for one night. Places like Freeman’s, Five Ninth, and The Spotted Pig. Others make me feel like I’m at home. I’d put Five Points, Tia Pol, and Little Owl in this category. The other night when I had dinner at Eleven Madison Park, I felt something I don’t often feel. I felt like a grown up. How rare. But that’s what happens whenever I dine there, or spend a night at the bar sipping on one of their sophisticated cocktails often garnished with Greenmarket fruit. I feel like a real honest-to-goodness adult. The next day I return to my usual mental state, somewhere in my teens, in my standard daily outfit of cargo pants, a t-shirt and a hoodie. Add braces and a skateboard and I could be a thirteen year-old. But when I pushed through the sturdy old revolving door of Eleven Madison last week, I was transformed into a civilized, put-together, and moderately educated and productive adult. Poof! It was a nice change.
The other nice change at Eleven Madison is its chef. Earlier this year, Eleven Madison’s original chef, Kerry Heffernan, was replaced by a young transplant from Europe by-way-of California—a 29 year-old chef named Daniel Humm. And Daniel is not messing around. He’s revamped the menu, taking every ounce of brasserie out of site, and infusing it with European elegance, sharpened with a bit of New York style.
While the kitchen has gone through a makeover, the room is still grand, with sky-high windows reaching up to vaulted ceilings stamped in rose and gold Art deco patterns, spacious tables draped in layers of creamy white linen, and walls lined in sumptuous espresso-toned tufted leather banquettes. Up at the bar, a snug but comfortable space up a few steps from dining room, there are comfy high back seats and cozy banquettes perfect for unwinding after work, or imbibing before or after dinner. The night I had dinner at Eleven Madison, I met my friend Erica for a cocktail, and found the bar in full swing, packed with bundles of corporate types taking the edge off the week, sipping assorted cocktails in clear, brown and rose colors. We snuck into the one empty banquette that remained, ordered a few house Negronis and felt the stress of the week melt away. An hour later, my buzz buzzing and in the middle of a heated discussion of the Big Lebowski, Steven arrived. Erica left to meet her fiancé for dance lessons for their wedding, and Steven and I we were moved to our table (the check was transferred without issue).
Before we get into the food, I’d like to take a moment here to discuss the service, which was flawless. It is polite, swift, gracious, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic, but not in a cheerleader sort of way—just enough. It is vintage Danny Meyer. There is such care taken to grant your every wish and need that I am actually considering moving in and never leaving. In a recent article in New York Magazine written by Robin and Rob, Meyer is quoted as saying: “Service is delivering on your promise. Hospitality is making people feel good while you’re delivering on the promise.” And this is what really sets his restaurants apart. That thing he calls enlightened hospitality. People are not just delivering service, they actually make you believe it gives them joy to see you happy. Whether or not that is actually true is not the point. That’s the way they make you feel. And it feels good.
Service aside though, the kitchen is the heart of a restaurant, and the chef in this kitchen now is quite different than when Kerry was the head honcho. Daniel’s menu is prix fixe only, three courses for $76, or a choice of two tasting menus—one five course from the sea for $95 and one seven course called Gourmand for $120. We opted for the basic prix fixe and added on a few other dishes to sort of make our own tasting menu. Then Steven and I settled in and began trading stories of our week, and let the service begin.
Our dinner started with a long slim dish of amuse bouches—a round of bluefin tuna topped with fennel confit (nice), a plump, briny Manila clam "en gelée" (a bit too salty, I could have left that one alone), a few crispy bonbons of sweatbreads (I would have eaten a case of these), and some very thin goat cheese crackers layered with Meyer lemon marmalade (delish). These snacks were followed by yet another gift from the kitchen, a carrot-ginger broth bobbing with mussels that was bright, zippy, and delicious. It tasted vaguely Thai, with that perfect balance of sweet from the carrots and heat from the ginger. It wakes up the mouth and gets it ready for the meal to come.
