Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Our memorable visit to the ‘other’ Madison Park

My wife, Margo, and I just spent several sun-filled days in the city of New York, which explains the lack of postings on this blog during the interim. We were in the Big Apple to attend the opening-night reception at a Chelsea art gallery, where Margo is participating in a new show of abstract art.  The event itself was rewarding and fun; but as it turned out, it was not the only “peak life experience” that we got to enjoy while in Manhattan.  As a collateral benefit of our being “In Town,” we were also able to engineer something of a culinary coup--one that involved another Madison Park.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Seattle’s Madison Park is not the only Madison Park on the planet.  This blog subscribes to a daily feed that provides updates showing any new Internet posting that uses the term “Madison Park.”  So that’s how we came to know that Madison Park is also a musical group, a public high school, a park in Roxbury (MA) in Madison (WI) and in Santa Ana (CA), as well as a neighborhood in Charlotte (NC), among other things.  New York does not have a Madison Park; but what it does have is a Madison Square Park, located right in the middle of Manhattan (in the Flatiron district). And that neighborhood, it seems, is referred to by New Yorkers as simply “Madison Park.”

While there’s a spectacularly unsuccessful high-rise condo project in the area, known as One Madison Park, there’s also a spectacularly successful restaurant there that takes its name from the same park. That trendy establishment is Eleven Madison Park, which is by far the most likely “Madison Park” to be mentioned in the press on any given day, completely overshadowing any references to Madison Park-Seattle.

Just the week before our arrival in NYC, Michelin awarded three stars to Eleven Madison Park, making it one of only seven restaurants in the City to be so highly rated. That same week, Zagat confirmed Eleven Madison Park as one of “New York’s Top Ten Restaurants” for this year.  Though getting into Eleven Madison Park without a long-in-advance reservation is well neigh impossible, we decided to walk down to the place, take a look, and see if we could talk our way in for lunch.

Though we undoubtedly appeared as though we’d just blown in from somewhere remote (we had), we were nonetheless greeted at Eleven Madison Park by a poised and courteous front-of-house staff that gave every appearance of having been waiting breathlessly just for our arrival.  When politely asked “How are you today?” Margo spontaneously began describing the trauma of coming to New York for her big art show but discovering on landing that her luggage had not arrived with her. (Here, an aside:  Alaska Airlines touts its guarantee that your bags will appear on the carousel within 20 minutes of your plane's arrival or you are entitled to a $20 gift certificate or 2,000 frequent-flier miles. However, when your bags don’t make the plane at all—showing up at the hotel 40 hours later, in our case—you apparently get nothing.  Not even an apology!).

Anyway, following her tale of baggage woe, Margo then launched into a story (quite true) about how one of her chef friends once did a stage (look it up) at Eleven Madison Park.

While she worked the left side of the house, I was working the right side, mentioning to a couple of young, eager-faced restaurant staffers that Margo and I live way, way Out West in the “other” Madison Park, that I write the neighborhood blog, and that while Eleven Madison Park ranks Number One on the “Madison Park” Google search, my own blog, Madison Park Blogger, ranks way down there at Number Eleven! Margo and I each ended our separate, overlapping pitches with how much we, for all these many reasons, wanted desperately to experience Eleven Madison Park.  Having smiled and nodded appreciatively throughout our performance, the hostess then, without missing a beat, cheerily informed us that the restaurant was “full.”

Nevertheless, she let us in.

And not only that, the staff then gave us the kind of attention that, if we hadn’t known better, would have easily led us to conclude that they had mistaken one of us for somebody important.  For good reason, Zagat describes EMP’s service as “world class” (“even the busboys have Cornell degrees” is the quote).  The wait staff was super-attentive, yet not intrusive.

And the setting for all of this high-end professional courtesy is an art deco masterpiece, a huge 1930’s hall described, again by Zagat, as “majestic.”  It’s a beautiful space done in tones of orange and brown--with flowers, fixtures and lighting that all just works to create a magnificent venue in which to enjoy the service—and, of course, the food.

The cuisine at Eleven Madison Park is classified by some as New American, and by others as French, but whatever you call it, it’s fantastic.  We ordered lunch from an eclectic four-course prix fixe menu, and we spent a full three hours consuming it, along with all of the assorted hors d’oeuvre, amuses, and other delights that came our way. Partway through the meal we were invited to go into the kitchen to view the action, hear the EMP story, and watch while one of the chefs prepared a special passion-fruit daiquiri just for us (this involved, as part of the show, her literally whipping part of the concoction in an a bath of liquid nitrogen).

Since I am far from qualifying as a food writer, I would do an injustice to the fabulousness of the cuisine to try to describe it in detail.  But “unexpected” and "adventurous" are terms that Eleven Madison Park takes to heart, and “artful” is the word used by many food writers to define chef Daniel Humm’s wizardry.  Here are some examples of the cuisine:  crab roulade wrapped in avocado, lobster knuckles sweetened with figs, and smoked sturgeon sabayon served in an eggshell.  One reviewer describes the food at Eleven Madison Park as ranging from “very good to breathtakingly delicious.”  And that was certainly our experience.

Chicken Breast Basquaise (from Serious Eats Review)  

At the end of the meal, as Margo and I were basking in the afterglow of our amazing culinary adventure, one of our bright-and-enthusiastic servers quizzed us on how the East Coast Madison Park stacked up against the West Coast version.  Which one, she asked, did we now most appreciate?

Hard to choose!

[To read a great review of Eleven Madison Park, see Frank Bruni’s four-star take on the place in the New York Times.  Chef Daniel Humm, who Margo and I got to meet while we were enjoying his food, will be in Seattle next month to promote his new Eleven Madison Park cookbook, to be published on 11/11/11.  (Third photo from the top is courtesy of Urban Spoon. Video is from vimeo.com).]

Meanwhile, on display at Montserrat Gallery, Chelsea:

"Collapse of the Colony" by Margo Spellman, mixed-media triptych. Montserrat Gallery is located at  547 W. 27th Street, New York City.  On display through October 22.

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