In my review of the French Laundry I wrote that, in terms of my culinary experiences, I hoped that I hadn't peaked at 22. Two years later, I'm happy to write that after indulging in the 11 course tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, that fear is completely gone.
To end my latest New York City adventure on the best note possible, I had planned on having an extravagant tasting menu at a restaurant I'd never tried, Alto, a 2-star Michelin rated Italian restaurant. However, after having such an amazing lunch the day before, I actually canceled that reservation and made one for 10 pm at Eleven Madison Park instead. That decision will from now on be known as the best that I've ever made in my life.
That whole afternoon I was thinking, "We're just going to be the kitchen's dream - an 11 course tasting menu with a girl that wants to talk, starting at 10 pm." Luckily for us we didn't feel the rage of the kitchen that night, and only received smiles and sterling service from the front of the house. Again, Robert the floor manager was there to personally assist us, starting us off with a wonderful glass of champagne and generally putting up with all of my questions with the charm and grace that only an Englishman can exude. And Kevin, our Captain for the evening, was extremely gracious, professional, and warm the entire night - even when the clock hit 1 am.
By ordering the Gourmand menu, with accompanying wine pairing (which was incredibly well-matched), it was clear that I wanted to go big; I wanted my last meal to inundate me with all of the extravagance and luxury the Big Apple had to offer. The kitchen was clearly ready for me, and started off the attack with Sterling Royal Caviar, enhanced by the subtle flavor of chive blossom and the yolky richness of quail egg, followed by Sea Urchin (what I have labeled the foie gras of the sea) served inside an eggshell covered in gold flakes (and again, with caviar).
The Sea Urchin deserves special attention as it embodies one of the major reasons that Chef Humm's cuisine is so special. The finest dishes are ones that don't just show expert technique, but where every aspect of a plate has been considered: the combination of flavors, the plays on texture, the colors, and the presentation. However, more than any other chef I've encountered, Humm pays attention to another critical aspect - temperature. The luke-warm urchin accompanied by a warm shellfish ragout and topped with a cold green apple foam is a wildly successful and unique flavor combination (one which Humm has worked on perfecting over the years) that spotlights his attention to temperature within a dish.
The following dish, a garden-focused composition entitled "Spring out of Winter," was the ultimate expression of contrast in every aspect of the plate, and was my favorite of the meal. Variations of asparagus were served alongside delicate pea shoots and baby peas, Jamon Iberico, shards of dehydrated almond milk, and creme fraiche ice cream (frozen by liquid nitrogen). The concept of creating a dish that embodies the differences of Winter and Spring was executed through the plays on contrast: simple, fresh flavors highlighted through complicated technique, warm and cold elements, plays on creamy and crunchy textures, and salty, savory flavors combined with the slight sweetness of ice cream. Imaginative, seasonally appropriate, technically challenging, beautiful, and delicious, this is is a truly masterpiece of a dish.
From here, the menu moved onto another favorite: the creamiest, most thoughtful foie gras I've ever had. Containing a torchon of Tete de Cochon in the center, and paired beautifully with both shaved and pickled radish and carrot, cornichons, and horseradish, this was one of the only times I've had a smooth foie gras that wasn't paired with a sweet, fruit-based ingredient. Who needs gooey cherries when the richness of the foie can be better enjoyed through the combination of both salty and subtly sweet ingredients?
At this point, the proteins started pouring in, and while all were exceptional, I will only go into the details of a few. Atlantic Halibut with seared and smoked garlic and crayfish came 5th, followed by the best lobster I have ever had, poached with young carrots (both shaved and pureed), snap pea, ginger, and a vadouvan granola.
Juicy cuts of Hawaiian Blue Prawns were used to transition the fish portion of our meal to the meats, accompanying slow cooked Poussin served with seaweed, tiny mushrooms, seabeans, and sun-dried tomatoes. If I wasn't told that I was eating chicken, I would have never known; by cooking it sous-vide, the moisture and texture was uniform throughout the entire cut, making it extremely tender and juicy - like the softest sausage you have ever eaten.
Finally, we arrived at the herb roasted lamb (served in a variety of ways: lamb ravioli, lamb sausage, lamb short rib, and sweetbreads) with Sucrine lettuce, garden peas, and Oregon morels. Including so many different cuts is dangerous because it creates the challenge of making each one equally as impressive, and could lead the dish being needlessly overly complicated. However, each part of the lamb was perfectly executed, delicious in its own way, and not overworked.
After a wonderful selection of cheese from the cheese cart, we were at the final stretch. Our first dessert, a Tahitian Vanilla souffle served with Passion Fruit gelato was light and airy in texture, with a tangy flavor that packed a punch. Lastly came the "Milk & Chocolate" - a rich-but-not-overly-indulgent play on texture that couldn't help but remind me of the dinosaur mountains of Super Mario. The list of ingredients is astounding: Caramelized White Chocolate Sorbet, Frozen Chocolate Foam, Aerated Chocolate, Dehydrated Chocolate Mousse, Dehydrated Milk Foam, Brown Butter Solids, Dulce de Leche, Crème Fraiche, and Maldon Salt. It was as if the chef ended our meal by coming to the table purely to say, "I don't really know to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal."
Being the only two people left in the restaurant at the end of the meal, and enticed by the slow jazz playing in the background (and the wine), we took advantage of the opportunity by sharing a slow dance in the middle of the dining room. An elegant end to an elegant meal that, in my eyes, can only be described as culinary perfection.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10010-3643