The meal to come is a refined and lovely one. Daniel takes an elegant approach to cooking. His food, like the restaurant, is for adults. This is not to say it is boring or dull. It’s not. But it is not haphazard, or juvenile in the over-the-top way that some chefs can play things with too much flourish. It is thoughtful, and at times, impeccable.
Take the beet salad—a few cubes of sweet and earthy roasted heirloom beets in assorted colors—yellow, magenta, and pink—set up on the plate like some Mondrian painting, and then dotted with creamy bits of tangy chevre from Lynnhaven Farms. It was gorgeous in the simple freshness of its contrasting flavors. The frog legs, pulled from the bone so the meat is just sweet and tender and requires not an ounce of effort to devour, are tucked in with Oregon chanterelles and a poached egg, and hidden under a frothy cloud of vin jaune (a French wine similar to a sherry). While I liked this dish, this one was too fussy. I would skip the froth, which obscured the beauty and the taste of the poached egg and the stunning runny yolk. But I would not change one thing about the gnocchi of La Ratte potatoes—starchy French fingerlings that Daniel mills down into little potato dumplings that are pressed and lightly pan-fried so they have a slight crisped outer layer. Bite into one and you’ll find a warm steamy creamy potato filling. You’ll possibly well up with tears of joy. These heavenly buttons of potato are piled into a mound and tossed with lemon confit, and hunks of meaty, unctuous sardines, a glorious and unusual touch that adds the right contrast of oil, acid, and salt. (NOTE: These are also served at the bar. Need I say more?)
After our appetizers were cleared, a young sommelier came over to help us chose some more wine. He was tall and lean and quite well-groomed, with smooth dark hair that he had parted on the side and slicked back so that he sort of resembled Clark Kent. Steven and I were quite tipsy at this point, and tried not to imagine him in blue tights as he poured us a beautiful bottle of Burgundy for our next course—one fish and one meat. The fish was a steamed Loup de Mer that tasted nothing like a piece of steamed fish. I expected something mild, but this fish was ramped up with flavor. Possibly it was steamed in an herb salon? I also loved its accompaniments—a shower of zucchini, Meyer lemon, and the most divine addition for texture and a bit of pop—crispy tomatillos. The fish was spectacular, but the Fischer Farm’s suckling pig confit just blew it out of the water. This piggy was a beauty. Served pressed down into a slim rectangle, it actually resembled a chocolate brownie, which was slightly strange, but who cares. It could have been shaped like a tennis racket and I would have devoured every last string. I don’t know how he gets his pig to taste this way—so soft, so seductively piggy, so head-spinningly good, but I’d like to learn. The pig brownie is crusted in a crispy skin that I nibbled with my fingers and swiped through a sweet-spicy jam of plum chutney warmed up with five spice jus. This is what I mean by food that is sophisticated and thought out. There was nothing much on that plate—some confited pig, a bit of chutney. It was enough to make you appreciate the flavors, and nothing to distract you.
Desserts are still under the care of Nicole Kaplan, who is one of my favorite pastry chefs in the city, probably because I love the fact that she makes really good, well-balanced desserts that strike to the heart of your happy place. That night, we had a sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake, that was silky and creamy, and a black mission fig tart with a red wine and goat cheese ice cream that were swirled together to miraculous effect.
Since my evening had started with cocktails and moved on to include copious amounts of wine from Clark Kent the sommelier, I felt far from an adult as I tried to navigate my way out of the restaurant teetering on a pair of Manolos I borrowed from my friend Diana (and seem to have conveniently forgotten to return). I’m not used to three-inch heels, especially after so much wine. But I planned ahead, knowing I would want to walk home; I had a pair of flip flops in my purse. Once I cleared the revolving door and said goodnight to Steven, I crossed the street and took a seat on a bench in Madison Square Park and changed out of my fancy shoes. I flip-flopped my way home, glad to have played the part of a grown up for a few hours, but just as happy to be back to my real self.