If you looking for the best vegetarian food in New York, Eleven Madison Park is a good bet. New York Magazine has rated Eleven Madison Park the best restaurant in New York, was the first — and thus far only — restaurant to receive a perfect rating from this blog. So I was understandably excited to go back to EMP for lunch recently. Unfortunately, Eleven Madison Park — which has received three stars from Michelin and four from the New York Times — didn’t live up to its potential this time around.Just like last year, the menu is a four-by-four grid that lists a series of ingredients; diners choose an item from each row, which makes up the four-course menu. It is worth noting that they seem to have dropped their $56, three-course lunch option, leaving only the $74, four-course option. With tax and tip, you’re looking at about $100 per person for lunch before drinks, which is pretty steep. I went with asparagus, plantain, morel and chocolate, in that order.
Lunch started with “black and white cookies”. These were made to look like the classic New York cookie, but they were savory: the “black” was black truffle and the “white” was parmesean. There also seemed to be a layer of butter (!!) in between the two parts of cookie. The cookie was really buttery and a bit too salty, but I appreciated the unusual twist on a classic.
Next up was the smoked apple tea. (Last year, you might remember, they served a tomato tea.) The apple tea was really interesting. I don’t know what “smoked apple” means exactly, but the tea had a smoky aroma, although the taste was on the sweet side. There was a sprig of thyme in there, although it didn’t really come through.
Around this time, one the several preliminary courses came out. The regular option was a quail egg perfectly set on top of a piece of toast with a bit of bacon on top. The vegetarian option was served without bacon (just like the name of this blog!). The egg tasted quite good, and I was just as impressed by the presentation and technique as the taste.
Next up was the “sabayon” course. This time, the default sabayon was sturgeon, although my vegetarian friend and I got mushroom. It was around this point that I started to notice that the service was a little off. I was with a group of 6, two of whom were vegetarian and one of whom was allergic to seafood. Yet the waiter simply dropped off six servings of the sabayon without explaining which was which. We also wanted to order wine, but no one came by to take the wine order, and at some point someone just removed the wine list and we were never asked again. At any rate, the sabayon was good, interesting and creamy, with chunks of mushroom at the bottom. My seafood-allergic friend didn’t try any, to be on the safe side, and a friend who sampled both said that the mushroom was better. For what it’s worth!
As usual, the bread was very good. It was warm, and had a texture that was somewhere between “brioche” and “croissant”. The waiter didn’t explain which butter was which, so all I can tell you is that the yellow one was saltier than the white.
My first course was “asparagus”, which was served with a quail egg and truffled buttermilk. The dish was served cold, which was a bit of a surprise, although I rather liked it. The crisps were a nice touch and contrasted with the egg. Again, I am impressed by how delicately the quail eggs are done and how deliciously creamy they are. Here’s a close-up:
This consisted of a roasted plantain topped with a plantain chip, served with black-eyed peas and a black-eyed pea puree. This may have been my favorite dish of the day — the sweet plantain contrasting with the savory/salty black-eyed peas; the soft plantain and puree contrasting with the crispy chip. It tasted great and was visually appealing, and it was very seasonally appropriate for late spring. Overall, I thought this was very well done. There was just one nagging thought I couldn’t get out of the back of my mind: this was just the plantain version of the eggplant dish I had last year (roasted eggplant with an eggplant chip, topped with wheatberries). That doesn’t take away from the plantain dish, but it did reflect a sort of “stasis”.
My main course was the morels. As you can tell from the picture, the dish looked fantastic. The colors, textures and plating were all superb. I’ve had morels recently a few times (including in India; a review from that restaurant, Jamavar, is in the pipeline), and I’ve come to the conclusion that one incorporates these more for the texture than the taste. The morels were served with a morel puree, and the dish was very good, but no flavors particularly stood out. I did like the peas, which added some color and freshness to the dish.
Around this time we had the “egg cream course”, something that EMP introduced at least a year ago, but that wasn’t part of our experience last time. (I suppose the kitchen tour and the frozen cocktail was in lieu of the egg cream?) This was probably the highlight of the meal: EMP’s riff on the old-fashioned, quintessentially New York, “egg cream”. A duo of waiters, complete with witty banter, prepared them for our table, with orange syrup, cocoa-infused milk, seltzer, and a few drops of orange oil.
“Pre-dessert” was a cheesecake with sorbet and “vanilla snow”. Have you ever left ice cream in the freezer too long, and the top of it develops that white frozen stuff? That’s what the vanilla “snow” tasted like, but much better. There were also bits of meringue, and of course the goat cheese cheesecake layer at the bottom.
For dessert I had the “chocolate”, which was served with lavender ice cream. (When you order, you have the choice of either dark or milk chocolate; I chose dark.) The lavender ice cream was inside a dark chocolate shell, like a high-class Klondike bar. The chocolate parts of the dessert were very good but the lavender ice cream was absolutely amazing. I don’t suppose I could pick up a pint at the grocery store…?
Some calvados and espresso later, lunch came to a close. The waiter brought us some more black and white cookies; these were the classic (sweet version). I liked that the cookies were “bookends” to the meal; they were good on their own terms and a nice part of the presentation, too.
As usual, EMP put together a very good meal, one that by virtually any standards would be top-notch. But EMP isn’t competing against “any” standards; it’s competing against itself, and against perfection. EMP is aiming to be the top restaurant in the city, and in this regard it fell short a few times. The service was a bit off: no one took our wine order; the sabayon course was completely flummoxed (particularly dangerous when one person had an allergy). My friend also ordered the plantain, but they switched our two orders so I got the one with ham and he got the vegetarian version. Two of my other friends had their first courses switched as well. As I mentioned, there were six of us at lunch, but there were only five cookies in the box at the end of the meal. None of this is the end of the world, but all are small dents in EMP’s armor.
As for the food itself, it was very good, but it seems to have stagnated a bit since last year. The apple tea was just a different version of the tomato tea from last year, and the sabayon was exactly the same. The plantain dish seemed like a modified version of the eggplant. Although I liked all of these quite a lot, it was a little disappointing to see the same stuff from last year, just “repackaged”. Then again, these are first world problems. Overall, EMP is a great restaurant, and if you have the chance to go, you absolutely should. They are very accommodating of vegetarians and you will have a very good experience. (And something I noticed as I was putting these pictures up: the presentation is fantastic. I love how colorful each course was, each vibrant in its own right and all of them collectively showcasing the colors of spring.) For the second visit, four stars.