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Tonburi caviar sits next to lettuce wraps and vegan creme fraiche

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Eleven Madison Park Isn’t Ready to Be a World-Class Vegan Restaurant

The once-groundbreaking Michelin destination made a highly publicized move to permanently eschew meat — a move that comes across less than fresh in practice

Tonburi caviar.
| Getty Images

To get a sense of the fervor behind the newly vegan Eleven Madison Park, consider the length of the waitlist, which chef Daniel Humm revealed in August to be quite long — like 50,000 long. It’s a statistic that, if true, suggests that Humm’s fame and culinary prowess are sufficient to fill every seat at Madison Square Garden, the Barclays Center, and Buddakan combined. When reservations for October came online, virtually all tables for two disappeared within minutes, even though diners had to pay the full $335 menu price to secure a table. There are no refunds.

For years, Humm attracted diners from around the globe for his dry-aged duck breast — waterfowl so elegant it was as if the restaurant had hired a professional jeweler to bedazzle the bird’s exterior with peppercorns and lavender — but when the chef reopened Eleven Madison after a 15-month COVID hiatus in June, he removed virtually all animal products from the menu (save milk and honey for tea or coffee). Patrons returning to the historic Art Deco room, a soaring space in the erstwhile Metropolitan Life North Building, will now enjoy a plant-based tasting that includes tiny dosas with pine nut spread, a caviar service made with a type of fake imported vegan roe (only the best), and a simmered, dehydrated, smoked, and grilled beet that cooks wrap in a garland before roasting it in a ceramic vessel.

Tables stand empty before service at the cavernous Eleven Madison Park
The dining room at Eleven Madison Park.
Evan Sung/Eleven Madison Park

Humm announced the big changeover in an Instagram post to his half-million-plus followers in May, arguing that the current food system is “not sustainable,” and that he wanted to “redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a real connection to the community.” The post depicted Humm kneeling down in soil while wearing a fancy, cream-colored coat, the type of photo that recalled a politician pretending to damn up an overflowing levee in a silk suit. Eleven Madison, which received a $5 million federal Restaurant Revitalization Grant this spring, and which rakes in hundreds of thousands of dollars in instant revenue when reservations go live every month, also announced that the price of each dinner would fund five meals to hungry New Yorkers through the Rethink food charity business, started by Eleven Madison alum Matt Jozwiak.

The challenge for Humm, in the words of a WSJ. Magazine reporter, was whether the chef could “nudge his customers — and the rest of the world — to find luxury, surprise and delight in a plate of vegetables.” Humm told that reporter that he’d worry that folks wouldn’t come to Eleven Madison anymore. “But then he spends time in the kitchen, he shares some of the new dishes, and he thinks, ‘This could change the world.’”

Well, guess what? This $1,000 dinner for two is not going to change the world. It is not a redefining of luxury, or anything close to it. Omnivores have long been seeking out accessible yet ambitious vegetarian and vegan fare, and Humm, based on a mid-August meal, doesn’t yet appear to fully possess the palate, acumen, or cultural awareness to successfully manipulate vegetables or, when necessary, to let them speak for themselves. That beet cooked 18-ways tasted like pretty much any other beet, a reality that’s tough to digest when you have to put down a massive non-refundable deposit to find that out.

Humm’s food isn’t quite as internationalist as it wants to seem

Eleven Madison Park used to champion a minimalist, European style of cooking, sometimes with refined reimaginings of classic New York dishes. The kitchen made smoked sturgeon part of a cheesecake and showered the creation with caviar. Earlier last decade the chefs even sent out truffled black-and-white cookies.

Upon reopening, the restaurant appears to have retained its sparse presentation style, often framing a few small portions of lightly adorned vegetables on a larger white plate, but the cooking feels more assertively internationalist than before. Humm sends out thin, crisp, rectangular dosas and wraps the ends with shiso. Patrons garnish them with a tart brunoise of pickled green tomatoes and a pine nut puree. It is all tasty in a generic, predictable way. A few minutes later a server brings out a small cup of broken rice porridge covered in refreshing celtuce. There’s not much depth to the rice, however, or the seaweed stock that supposedly goes into the dish. The finish is short and thin; it recalls a congee from a college grad who learned how to make the dish from an Instant Pot cookbook.

Fried red peppers sit inside swiss chard wraps next to assorted condiments on a wooden board.
Red pepper swiss chard wraps with condiments.
Evan Sung/Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison also fries a small red pepper and places it in a Swiss chard wrapper. Red peppers can turn out cloying; this one manages to exhibit a vibrant vegetal punch. A small ramekin of chile crisp adds a bit of lip-smacking sugar and salt to the pepper.

