The best restaurants in the world—their own worst critics—are forever reinventing themselves, upping the ante year after year. On the international battlefield of glorified gastronomic destinations, Eleven Madison Park has racked up enough glittery accolades—from Michelin, the James Beard Foundation and World’s 50 Best Restaurants—to rival a five-star general’s bedazzled chest. It was already at that fine-dining pinnacle in 2010, when it tossed the traditional à la carte menu in favor of an abstract grid of ingredients meant to provoke conversations between diners and servers. Then three months ago, it scrapped that tack, too.
Chef Daniel Humm and impresario partner Will Guidara—who bought the place from their old boss, legendary restaurateur Danny Meyer—are masters of reinvention, taking big gambles with bold shake-ups, instead of making gradual tweaks. And once again, they’ve ditched a winning formula, this time for a 16-course Gotham-themed meal—marked by stagecraft and tricks—that departs from the city’s upper echelons of old-world dominated fine dining. It’s a roll of the dice, with a $195-a-head asking price, but it pays off.
With the new menu, a whimsical feast of nostalgic tastes and the absolute finest regional ingredients, the restaurant is as locavore-minded as Noma in Denmark—celebrating its particular urban locale—as theatrical in its own way as Britain’s wildly inventive Fat Duck. You won’t find a more purely entertaining New York dining experience outside dinner and a racy show at the Box.
When the new format debuted last September, a Circle Line narrative ran through the meal—waiters doubling as tour guides explaining the food’s history and inspiration—but after grumbling from some in the media elite, the self-conscious chatter was scrapped. The dishes, these days, mostly speak for themselves. And they’ve got plenty to say.
A succession of gorgeous amuses—a savory black-and-white cookie filled with Great Lakes cheddar, a bracing North Fork oyster under mignonette “snow”—leads to the first big act of the night. A glass cloche rises over a puff of smoke, unveiling smoked sturgeon above smoldering embers. There’s caviar on the table, too, along with rye crisps, cream cheese and everything-bagel crumbs: a five-star tribute to Barney Greengrass, New York’s “sturgeon king.”
In the dining room, a young chef puts cartoon-orange carrots through an old-fashioned meat grinder. Toss on the umami-rich condiments—pickled quail yolk, smoked bluefish, mustard oil, horseradish—for a remarkable meatless facsimile of the city’s best steak tartare. There’s actual beef 11 courses in: rib eye aged an astonishing 140 days, its mineral tang delivering a primal jolt, a hyperexaggerated steakhouse steak. It’s served with a side of oxtail jam with melted foie gras and whipped potato icing that’s as rich as it sounds. Only five more courses, but plenty more surprises (spoiler alert) to go.
Unwrap a picnic basket delivered to the table to find a bottle of specially brewed Ithaca ale. The beer has been baked into the soft pretzel, rubbed onto the heady Greensward cheese, also hidden inside. A cart rolls over, spritzing up mini egg creams—the intense house-made malted vanilla syrup conjuring up movie-theater malt balls more than classic U-Bet. A waiter performs a card trick with a chocolate payoff—a nod to the city’s old street corner shysters. There’s a sip of apple brandy, a sweet black-and-white cookie filled with apricot jam. By now it’s late, you’re dazed and dazzled, having been through not just dinner, but a full-fledged production.
In a city gone mad for tasting menus—from Brooklyn Fare to Blanca—Eleven Madison Park’s is right now the one to beat, the most inspired, coherent and downright delicious, and, yes, the most fun.
Eat this: There’s only one choice to make on the 16-course menu, between roasted duck or aged beef. Other highlights include smoked sturgeon, carrot tartare, a picnic basket and tableside egg creams.
Drink this: Start off with a Leo Robitschek cocktail at the bar, like the King’s Arms (Averna, rye, aquavit and cold-brewed coffee, $16). A classic wine pairing will set you back $145. If you give the sommelier a ballpark figure, he’ll happily pick a few half bottles to go with your meal, like a yeasty champagne from Ployez-Jacquemart ($65) and a beautifully earthy red burgundy from Domaine de Montille ($60).
Conversation piece: Humm and Guidara worked with local experts and artisans to craft their New York–themed approach. Ceramicist Jono Pandolfi made custom dishware. Pat LaFrieda handled the very long rib-eye aging you won’t find anywhere else. And waiters learned sleight of hand (for their card trick) from the local illusionists of Theory 11, a company that’s developed tricks with David Copperfield.
By Jay Cheshes