About once a year, I swing by Daniel Humm and Will Guidara’s Eleven Madison Park — a restaurant that’s been in the news because it dropped a few places on a listicle — for the bar tasting. Financial considerations partly fuel this tradition; this shorter menu, at $175, is significantly cheaper than the full $315 tasting. But practical reasons also play a role. The bar menu is available to walk-ins, whereas the more extended dining experience books up a month or two out. And the online reservations system requires parties of two to put down non-refundable deposits of nearly $700 just to snag a table.
I’m sure I’ll get around to trying the proper menu at some point, but given its steep barrier to entry, I’ll focus on the restaurant’s more accessible option; a restaurant’s most expensive menu or dish shouldn’t by default be the one the most deserving of critical attention. This is all the more true if a couple dropping $500 on a bar meal — the rough cost for two menus plus three drinks each — find the entry-level experience insufficient to convince them to return and spend over $1,000.
Last year’s bar meal made me not want to return. This year’s did. In fact, I’ll go even further it was the best dinner I’ve had at Eleven Madison in half a decade.
One item of note before we get to the food: Post-renovations, there are just six seats at the bar, down from about 10. Humm and Guidara closed Eleven Madison for four months last year, working with Brad Cloepfil, the architect responsible for the controversial (but in my opinion, stunning) redesign of 2 Columbus Circle, to create a cleaner, spiffier, more modern dining room. The team added blue banquettes for color, installed a chalkboard artwork by Rita Ackerman — an abstraction of Madison Park — and overhauled the lounge space, with more tables for prepaid bar dining (lolz), and a smaller counter for folks like me (bogus).
So I waited an hour for dinner, alas. But then, I ate very well. A waiter approached the counter and set down a pink disc. “Foie gras with black pepper and strawberries,” she said. I cut it with a fork, and a savory red jam spills out. No need to pair it with bread, as there’s a layer of sable on the bottom. The dish is just powdered sugar short of being a Linzer torte.
Another waiter came by with a butter-poached lobster tail and drizzles a small pool of lobster broth on the plate. The tastes and textures are expected, almost average, until I ran my fork through a round of foam; it smacked of ginger. It mirrored the sweetness of the crustacean and conjured a parallel world where ocean froth tastes like spiced candy.
Spring lamb arrived in two preparations: a confit shoulder and a glazed belly. Each were formed into the shape and size of a Kit-Kat and showered with a salad’s worth of mint. The flavors are pure game, pure herbal grassiness, with the belly’s soft gelatins causing my lips to gently stick together. And a sauce of lamb jus, which also contains mint, packed the flavors of a meaty mojito. On the side was small round sculpture of green asparagus segments, hiding a soft, earthy purée of cheddar-laced potatoes.
Running down a list of dishes as if this were some new, stripped-down, small plates place is not typically the way folks write about Eleven Madison Park. Half the story, for some, is the Art Deco room, or the style of service so warm and telepathic it seems to intoxicate the mind (and ego) like a strong martini.
But what made the bar so exciting for me was the lack of tableside pomp and performative kitchen visits, more common to the longer menu. The bar experience lets the diner focus on Humm’s modern European-American cuisine with fewer distractions.
His minimalist platings — sometimes heavy on perfect circles, other times on right angles, and always indulgent with negative space — are worth the price of admission themselves. The dessert course didn’t so much look like something edible as it did a piece of abstract art: circles of white, grey, and black, layered on top of one another like a perfect cylinder. The bold flavors contrasted with the monochromatic colors: A bite yielded chewy sesame shortbread, sweetly fragrant lemon cream, and tart sheep’s milk ice cream. It’s a dish that belongs in the Guggenheim.
Just one gripe: The restaurant’s heralded caviar cheesecake isn’t served in the bar. The kitchen instead sent out the lousy benedict as a substitute — a caviar tin holding in a circle of asparagus gelée, hollandaise, and sturgeon roe. I dug in with a spoon and suddenly realized underneath the caviar there’s not more caviar but….egg yolk? I’ve had this dish three times, and it never ceases to give me the false impression that I’m getting more caviar than I’m actually getting. Back when I was a teenager, I once wrapped a tiny present in a giant box to “surprise” a friend on his birthday; this benedict dish is apparently my karmic comeuppance for that youthful indiscretion.
That aside, I’m happy to report that Eleven Madison Park’s bar menu is a BUY — particularly for fine dining aficionados who can try out some of Humm’s new dishes without committing to the scary deposits or multi-hour dances of the formal room. Keep in mind that the price is service-included; so $175 roughly translates to $146 a normal restaurant with tipping.
Buy, Sell, Hold is a column from Eater New York’s chief critic Ryan Sutton where he looks at a single dish or item and decides whether you should you buy it, sell it (or just don’t try it at all), or hold (give it some time before trying).