It’s nice to see a Swiss-born chef give some real estate to ingredients that don’t always pop up on our Euro-Japanese-leaning fine dining spectrum. But in an establishment famous for its tableside speeches — waiters will inevitably chat about Japanese shojin cuisine, a style of vegan Buddhist cooking Humm promotes on his Instagram — it seems odd that the restaurant’s social media accounts or its staffers, during my visit, fail to give any sort of meaningful hat tip to the Sichuanese, Cantonese, or South Asian provenance of certain preparations. All of those cuisines have made huge contributions to the way many folks eat vegetables around the world.

And while there’s something to be said for not making a big deal each time the kitchen tweezes a non-Western herb, Eleven Madison’s cosmopolitan aspirations often seem less like smart acts of representation or creative culinary manipulation, and more like window dressing or homogenization (or in the case of an Instagram post where Humm performs a namaste pose behind piles of spices, visual pandering to stereotypes). For all the funk, heat, numbing sensations, bitterness, and fermented tang that so many cuisines can imbue upon vegetables, Humm’s flavors often feel as muted as a steakhouse crab cake.

Two of the most hyped-up courses are major works in progress

There are no laboratory “meats” here like the Impossible Burger; Eleven Madison generally shows off vegetables as they are. An exception is the fake fish roe course. About 30 minutes into dinner, a waiter decloches a glass caviar server and reveals a pile of tonburi seeds, which they explain are a staple of shojin cooking. You are instructed to use a mother-of-pearl spoon to scoop up the seeds (as one would with caviar), place them into lettuce wraps, and pair it all with vegan creme fraiche of sorts. The tiny little black spheres mirror the look of good sevruga, and they roll around on the tongue with almost the same remarkable ease. That, alas, is where the similarities end. The seeds lack the MSG-type roundness, salts, or oils of good caviar. The tonburi represent an absence of flavor, or quite frankly thought behind this dish. They do, admittedly, function well as part of a nice, snacky lettuce wrap with a good crunch, but the evocation of caviar in a place that used to serve lots of that luxury item conjures up a very specific sensation: disappointment.

A server decloches the vegan caviar service, which sits in a glass vessel in a steel ice container.
A server decloches the vegan caviar service.
Getty Images

Here’s how a Financial Times journalist described the beet course during a summer tasting: “It tastes like a perfect duck tenderloin, but not. Like a ballpark hot dog with all the fixings, but not. Like a dense and meaty, umami-like beet. And also like nothing I’ve ever tasted.” That journalist went on to call that (comped) dinner “the sexiest meal I’ve ever had, period.”

Matters of taste are subjective, but here’s my take: The dehydrated, rehydrated, smoked, and baked beet tastes pretty much like a beet. Staffers dress the root vegetable tableside with a veil of fermented, grilled, and pickled lettuces, then finish it with grated horseradish and a vegan bordelaise of sorts. The various cooking techniques impart a whisper of chew on the outside while the interior is faintly gelatinous, but otherwise, this isn’t so much fine dining or smart manipulation as it is something that fills you up with sugar. The sauce gives off a hint of garlic, but lacks the round, lip-smacking texture of a preparation laced with marrow and demi-glace. The beet is the vegetarian equivalent of filet mignon at a mediocre wedding; it fills you up without too much complexity. It’s fine.

The progression of the savory courses is where things get a bit more exciting

The tasting kicks off with lighter, brighter, and sometimes raw preparations, before moving onto heartier and more complex flavors with deeper umami — just as a more meat-based tasting might. Dinner might begin with a fragrant tomato and lemon verbena tea (a fine way to jolt the olfactory system), then move onto tomatoes with strawberries before the celtuce and caviar courses. At roughly the midway point of the meal, Eleven Madison jacks up the richness factor with sunflower butter, one of the best dishes.

Sunflower butter, which takes the appearance of an Art Deco sunflower, sits on a white tablecloth next to rolls and an actual sunflower
Sunflower butter and rolls.
Evan Sung/Eleven Madison Park

The kitchen emulsifies cultured sunflower milk into a butter, placing the creation into a mold whose angular geometries channel an Art Deco interpretation of an actual sunflower, with a circular dark miso core to boot. You spread this masterpiece onto a laminated roll — compliments of pastry chef Laura Cronin — for a flavor profile that starts out as nutty then finishes with such a profound earthiness one wonders whether the cooks managed to sneak both tobacco and truffles into the spread.

For a zucchini course later on, Humm wraps homemade sesame tofu in squash ribbons and anoints the curd with tiny slivers of the gourd. Tableside, a server pours in a light dashi laced with lemongrass. You cut the zucchini-tofu with a spoon — it’s a study in soft, slippery, custardy textures — and slurp it up with the heady broth. Not too long afterward, Humm sends out the eggplant dish of the century, the final savory course. He slowly brines, fries, dehydrates and roasts the nightshade, in addition to marinating it in mushroom stock overnight and brushing it with tomato-shiso vinaigrette. The end result, laced with eggplant pickles of varying strengths, is a vegetable that somehow mimics the luscious textures of tuna confit; I’d swear Humm found a way to use fish sauce caramel in there, but it’s vegan.

