Before going to New York, my good friends have been telling me that I should give Eleven Madison Park another try. I have been to the restaurant a few times before. I always liked the high ceiling and airy room, but I never found the food to be something to write home about. Chef Daniel Humm runs the restaurant, which used to serve egg benedict and oatmeal for brunch on Sundays; the restaurant had a different personality on the weekends. Now there is no brunch and the restaurant is closed on Sundays. It is clear from many bloggers that the restaurant has changed and improved a great deal. Even the New York Times awarded Eleven Madison four stars.
I didn't have time to go to Eleven Madison Park for dinner so I had to settle for lunch. This was most unfortunate because from what I gathered, dinner at Eleven Madison is far superior than lunch.
A friend of mine joined me for the lunch. The lunch menu at Eleven Madison is divided in two parts: tasting menu of six courses and à la carte. Many bloggers have described the à la carte lunch at Eleven Madison Park as a great deal: two courses for $28 and three courses for $42. I suppose it is pretty good, but not necessarily better than what's offered at Bouley or Jean Georges.
I thought the lunch worked like Jean Georges, because even though the à la carte menu is written in three parts, our server told us that we were not bounded by that format and could order from any of them. My friend and I were both hungry so we decided to go for three courses. Since two courses is $28 and an additional one is $14 extra, the math seems to suggest that all the courses are the same and cost $14. This was not the case. While one can choose any two courses, Eleven Madison still serves them as one in appetizer portion size and other as a main course. The additional course is actually another appetizer. We found this out the hard way.
Both of us ordered the scallop as our middle course and we each got one scallop. It was large and beautifully cooked. This seemed fine until we looked at the table next to us where one of the two customers ordered the same scallop course and received two scallops. I couldn't help but asked why we only got one. The server said it was because the table next to us had the scallop as the main course. Since our scallop is not the last course of the meal, it is considered an appetizer. I didn't want to argue with the guy; I just thought whatever.
The bread service at the restaurant is also a bit odd. Each of us were served two different breads at the beginning of the meal. Since both were very good, we finished them rather quickly, more or less during the first course. As our bread plates sat empty, none of the servers bothered to ask us if we wanted more bread. This lasted until after the main (third) course was served. When we asked for more bread, the server didn't bring a bread basket for us to choose, but brought out a silver tray with two plates and exactly four more breads, two on each plate, nothing more and nothing less. By this time probably one bread would have sufficed. Anyway, it was as if the restaurant didn't want to be bothered and dug up four breads from the kitchen for us. It wasn't exactly stingy but it felt strange.
Despite some strange things, the food was actually very good. The restaurant started us off with some gougères and a couple of amuses. For the first appetizer, my friend had the taglionini with king crab, which was just delicious. My first course was the taboulé salad, which was beautifully plated with very good flavors. Our second appetizers were the aforementioned scallops that were cooked perfectly and served with succotash. For my main course I went with the bouillabaisse, which was nice but not as good as my friend's cochon. The dish consisted of three different cuts of pork, and all were perfectly executed. It was the best dish of the whole meal.
In contrast to the main course, the dessert at lunch is a bit of a let down. The restaurant doesn't offer a dessert menu but rather a trolley full of house-made tarts. I haven't seen an old-school dessert trolley in a while. It feels like the pastry chef at the restaurant doesn't work the lunch shift. My friend and I wanted something sweet to finish the meal so I ordered a Kouign Amann, which was served with some sour cherry and vanilla cream. My friend had the apricot tart. They were both delightful but charging $12 for a slice of tart was a bit much. I much prefer the dessert that Jean Georges serves at lunch, which for $8 one get two little desserts that are more composed and plated with multiple components. Even at the Modern, the dessert at lunch is also $12 but one get a more ambitious and composed dish.
I read on several blogs that for dinner the restaurant is very generous and even offers unlimited Cognac to finish the meal. Unfortunately, lunch is a different affair all together. The restaurant didn't even offer any petit four; no macarons for us. It was just the check and goodbye. Again, I thought it was strange and felt whatever. Normally I would have asked for some coffee, but for some reason, we didn't feel like staying any longer.
The food was very good and well executed. I suppose it is priced nicely except for the dessert. However, the cheaper price at lunch also translates into a lesser experience. I just felt the restaurant didn't put its heart into the lunch service; the restaurant didn't seem to enjoy serving lunch. The meal was very professional but business like. For a Danny Meyer restaurant, it is a little odd at times and not warm nor welcoming, thus not a terribly pleasurable experience. Since everyone else seems so positive about Eleven Madison, I can't help but wonder that perhaps we went on an off day. Maybe the restaurant would have been more hospitable if we had order the tasting menu? It would have only been $24 more than our $54 four-course meal. I don't know, but it was definitely not a four-star lunch.