2018/08/23

Dining at the World’s Best Restaurant of 2017, Eleven Madison Park in New York City

Dining Room Tasting Menu Summer 2018 in Daniel Humm's restaurant

As soon as the word spread of a highly talented Swiss chef working in New York City, I wanted to dine at his restaurant. That was back in the late 2000’s. I learned at the time that this chef – Daniel Humm is his name – worked at the Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant I had visited in 2005. Unfortunately, this was one year before my compatriot started working here.

When my husband and I visited New York City again in 2010, we checked whether we could make a reservation at this restaurant. And yes, it was possible, but for some reason we hesitated, and so the chance was gone!

When Eleven Madison Park topped the list of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, I remember vividly how I felt about it. On the one hand, I was glad that a Swiss chef was so successful, on the other hand I thought that such an accolade would diminish my chances of ever having dinner here. There would be too much people yearning to dine here and prices would skyrocket.

After the restaurant dropped to No. 4 in 2018 in the mentioned ranking, my husband and I agreed that Daniel Humm’s restaurants should be the place where we would like to celebrate an anniversary and finally – after going to a somewhat unusual reservation process, see more details later on –, a dream came true!

After this somewhat lengthy introduction, I come to the point. For those who are not familiar with the chef, here first a few words about him and his career.

Daniel Humm

As already mentioned, Daniel Humm is Swiss-born, and he grew up not far away from my home town of Olten in the northwestern part of the country. He left school at an early age as he did not show much interest in the things that were taught there. After an apprenticeship to become a cook he worked at prestigious Swiss institutions and received his first Michelin star at the age of 24.

Although speaking little English he accepted an offer to oversee the kitchen at Campton Place in San Francisco in 2003. Soon he gained good reputation as hottest new talent in town and was enticed to New York City by restaurateur Danny Meyer to become chef at his restaurant Eleven Madison Park in 2006.
At the same time, Will Guidara, a restaurateur, was appointed as general manager of Eleven Madison Park. Daniel Humm and Will Guidara found their gastronomical soulmate in each other and transformed the place from a French brasserie to a high-end fine dining establishment. In 2011, they acquired the restaurant and continued their way towards the top of the culinary industry.

In the next paragraphs, I will go into the development of Restaurant Eleven Madison Park after the duo of Daniel Humm and Will Guidara took over.

Cuisine

Daniel Humm is said to be a neo-classicist when it comes to his style of cooking. He has not abandoned his European training and techniques but is working constantly on freeing the old-fashioned things from the traditional haute cuisine. His goal is it to make culinary delights more modern and more palpable. He is a tireless perfectionist who has permanent improvement and reinvention in mind. At the same time, Daniel Humm is attracted to simplicity and purity, he aims at coming more to the point.

In his opinion, the most important thing about a dish is its deliciousness. Above all, it must give pleasure. It also has to be beautiful. As son of an architect he came to appreciate beauty and he wants to realize it also with its creations. Daniel Humm is much into minimalist platings, which are often heavy on geometrical forms. He seems to like circles or right angles, often his dishes look like pieces of abstract art.
Furthermore, Daniel Humm attaches much importance to creativity. Every dish must have something surprising. Eventually, there is always an intention behind his creations, be it for example a childhood memory or – simpler – more than one ingredient stemming from the same producer.

Talking of produce, the Swiss-born chef wants to showcase “New York-ness”, meaning he is inspired by the bounty and the traditions of his home of choice when it comes to the ingredients and the way to prepare them. And of course, he only uses seasonal products.

In terms of Daniel Humm’s development over the years, it can be said – based on what I read about him – that he is in permanent evolution. He plays with certain ideas and either keeps or drops them again. I heard that he had launched some gimmicks regarding the mentioned focus on the sense of place, the location of New York City, but I cannot confirm this when it comes to my recent visit to his restaurant, but more to my experience follows later on. First, I want to come to the accolades that the Eleven Madison Park received over the years.

Awards

The first Michelin star was awarded to the restaurant in 2010 and already two years later two more stars were added. Thus, Eleven Madison Park has been awarded three Michelin stars since 2012.

Regarding the World’s Best 50 Restaurants, it made its debut on this list in 2010 at No. 50. Since this point of time, it moved constantly forward: No. 24 in 2011, No. 10 in 2012, No. 5 in 2013 and from then on it has been always among a trio of restaurants rotating their positions within the leading five spots. In 2018, it dropped to No. 4 after gaining the leading status the year before.

When it comes to the most important local rating, the one of the New York Times, the restaurant got four stars (the maximum) in 2009 and this was reconfirmed in 2015.

Before going into food, some remarks concerning the restaurant’s interior cannot be left away, especially since it has been a much talked about topic recently.

Restaurant’s interior

Eleven Madison Park is located in the Art Deco Metropolitan Life North Building facing Madison Square and steps away from the famous Flatiron Building, one of New York City’s landmarks.
The building used to be Met Life’s records warehouse. After a years-long redesign of the interior and renovation of the exterior, Restaurant Eleven Madison Park was opened at the base of the building as part of the Union Square Hospitality Group in 1998. After the change of ownership to Daniel Humm and Will Guidara both of them decided at one point that it is time to put their own stamp on the restaurant. And the overhaul of kitchen and dining-room occurred exactly in the same year when the restaurant was awarded the best restaurant in the world!