Desserts are a curiously quick part of this protracted meal

A typical tasting menu sweets setup involves a sorbet or granita course followed by something a bit richer — a scoop of gelato or a little tart. Dinner then will frequently end with a few tiny petits fours and the check. This sequence performs smart gustatory functions toward the end of the meal: palate cleansing, delighting, overindulging, and self-regulating one’s satiety. But dessert also acts as a whimsical buffer, softening, slowing, and sweetening the patron’s transition from the restaurant to the chaos of the outside world.

A cylinder of elderflower semifreddo is shot from above, highlighting the marbled purple-white hue of the dessert
Elderflower and blueberry.
Getty Images

At Eleven Madison, our desserts were rushed, in short supply, and unimpressive — a heck of a thing given the bounty of summer fruits and vegan sweets one can find throughout the city. A Lilliputian slice of charentais cantaloupe with finger lime and cubes of dried melon on top hits the table — it tastes like any good melon slice. A minute or so later, a server brings along a small cylinder of dairy-free elderflower semifreddo with coconut yogurt; the frozen treat hides a few blueberries and chewy bites of mochi under its top layer. It’s a respectable enough combination of ingredients — sweet berries, tart cream — but it doesn’t convey the precise fruit flavors or compelling, nuanced textures one might encounter at Superiority Burger or Contra.

A few minutes later a server shows up with a single petit four, a salty chocolate-sesame-covered pretzel, and the beverage bill. The staffer also leaves a bottle of apricot-infused vermouth, which quickly turns watery when you pour it into a ceramic cup with ice. In the mid-teens, cheese and desserts could span four or more languorous courses at Eleven Madison, giving patrons a chance to exist for just a bit longer in this glorious room. Now, the progression of desserts feels as meaningful as a post-credits sequence in a Marvel movie, a short interlude before you’re shuttled out of the theater.

Service feels more restrained in the post-Will Guidara era

The thing about dinner at Eleven Madison Park is that even if the food didn’t always blow you away, it often felt like a four-star meal anyway thanks to the hospitality architected by former partner Will Guidara. It was often hard to leave without the distinct sensation that the team did their best to make almost every diner feel like a minor celebrity. Sometimes it meant a liquid nitrogen cocktail course in the kitchen while chatting with Humm. Sometimes it meant leaving with a bag of dog treats for your rottweiler.

Still, in an era when patron entitlement is a serious problem in the hospitality industry, and as the delta variant continues its surge throughout the country, I appreciated that things felt a bit more toned-down on the service front. Accordingly, during my visit, servers came and went a bit more quickly, and less chattily, than before. They seemed less like that cool guy you wanted to talk with at a party, and more like professional waiters at any good restaurant. Eleven Madison’s Instagram still shows kitchen visits happening, but for our table, the more hands-off hospitality felt like a good way to enjoy the meal with fewer interruptions — and more responsibly.

None of this is truly groundbreaking

There’s always a lot of fanfare and puffery whenever Eleven Madison makes a change, so it’s worth setting the record straight. A chef deeming any of this as redefining luxury, or a reporter wondering whether the “rest of the world” could find “luxury, surprise and delight in a plate of vegetables,” are statements that overlook the hundreds of millions of folks around the globe who don’t eat meat, and the collection of diverse restaurants — some of them quite fancy — that cater to them.

A tartare of cucumber with melon sits on a green plate
Cucumber with melon
Evan Sung/Eleven Madison Park

The late Charlie Trotter launched his tasting of vegetables in 1988, while Thomas Keller opened Per Se in 2004 with a vegetable tasting as long and nearly as expensive as his regular menu, an option that ex-Times critic Frank Bruni cited as a chief reason for awarding four stars (that venue has also offered a vegan menu for quite some time). Le Bernardin, which has long espoused a patron-centric approach to charity, debuted a vegetarian tasting recently too, and folks have often sought out high-end meat-free fare at Amanda Cohen’s Dirt Candy. Indian restaurants in New York have frequently served vegetarian tastings, and in 2013, I documented how chefs like Dan Barber, David Kinch, and Dominique Crenn were increasingly turning to plant-based dishes to convey luxury to all their patrons. And of course, there’s L’Arpège, which shocked the culinary world in 2001 when chef Alain Passard converted his haute Parisian rotisserie into a meat-free temple (he eventually brought back both fish and animal proteins).

Yes, there will always be just a single Eleven Madison Park, a venue that has the privilege of using a mid-20th century room to transport diners to the past while attempting to plot a culinary path for the present. But Humm’s full adoption of plant-based cooking, while clearly a step beyond a parallel menu for vegans or vegetarians, doesn’t come anywhere close to being groundbreaking, or even “risky,” to borrow the words of the aforementioned Financial Times journalist. The kitchen is simply building on the work of other cuisines, restaurants, and cultures. Or more practically: There are lots of high-minded restaurants serving inspiring vegetables, and they won’t make you put up $800 or more in advance.

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