Camille may have written her best review yet and so without any further ado I yield the floor--or rather the platform--to my esteemed collaborator.
The typical account of dinner at Eleven Madison Park, Chef Daniel Humm and Will Guidara's ritzy restaurant across from Madison Square Park, reveals glowing descriptions of meals spanning three or more hours of an evening, theatrical gestures accompanying each of the roughly twelve courses, and concludes with a bill to match, at $295 per person, not including beverages and tax. (Part of the high price tag is due to EMP's very recent abolition of tipping, a practice that an increasing number of restaurant groups across the states are enacting. This “service included” model brought the EMP tasting menu price up from the previous $225). EMP is an international dining destination. It has almost all the accolades possible: four stars from the NY Times, three stars from the Michelin Guide, and it's been on the San Pelligrino World's 50 Best Restaurants list for six years in a row, holding a spot in the top five for the past three years (and the only restaurant in the U.S. to ever make the top five).
All of these factors have put EMP on practically every food-lover's dinner wish list, a meal many dream about one day experiencing, once having saved enough money to do so. But it can also make the experience feel unattainable. If you weren't able to secure a reservation, have time constraints, monetary hesitations, or just want a great meal without so many bells and whistles, don't give up on your special dinner. Most people don't know that the bar area, with 10 seats and five tables along a plush leather banquette is reserved for walk-ins and offers an a la carte menu.
The comfortable bar has its own nook in the soaring Art Deco space without feeling disconnected from the central dining area. As I sat with friends at one of the corner banquettes, the laughter and chatter from the boisterous group next to us at the bar didn't seem to be disturbing anyone, least of all the diners a few tables away who were halfway through their tasting menu. They were enjoying themselves just as much as the crowd at the bar. In fact, instead of being shushed by the impeccable service staff, this behavior is heartily encouraged.
When Humm and Guidara bought EMP from their then-employer Danny Meyer, they wanted to make the restaurant one of the best in the world. But they knew that following the French fine dining model that was in place wasn't how they wanted to do it. Crafting an experience with just as much polish, without all the hushed stuffiness, they set out to make your fancy meal fun. As they continued to perfect this atmosphere, they applied the same concept to their second restaurant, The NoMad, which I discussed a few months ago. But where The Nomad is like the swanky back parlor of a rock and roll club, Eleven Madison park is more brightly light, with softer muted colors, and a lighthearted twinkly smile on everyone inside.
A meal at the EMP bar is slightly more utilitarian, while being just as much fun. There are less flourishes; you won't be visited by the tableside Manhattan-mixing cart and your honey-lavender duck won't be presented to you whole first before the succulent breast crusted with spices arrives carved on your plate. But the impressive fact is that the food tastes just as spectacular without the theatrics, and the service is just as warm and hospitable, if a touch more direct.
Sitting at the bar also allows you more flexibility. You can have a complete meal in an hour if you like, but you won't be rushed out if you're having so much fun that you end up staying for four. And likely, you'll be spending much less ordering a la carte than having the tasting menu in the dining room. Surprisingly, a few of my favorite dishes from the appetizer, main course, and dessert categories were also the cheapest selections. The roasted Hen of the Woods mushroom crooned a robust earthy bass note while freshly grated horseradish plucked pungently delicious strings at its edges, strangely giving me the same specifically comforting sensation of eating a grilled cheese sandwich. Though luxurious meats are awfully tempting for entrees, and quite delicious, don't overlook the cabbage. A glistening bumpy lump on the plate, it soon revealed itself to have more complexity than I've ever tasted from the vegetable. The tender heart packs the flavor of the apple and thyme it was roasted with while singing a vinegary punch line, then the texture and flavor changes gradually in outward radiation to the impossibly crispy outer layers. A dessert option available only at the bar, the chocolate sundae, big enough to share, arrives as a globe, the thin chocolate shell elegantly unfurling itself once caramel sauce is poured over it by your server, revealing inside a delighting jumble of crème fraiche ice cream, waffle cone cookies, and myriad other crumbly and creamy toppings.
This three course meal, the last course possible to split between two people, runs you $82. But remember, this price is including a service fee, there is no tip to add on top of this. To give you some perspective, when I dined in November, before the service included model was applied, these three courses would cost $66. For a dinner experience at the restaurant ranked fifth in the world, I'd say that's pretty cool.
There are pricier options on the bar menu. The sublime roasted venison loin, lean and juicy with just enough subtle gamey flavor to make it unctuous and a lusty deep color made more dramatic by a vivid red jus and dark crispy beet chips, costs $56 (previously $46). I didn't feel the need to order caviar ($69, previously $55), but when the play on Eggs Benedict arrived and I spread that pickled quail egg, ham gelee, caviar, and cream on a miniature english muffin and popped it in my mouth, my world was turned upside down. If cheese tickles your fancy, you will want to swim in the Cato Corner fondue, served inside a roasted acorn squash, but should use the pretzel stalks as the more appropriate alternative, accompanied by mustards and a light and leafy salad ($29, previously $24).
And of course you might rather pay the larger sum to have the full tasting menu experience, and I encourage you to do so. But when money is tight or there's a show to catch, there is a not so secret option that doesn't feel like a compromise. And though a lot of the dishes available at the bar overlap with the tasting menu, if there's something you've heard about that you really want to experience and isn't offered a la carte, don't be afraid to ask.
Part of the magic of EMP is the length to which Humm, Guidara, and the rest of the staff go for their guests just because they genuinely want you to have fun. Would you like to know how seriously they take you having an enjoyable, special night? There is someone on the staff with the job title “Dreamweaver,” who is in charge of making the impossible possible, anticipating your needs before you have them, taking special occasions to the next level, or making an ordinary meal extraordinary.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave.
Lunch: Thurs – Sat: 12pm – 1pm
Dinner: Mon – Sun: 5:30pm – 10pm
Chef's Tasting Menu (Dining Room Only) : $295
(including gratuity, not including beverages and tax)
A la Carte (Bar Only) : $22 - $69
(including gratuity, not including beverages and tax)