Some people regarded the timing of this months-long renovation as unfortunate, but I imagine that it was too late to call off the intended project. And it was a good moment for such an undertaking as the duo recently had signed a new 20-year lease on the property. Anyway, Eleven Madison Park reopened at the beginning of October 2017, prepared for the long term!

I have only faint memories of the restaurant’s interior when I visited the place in 2005 before Daniel Humm took over and for sure, there were changes in the meantime. For example, what began as a restaurant serving 400 covers a night, it has now a capacity of just 80 persons. Be it as it may, here is the result of my research about the things that were changed on the occasion of the recent remodeling.

It was Daniel Humm’s and Will Guidara’s wish that “anything that was there before it was a restaurant needed to stay there” (Guidara). This applies to the hanging pendant lights, the revolving door and the openness between the dining room and adjacent spaces such as the bar.

The main-dining room – where the full tasting menu is served – is dominated by a huge blue painting by Rita Ackerman, an abstraction of Madison Park. The heavy mustardy-woods and black leather furniture made place for banquettes lining the space and other furnishing kept in muted neutral colors (light blue-gray and earthy brown). The atmosphere is pleasant here, the high-ceilinged Art Deco space is generously windowed, and it feels grand and intimate at the same time. The latter probably because the room is partitioned, and each table is a bit separated from the neighboring one.
The lounge space was redone, with more tables for prepaid bar dining and a smaller counter for walks-in.

I very much liked the main-dining’s room ambiance. This is also due to the fact that my husband and I were allocated probably the best table on site. We sat under the before mentioned painting at the corner table by the window and both had a full view of the happenings in here! As far as the lounge area is concerned, I only cast a glance at it but I found it a bit dark and the tables seemed to quite close to each other.

One more thing before showcasing the full tasting menu, a few words to the reservation process, which I found rather out of the ordinary.

Reservation process/Pricing

It is still possible after the update of Restaurant Eleven Madison Park to enjoy Daniel Humm’s menu as walk-ins, but I imagine you must be very lucky to snatch such a sought-after seat at the bar as the space is very limited.

For all the other people interested in dining here, there is only one way to do so, and this is to make a reservation online on the first day of the month for the whole month that follows, and this at 09.00 AM New York City time. You can choose between the Dining Room Tasting Menu at 315 $ per person – as we did – or the Bar Tasting Menu at 175 $. In addition, you may add a wine pairing to your Dining Room Tasting Menu that costs another 175 $, which we did as well. Bottom line, you have to spend about 1,000 $ for a fully loaded dinner for two! Having said this, the mentioned amount includes all the cost from water and tea/coffee to tax and tip. You have to keep in mind that the315 $ for a tasting menu roughly translates to 250 $ at a “normal” restaurant where you have to pay for tax and tip separately. Notwithstanding that, it remains an expensive pleasure!

One other thing has to be considered in this context. The mentioned deposits are non-refundable. Therefore, you are not in the position to cancel or to postpone your dinner. However, there is an opportunity to transfer the “ticket” through the reservation site of the restaurant (Tock) on a private basis.

After all these introductory remarks, I finally proceed to the main thing, the food.

Dining Room Tasting Menu Summer 2018

The restaurant offers an eight to ten course menu in the dining room. There is a mix of dishes, some are placed in front of you, others are set in the middle to share for the table. Some courses are fixed, others can be chosen. The whole dinner lasts about three hours.

When my husband and I dined at the Eleven Madison Park, we had eight courses and with four of them we were able to make a choice out of three options each.

Common practice seems to be here that black and white cookies are the first bite on the menu.
This was true for us too. The crumbly savory biscuit had a creamy filling made of cheddar and apple, a promising start that asked for more of the same!

The first proper course was a dish inspired by Daniel Humm's recent trip to India, a tomato dosa. The crispy, savory pancake was filed with goat cheese and green tomato and accompanied by a tomato tea with a summer herb bundle in it.
This was followed by a tomato salad with summer berries.
The tomato tea was so intense and full of taste, I could almost not believe it! And the flavorful tomatoes perfectly harmonized with the berries. This light composition – served in two courses – was a fine introduction to Daniel Humm’s culinary skills and perfect on a hot and humid summer evening.

The next dish that was served was our absolute highlight of the dinner, corn soufflé with caviar from white US sturgeon and bonito sauce, made of tuna after being smoked and dried.

The server brought two soufflés to our table, cut off the top of them and arranged the covers together with the other ingredients on plates.

While I would have wished to keep the whole soufflé and not only the top of it, this thought soon vanished when I took the first bite of the dish. What a culinary revelation! Normally, I am not much into caviar, but this one paired so nicely with the subtly-sweet of the corn and the fishy yet slightly smoky taste of the sauce, Heavenly!

