Elite Dining in New York: Counting Calories or Pennies? Fuggedaboutit

One of the pleasures of travel planning for me is to check out the esteemed World’s 50 Best Restaurant list and make my dream choices.

Most of these dining destinations have waiting lists of one to two months (Google prestigious The French Laundry and find over 7 million results for “how to get a reservation”). Some take your credit card details upon booking and charge you the full price for no-shows. And all of the places internationally among the 50 Best list that I have ultimately eaten at started by saying no, they were fully booked. On this trip it was easier for me to arrange a 20 minute meeting with New Zealand’s former Prime Minister Helen Clark, now in charge of the #3 job at the United Nations (yes, this meeting really took place), than to be immediately deemed table-worthy at New York’s culinary top 5.

However I will save you from any potential booking despair of your own. In every case the staff eventually contacted me close to the time I booked for and found me a table. Is this all a con to manufacture prestige? Are they waiting to see if Justin Bieber or other luminary might want to book instead? I don’t know, and after the first few sublime mouthfuls, I don’t care.

The restaurant I most aspired to was Eleven Madison Park. It has quickly achieved major international awards including 3 Michelin stars. Situated on Madison Avenue opposite a small park filled with friendly squirrels, its décor exudes the substantial clubby elegance typical to New York fine dining. In contrast the cuisine is all playful exuberance thanks to Swiss born chef Daniel Humm. There are 14 listed courses and several extras carefully paced over almost 4 hours. Diners are asked to choose 4 central ingredients they want featured (I went with foie gras, lobster, sweetbreads, and pistachio). There is only one identical degustation menu on offer at lunch and at dinner with the option of wine pairings or a very international wine list. Diners are asked about particular dislikes and allergies so these can be catered for.

When a Cookie is Not Just a Cookie

Upon arriving for lunch a hot towel is offered. While savouring a glass of mildly sparkling French white Burgoyne a small white box is presented to be untied. Within is a tiny savoury cookie with a cream filling and a striped icing that looks like vanilla and chocolate, but turns out to be parmesan and truffle. The next 4 appetiser courses would each semi fill an egg cup. A particularly ingenious one looks like a piece of crisp, vividly green fried seaweed, but is Swiss chard somehow roasted and imbued with eel and foie gras. A sturgeon sabayon reminds me somehow of my Polish grandmother’s chicken in cream perhaps due to the quality of farm cream in both cases. Then a glass dome filled with swirling smoke is put on the table. I ready my camera and wonder if 4 and 20 blackbirds will emerge. Inside is fish in the process of being smoked. To accompany it is sturgeon caviar (the real stuff) on top of cream cheese, with rye Melba toast, salad greens, quail eggs with molten yolks and a tiny jar of gherkins. With each course the complementarity of colours, textures and tastes achieves an apotheosis of harmony.

Next I am taken to one back wall of the kitchen – I ask if they want me to chop onions. Instead I stand behind a narrow high table where a chef prepares me a vegetable juice cocktail with a scoop of sorbet made instantly thanks to liquid nitrogen. This is equally as entertaining as watching staff and chefs intently at work, while another server explains the kitchen dynamics to me. A head chef comes to shake my hand; it’s all great theatre. Back at my table a small cloth pouch is served with croissant-like flaky round buns keeping warm inside, accompanied by white goat butter and Long Island sea salt. Next is foie gras mousse (of course from ethically reared geese): dark and unguent against the fresh zing of apple, maple and the crunch of walnuts.

One of my favourite courses used a small wooden board as my plate with a medium indentation on one side and many tiny food-filled compartments. A chef brings an old-style meat grinder and fixes it to the table to grate a large carrot with vigorously fresh leaves attached. This is to be vegetarian carrot tartare. The grated carrot goes in the indentation and each little dish (salt, sunflower seeds, quail yolk, ginger, apple mustard and more) is to be added and stirred in. It’s like kindergarten Cordon Bleu-style.

When to Play with Your Food

There is excellent service with people warmly engaging at a high level of competence and charm. I mention my delight at seeing the squirrels next door and express hope that they aren’t on the menu. The server laughs and niftily replies no, because they are not in season. Veal sweetbreads follow resembling grunty, creamy chicken flesh within a deep fried coating; alongside fennel, pear and a hazelnut puree. Next is the cheese course before dessert. This arrives in a jaunty picnic basket with cloth, cutlery, plate, bottle of pale ale with the house label, soft hot pretzel made with the same beer as is the Thumbelina-size jar of plum mustard; and a little wooden box containing oozing camembert. Enchanting.

The pistachio dessert is superb with eponymous madeleines, ice cream, crumbs and nuts; plus purple grape sorbet, and a fresh-looking grape that had been dehydrated then rehydrated with sauterne. A few more sweet morsels and then there is a card game. A small covered dish is set before me. One of the waiters brings an ordinary looking deck of cards and I must cut the deck and pick one. On the card I choose is a featured food in the middle: hazelnut. Then the dish is uncovered and it has the identical hazelnut pattern on it: magic! Several staff nearby smile at my exuberant glee and a waitress says only a few people know how it is done (for the strategically minded: I note the game being played with other diners and the cards and foods chosen are all different). Lastly I am given a gift of a jar of their muesli, the day’s menu and a deck of cards. Then the same small white beribboned box we started with arrives, but this time the same looking cookie is instead made of vanilla and chocolate.

I applaud the whimsy, symmetry and skill. This is not the price – or content – of a buffet at Valentine’s but it is theatre, lunch, with no need for dinner and an event to remember. Someone else might prefer to spend money on attending a sport’s game or a pop concert. For me this is superbly rewarding art and science on a plate.

Much later as I recount the meal to my nutrition students do I realise that only two dishes featured meat (foie gras and sweetbreads). How many chefs – even vegetarian ones – could be so confident and inventive within that framework? Eleven Madison Park is currently ranked at #5 in the world. It is difficult to imagine how a meal at #1 could possibly be that much better – but I hope one day to take on the job and find out.

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The list as determined by top food professionals; New York currently has 5 in the top 50; (I dined at 3 of them).

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