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NYC’s Eleven Madison Park: French Laundry Wanna-Be

cochon-eleven-madison-park [1]
Eleven Madison Park [2], under bulletproof restaurateur Danny Meyer [3]‘s direction, has been on my NYC hit list since it received a rare 4 stars from the New York Times [4] in August 2009. They seem to be using French Laundry [5] as a model (especially for food presentation) and, while the meal was highly enjoyable, it had some missteps.

Danny Meyer’s restaurants are famous for excellent service, and it seemed our waiter had gotten the memo in bold. He was, let’s say, very perky. Not that I’m complaining. I’ll take perky over invisible any day, but sometimes “great service” can feel forced, too.

For a restaurant of this caliber, lunch is surprisingly affordable: $28 for two courses and $42 for three courses. We opted for the three courses but the food was so abundant I could have stopped at two. Plus, we could choose anything we liked from the menu—three entrées if we wanted; no “this column, then that column” limitations despite the “prix fixe” designation. Danny Meyer’s service memo is looking better.


Our amuse-bouche was two-pronged: a serving of foie gras topped with an asparagus gelee and–like French Laundry–gougères, or an airy savory pastry with cheese. Also like French Laundry, we were served two butters with our bread: one salted (goat’s milk), one unsalted (cow’s milk). Both were scrumptious; the goat’s-milk butter almost tasted like a rich cheese.


The next off-menu item was a green garlic velouté with sous-vide Hawaiian blue prawns, fava, and mint. Lemony but subtle, creamy but not heavy. I could leave now and be wholly satisfied (after having seven more of them, that is).


Our first appetizer arrived: Big eye tuna with sweet peas, mint, and sheep’s milk yogurt. This was pleasant but it needed a kick of some sort, maybe wasabi or jalapeño.


The other appetizer was a “composition of young vegetables with market lettuce and almond.” The easiest dishes are often the most difficult to pull off and this missed the mark a bit. Instead of dressing the salad, they put three dollops of sauce on the side and then didn’t explain what they were. We guessed a celery gelee, a green herb purée, and a yogurt and almond infusion. It seemed more like vegetables with dip than a salad and it was hard to tell what the three sauces had in common. Were we supposed to mix them? (Yes, in retrospect, we should have asked, but they also should have told us.)


Next we had spaetzle with Niman Ranch pork belly, pommery mustard, and spinach. The savory-sweet complexity of hen of the woods mushrooms, grainy mustard, and melted onions earned it a blue ribbon. So much delicious spaetzle [6] around town! Who knew?


Our other mid-course dish was not as impressive: linguini with Alaskan king crab, black pepper, and lemon. It felt a bit like the crab was simply plopped on top of some egg pasta, and frankly the portion size was on the heavy side for a three-course lunch.


We finished with St. Canut Farm cochon de lait with rhubarb, spring onion, and ice wine vinegar [pictured at top]; and herb-roasted Colorado lamb with sucrine lettuce, garden peas, and pickled mustard seed [pictured here]. After having the pork belly in the spaetzle, the cochon dish felt like overkill (pork belly #2!). I was hitting my limit. The lamb was very nice, but nothing to swoon over. Perhaps I should try them another time with fresher taste buds, but both were done in a “protein four ways” style that felt overwhelming rather than just right.


Unable to fit in dessert, we finished our Grüner Veltliner and made our way past Danny Meyer’s Shake Shack across the street in Madison Square Park, enjoying the crisp rain-flecked air. Although there were a few hiccups, once again, Danny Meyer does not disappoint. This year’s James Beard-awarded “outstanding restaurateur” (cough) Keith McNally [7] should see how it’s really done.


Other NYC restaurant reviews:
Minetta Tavern: I Don’t Get It [8]
Colicchio & Sons: What’s New Is Old [9]
Peter Luger v. Strip House: The Steak-Off [10]
Motorino v. Kesté: Neapolitan Pizza Pie-Off [11]
Locanda Verde: Swing and a Miss [12]
Maialino: Danny Meyer Does It Again
Marea: Do Your Homework [13]
Great Jones Cafe: Best Wings In The City [14]
Apiary: Hidden Gem [15]
Seäsonal Restaurant & Weinbar: Who Knew? [16]
Brooklyn’s Fatty ’Cue: Malaysian BBQ [17]
La Esquina: VIP Mexican Food? [18]