The dinner proceeded to the first course where we had a choice and my husband I went of course for our favorite ingredient, foie gras! When asked whether we wanted it cold or warm, we opted for the latter and got seared Hudson Valley foie gras with plums and duck prosciutto.
Although being immaculately prepared and well composed, it lacked the wow effect I had been hoping for. I have no idea why the dish that usually makes my taste-buds sing failed to leave a lasting impression on me.

Next was a tabletop grilling act, little grey snails - locally sourced and feeding on mint - and chanterelles on skewers got their finish table side, a fun thing to watch!

After grilling, we could wrap them in lettuce together with the condiments, what a great idea!

When it came to the seafood dish, there was another choice to make. While my husband went for lobster – butter-poached, charred with greens and bean ecrasse –, I decided to have the striped bass – a local black bass, slow cooked with cucumbers and lovage as well as green tomato.
Then it was time for the main course. Out of several options, we had one of Daniel Humm’s typical dishes, his signature roasted duck in the classic honey and lavender version together with blueberries and onion.
It was accompanied by corn, creamed with juniper and grated egg yolk, as well as zucchini with lemon and mint. That was another highlight our dinner as the dish was not only expertly crafted but its flavor combinations also lingered long in the memory.

When the cheese dish was served, we were first a bit unsure what we should make out of it. A breadbasket was put on the table together with a plate with two kind of mousses for each of us. When we had the first bite of the brioches in the basket, we got it. They were filled with creamy cheese (triple crème) and the mousses were thought to complement them (cherry and basil crème fraiche).
What an original take on cheese and a culinary delight at the same time!

After so many exciting savory dishes, we were keen to see what the chef hand in mind for dessert. Again, we had a choice, this time between two fruity creations and a chocolate one. We did not need long to decide as we both are chocolate aficionados. We got a truly imaginative composition made of sorbet, shortbread and coffee meringue, a real treat!
The feast was rounded up with Daniel Humm’s signature chocolate pretzels with sea salt, a magnificent blend of pretzel crumbles mixed with white chocolate, dipped in chocolate and sprinkled with sea salt after baking.
As a farewell present you receive a bag with a large jar of homemade granola as well a small tin in which you find your individual menu including wine, indeed a nice touch!

Service

About two weeks prior to your dinner, a maître d' of Eleven Madison Park writes you an email to learn more about your motivation to dine here (special occasion etc.). When you walk into the restaurant, someone is here to greet you, not positioned behind a podium but just standing around. After being seated, the table’s captain informs you at the start of the meal how the dinner is going to proceed. No printed menu is handed over to you at this time.

During the course of the dinner, you are given some choices to take at certain points of time. Later on, the same person who led the introductory conservation comes to the table and chats with you, in our case we were asked about some details concerning the special occasion that made us book a table here.

On the whole, I felt that the service is less scripted than expected based upon my research. There are some fixed parameters but mostly it seems to be rather intuitive. The servers’ tone is relaxed and easy-going yet gracious and solicitous, you feel well at ease here.

Another thing that deeply impressed me, was how the service under the aegis of front-of-house director and co-owner Will Guidara is orchestrated. Every single server knows exactly what to do at a given point of time, even the routes through the dining room makes the impression to be defined. Observing an endless procession of service personnel moving through the room was quite a sight!

Overall

After longing for many years to have the chance to eat in the restaurant of the most famous Swiss chef Daniel Humm, it finally came true! As luck would have it, the dinner fell on not long after the reopening of Eleven Madison Park after a months-long renovation with a new look, revamped bar program and a trimmed menu.
After being the World’s Best Restaurant in 2017, the glamorous Art Deco Space opposite of Madison Park dropped this year to 4th. This downgrade is not that significant as in recent years there have been a trio of restaurants (including Eleven Madison Park) that have rotated their position within the leading five spots.

The place, co-owned by Daniel Humm and front-of-house director Will Guidara, is well known for its purist and understated cuisine focused on the region’s bounty and traditions, which does not deny the chef’s European training and techniques. Daniel Humm has developed his own distinctive style of neoclassicism with dishes just as his honey and lavender glazed duck breast. The essential is there but reduced, without superfluous or out-of-date fuss. Platings are minimalist and heavy on simple forms.

Service is another thing that amazes here. What goes on in the grand yet intimate dining room is a class of its own, a perfectly organized and orchestrated process. Everything works like a Swiss clockwork yet service is warm and empathic. Will Guidara – who oversees this domain – is a master in his field.

Dining here is a great thing to do, so much can be said, but it is certainly not for everyone! Eleven Madison Park is one of New York City’s most expensive restaurants. In the late 2000’s you could have three courses from the menu for less than 100 $. Nowadays you have to dig deep in your pockets to have the chance to eat here. But of course you also have to keep in mind what is behind such an exclusive dinner. I think it is pointless to lament the price level. As long as guests are ready to pay a fortune for a dinner here, they can ask for such high prices. Having said that, I have so far not regretted dining at Eleven Madison Park for one second, but most probably it will be a once in a lifetime experience!

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