Foams and gels—we’re not talking hair salons. We’re talking Eleven Madison Park Restaurant. The site of the grandest dinner I have ever experienced in New York City. Ask most foodies, and this is the height of culinary imagination in the city.
I was given the rare opportunity to revel in its excellence, because Jonathan and I were out with a sponsor for his team, the founder of Chipotle—Steve Ells—along with a few other intriguing individuals. A trained culinary chef, Ells was a delight to share such an exquisite meal with, as he and I continuously looked to one another, like two kids in a playhouse, each anxious to see the other’s reaction to every thoughtful, elaborate course.
I was in charge of the wine—a job I gratefully shared with the restaurant’s magnificent sommelier John Regan. While sipping on some Champagne, I told him what I was envisioning to complement our various dishes, mentioned some producers I love (all quite traditional and terroir-driven) and then turned it over to him, hoping he would come up with some producers I had not yet introduced to my palate. No matter how much each passing year allows me to learn about food and wine, a critical piece of advice a colleague once taught me was to open my mind to another professional’s suggestions—especially one that you know without a doubt is more experienced than you. It’s the only way to truly improve your own skills. And so, Regan and I teamed up to make for some memorable pairings.
We began with one I do actually know quite well. One that I know, sadly, will not be for much longer. We opened the 2005 Ferret ‘Les Mentrieres’ Pouilly-Fuisse. This is a producer I have mentioned before. A producer that inspired recognition of this region to Americans. A producer that had to sell its old, traditional vineyards to Louis Jadot— a negociant primarily, albeit well-respected. Come 2007 vintage, it won’t wear the marking of Ferret inside the bottle anymore, although I believe the actual label still will.
And so, as I have done ever since learning of this news, I lingered in every sip, as did those at the table. Everyone seemed to rave over this one the most—its complex nose of hazelnut, minerals and autumn spice. It was impressively balanced and flexibly with so many foods that falling on our plates. It was also the least expensive of the wines that evening (probably $35-50 retail). It was a steal, and there is little left (wink: let me know if you need some!).
We were given a menu of about 16 words, ranging from ‘white truffles’ and ‘lobster’ to ‘cauliflower’ and ‘pork’. We were to pick four, inform the server of any allergies or dislikes, and let the show begin. They proceeded to custom design our meal. But before those courses even started, we had an hour-long parade of ‘surprises’—fanciful bites of gastronomic genius. From marshmallows in beef fat and poached eggs in egg cream with white truffles, to brioche with a celery root leek soup and scallops in a shell, this names just a few of the treats that were lavished upon us. Thankfully the chef was a huge cycling fan, so he gave us a couple extra winks that night.
We moved into a 2004 Chateau Grillet Viognier—a wine that I was instructed to first remove my concept of what Viognier was in order to understand it. Believe it or not, this is the only appellation in all of France that is defined by one single winery! Fascinating. A viscous body clung to the sides of the glass with every swirl, this Viognier sung a melody of white flowers, tangerine, white peach (not extracted, sappy stone fruit), and a touch of agave honey (not the richness of a clover honey). The balance was kept in check, though the alcohol came through a bit as it neared room temperature. The most impressionable aspect for me was the rainwater minerality that found its place on my palate. Returning to the nose, it surfaced. It was a truly incredible wine—a decent complement to our languestine (lobster thing) as well as the tortellini with white truffles.
The best pairing, however, with the beloved white truffle dish was the 1990 Roty Gevrey-Chambertain. Really drinking beautifully right now, a smattering of spices are the first striking aspect of its personality. That’s one of my favorite traits of this more forceful appellation for red burgundy in Cote d’Nuit. Cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and clove are just a few you might discover. And the cherry fruit is so outlined. Savory herbs elbowed their way in, but they weren’t as distinct. Surprisingly, some rhubarb and strawberries found their way on the palate. And sandalwood. So good. The acidity was more than noteworthy. It was a good reminder to me that there is a reason people fall so hard for this Pinot Noir mecca of the wine world.
It lent itself nicely to the next transition: the southern Rhone with the 2000 Mont Olivet Cuvee du Pape Chateauneuf du Pape. Not wanting to know anyone at first, it took a more than a few swirls and a double decant to get it to start talking. In the meantime, we were given a tour of Eleven Madison’s impeccable kitchen. It was huge! Everyone tended to their individual tasks of shaving egg shell tops or reconstructing baby peas, while we were given a demonstration. They made for us a rum drink with nitrous oxide ice cream and passion fruit. It was a much needed palate cleanser, but it sent me back to the table with a little wobble in the knees.
One deep breath later, I was bracing myself for the main course: honey glazed duck made fresh and prepared tableside. It was the ideal compliment to our red Rhone. Essences of lavender, fennel, balsam fir, and black pepper snuggled into the fatty, savory folds of the fatty duck.
I savored each bite, but with a shaky hand, I took my last, and threw in the towel. I just couldn’t finish it! And I ran a marathon the day before. I was disappointed in myself. But looking around the table, I saw I was not alone.
But that wasn’t it! Nope, we still had the fromage course. I fear I not only don’t remember what the cheeses were, I was too lazy and full to write anymore.
What followed is a blur of cognac, cookies, truffles and a frozen chocolate banana lollipop. There was more. I just know it. But I was disabled with temporary delusion.
As I walked away, hand on my tummy, I would like to say that the mark of a great restaurant is one that knows how to fill each and every customer just right—that you are neither full or hungry, rather perfectly sated, wanting more… But I can’t. At a place like Eleven Madison, you sadistically just want to see more and more courses. It’s where foody fanatics go to enrich their own culinary imagination. It may not be for everyone (my God, my father probably can’t even make it through this blog entry let alone a dinner here), but for those who want to be taken on a memorable, moveable feast, start saving now for your next New York visit.
Needless to say, I got a glimpse of heaven. Trust me…it’s worth adding an extra prayer to your daily regime.