It’s probably advisable, when going to a restaurant ranked as one of the Top 10 in the world, not to wear hiking boots. This thought has been running through my mind since about 5pm, when it dawned on me that I was lost somewhere in New York, and that it was extremely unlikely that I’d make it back to my lodgings in time to change before my 6pm booking at Eleven Madison Park.
To make matters worse, I am lost in a part of town that appears to sell shoes for roughly the sum I pay in rent each month. It’s with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, therefore, that I purchase a pair of brown pleather heels at a little Chinese store. A few minutes later, hiking boots safely stowed in a carrier bag, I arrive at what is currently ranked the fifth best restaurant in the world. (They would move up to number four just a week or so later.)
Located in the South of Midtown New York in the Credit Suisse building, Eleven Madison Park started out in 1998 with restaurateur Danny Meyer at the helm. Swiss chef Daniel Humm took over the reins in the kitchen in 2006, and bought the restaurant with business partner Will Guidara in 2011. Although Humm might not be a native New Yorker, he has sought to interpret the cuisine of his adopted city in a playful, intelligent way.
The rather grand dining room might be a little imposing with its high ceiling, vast park-facing windows and art deco mouldings, but there’s a warm glow from the late afternoon spring light, and a kind of buzz in the space. It feels a little like the lobby outside a theatre, before the curtain goes up: ushers bustling around, glass clinking, a gentle hum of conversation, and a feeling of expectation in the air.
On my table wait an envelope and a letter opener. Inside the former, I find a little card, laser-cut with the shapes of four different leaves: strawberry, celery, cherry and coffee. I’m told to punch out the leaf that most appeals to me. I push out the delicate strawberry leaf, and the show begins.
The first dish arrives in a petite box, bound up with string. Inside is a miniature black and white cookie, a (usually sweet) treat that’s native to New York. This savoury rendition – a crumbly, cheddary biscuit with a hint of apple – goes beautifully with my craft cider. (The wine list runs to some 120 pages, but my kind sommelier has pointed out a section of beers and ciders right at the back.)
Next there’s a jelly-like morel custard with popping balls of Maine Sea Trout roe, followed swiftly by English peas bursting with so much pea flavour that I wonder what vegetable is it I’ve been eating all these years.
Then come two hot rolls swaddled in a linen envelope and served with fresh farm butter infused with lamb drippings. The rolls turn out to be a kind of brioche-croissant hybrid – that’s how chef Daniel Humm describes them, when he emerges from the kitchen to chat with all the diners. With the rich, lamb-laced butter melting into them, the rolls are indecently delicious.
The next dish is another remixed New York classic: pastrami on rye. I’m fairly certain, however, that no pastrami in New York, or anywhere, has ever been quite this tender or deeply flavoured. Here, too, is the first sign of my strawberry choice: the dish is served with a bottle of intense strawberry soda, as per the deli soda pop tradition.
I bravely order a glass of wine, The Falling Man reisling, which the sommelier recommends as a local option (the farm is just four hours outside New York). It turns out to be genuinely tasty and unusual to boot. There’s a rich sliver of foie gras with a sharp orange salsa (which tastes slightly too bitter to me and my sugar-loving South African palate) and then the next act begins.
A big wooden workbench is wheeled over to my table. My waiter begins slicing and grating an apple, all the while explaining the history of the Waldorf salad. The dish was invented at the Waldorf Hotel in New York in the 1890s, by maître d’ Oscar Tschirky, who needed to serve a huge party. This incarnation is fresh, crunchy and sweet, and topped with slivers of the creamiest, most rapture-inducing gorgonzola I’ve ever tasted.
The salad is followed by a blur of lobster and asparagus and then a dish of superbly nuanced but intense lamb, before I’m onto the cheese course. It arrives in a wicker picnic basket, my waiter dropping it off and handing me a bottle opener: “Everything is inside, except this,” he explains. I unpack a little gingham tablecloth, a ceramic plate cast to resemble a paper plate, and a bottle of what turns out to be some darn good dark beer – with a hint of sweet, malty molasses in its makeup – brewed specially for the restaurant by a local New York brewery. The cheese is freshly made at the restaurant itself, served with another New York classic, a pretzel with beer in the dough, and some tart green strawberries that function a little like pickles for my self-assembled sandwich.
I’m having fun, I realise, despite the fact that I’m dining alone and that this three-star establishment ought to be intimidating. “We take what we do very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously,” admits my waiter.
There is certainly a sense of humour to the food: more Coen brothers than slapstick; a sort of dry wit. The next course is introduced as the other half of the cheese course: a whey sorbet topped with a caramelised milk powder and milk foam. Aside from its clever complementary nature, the whey sorbet is sweet and intriguing, and probably one of my favourite dishes on the menu.
Dessert is another New York classic, a baked Alaska. The dish was invented – so my waiter tells me, as he sets it alight with burning rum in front of my eyes – right across the park, to celebrate America’s purchase of Alaska. The dish is whisked away to be plated prettily before I get to taste it and turns out to have an intense marzipan flavour that makes me incredibly happy.
Finally, there’s a chocolate-covered sea-salt pretzel, also kind of marzipan-flavoured, and, like a full stop or a closing bracket to match the one that opened the meal, another black and white cookie, but this time sweet and laced with mint.
I am, I understand, at the end of the show, and I find myself struggling to come to terms with it: like that feeling you get after watching a really profound film that’s removed you from ordinary life for a few moments.
After the bill has come and the credit cards have rolled (and whimpered at the $225 price tag for this fifteen-course meal), there’s one last treat – like the outtakes after the credits at the end of a film. “Breakfast,” my waiter announces, placing a little white goodie-bag on my table. “Muesli roasted right here in our kitchen.”
I carry it diligently through the subway and back to my tiny hostel dorm and – thanks to a lack of non-powdered milk in the morning – it ends up making the journey back with me to Cape Town. I eat it in rapturous, nostalgic mouthfuls back at my desk in the office with my colleagues, gushing endlessly about the meal. It’s one of the few souvenirs, I realise, that I brought back from my New York. Apart from my new heels, of course.
Photo credit for shot of Daniel Humm: Francesco Tonelli