In this solo dining adventure, Gary tries the prix fixe lunch at one of the crown jewels in Danny Meyer’s empire, Eleven Madison Park.
Nestled within Kate’s comments about Del Posto were these words regarding Danny Meyer restaurants:
My last nice restaurant experience (and actually best meal I’ve ever had) was at Eleven Madison Park. A Danny Meyer restaurant. And you know what they say about Danny Meyer restaurants. The service is so competent and nice (but not in a fake or over the top kind of way) that they almost ruin you for all the other restaurants.
It’s a common comment you’ll hear from those who have dined at a Danny Meyer restaurant – seriously, search “Danny Meyer” and “service” in Google and you’ll see what I mean. Indeed, for a man who makes hospitality the cornerstone of the dining experience, Mr. Meyer appears to have few detractors who could say otherwise. My experience with his empire had been limited to Shake Shack, Blue Smoke, and, to a lesser extent, his Citi Field offerings. Service at all were good but nothing exemplary though it’s fair to say those aren’t on the higher end of the Union Square Hospitality Group food chain. To make a fair assessment, I would need to have a meal at one of his big boy restaurants and see what all the fuss was about.
That’s how I found myself at Eleven Madison Park on a beautiful early spring afternoon. Without the means to be able to truly splurge, I chose to have their two-course $28 prix fixe lunch. My hope going in, besides the food being spectacular, was that service for lunch would be at a level similar to dinner. It’s not like Del Posto soured me on lunch service but it’s the sort of thing that you keep in mind.
When walking into the restaurant, it’s hard not to be struck by how amazing the space is with its high ceiling and Art Deco decor (a great nod to the building the restaurant is housed within). Also a nice touch are the windows that stretch from just above the booths all the way up to the ceiling – there’s an abundance of light during the day and, I imagine, some lovely moonlight at night.
After being seated and making my selections from the lengthy prix fixe menu, the feast began with some amuses. First up were some chewy, cheesy gougéres – six came in my dish and I ate them all up in an instant, not wanting to let them cool down too much. Next was a green apple macaroon filled with foie gras. It says macaroon on the menu they gave me but I’m certain they meant macaron. Regardless, it was a great macaron – light, airy, and crispy – which, combined with the fatty foie gras filling, made for a perfect bite. Also on the same plate was a black pepper sable with celery root and black truffle which was essentially a green gelatinous disc – nice bite but hardly remarkable. Finally, there was a lemongrass and madras curry cappuccino which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a soup and a very tasty one at that. And, as if the amuses, weren’t enough there’s also the bread and the two butters – cow’s milk and goat’s milk. I got two pieces a bread – one a baguette, one with olives in it and both were spectacular.
For my first course, I had the Fregola Sarda with Veal Sweetbreads. Fregola sarda is a tiny, round Sardinian pasta that resembles Israeli couscous or, staying within the pasta family, orzo. The fregola sarda was cooked perfectly and, since it’s so small, it had a generous coating of the sauce underneath. Fried veal sweetbreads always remind me of popcorn chicken, owing to them both being tiny and fried little morsels of meat. Of course, sweetbreads aren’t chewy, they’re soft when cooked correctly and these didn’t disappoint.
The second course was the Cochon de Lait, essentially pork cooked two ways. The first way was a pork loin medallion that was cooked a little longer than the way I like my pork but it was still moist and flavorful with a nice crisp top. The second was a rectangular slab of pork belly that was juicy, tender, and had the most deliciously crisp skin on top. Oh yeah, the rhubarb, spring onions, and ice wine vinegar gave the dish some nice acid to cut the fat but they’re just bit players in this production – the pork’s the star.
After clearing my second course, I had some time to just sit back, relax, and finish my cocktail (The Cortez, a delicious mix of rum, sherry, champagne, canela, and lemon). After declining dessert without even allowing myself a look at the dessert trolley for fear of my will breaking, I was presented with a tray of macarons. Seven of them, to be exact. Like the green apple and foie gras macaron from the amuse portion of the meal, these macarons were a perfect confection. The only difference would be the fillings, trading savory for sweet this time. I don’t know how I finished all seven; yes, they’re tiny but you try eating all seven after eating all of the above courses and amuses.
I’ll come right out and say it – my meal was fantastic from start to finish. The amuses were all wonderful, my two courses excellent in each their own way, and the macarons were a great finish. The two courses, all those extras, all for $28 – it’s just an amazing deal to be able to dine at one of New York City’s best restaurants at that price. And we’ve only just covered the food.
But what about the service, you ask? It was everything I dreamed it would be. The staff was attentive when they saw I was finished with my food or my glass of water needed to be refilled but they were hands-off for the most part, allowing me to enjoy my meal without intrusion. Best described, the service here between all the levels of staff works like a well choreographed dance as they all danced in and out of my view as needed. It’s the excellence of service, as much as the food, that earns Eleven Madison Park all its stars and accolades. Hospitality truly is king here.