Expectations can certainly be a killer. I chose to turn a blind eye and not run wild on the Internet to eliminate any potential spoilage. This seemed like a reasonable thing to do at the time, however knowing this restaurant is rated 5th best in the world creates expectations in itself.
After a stressful few days leading up to our lunch reservation, not a lot of thought was put into what was to come. I was more concerned with buying a new outfit free of holes and stains that would get me into the place. Despite this, Central Restaurant (currently at number 4 in the world) was still fresh in my mind and ultimately I wanted an equally as amazing experience, with a New York twist of course. I daydreamt of a restaurant somewhere high in an iconic NYC building overlooking Central Park, being served foreign flavours, unique textures and ingredients sourced from the far reaches of the globe.
From the moment we arrived my expectations began to fail me. Unsightly construction work surrounded the building we would be entering. Inside, we were immediately confronted with the dining hall, which, although grand, was located on the ground floor with huge windows overlooking busy workmen perched on their scaffolding. Before I had the chance to absorb my surroundings, the headwaiter introduced himself, greeted us and smoothly transitioned into small talk, like a pro. He was actually funny, not too formal and unnatural, another surprise and quite the first impression. We were soon seated at a round, central table in chairs that seemed to engulf half your body creating immense comfort. I quickly forgot about the past year mostly void of luxuries, yet I didn’t feel like I was sitting in one of the world’s best restaurants. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why it holds such an impeccable reputation.
The space is majestic, classically decorated, with impressively high ceilings, yet nothing to promote an ‘over the top’ feel. It was as if I’d seen it all before, which made me feel calm, not unimpressed. Without knowing it at the time, the restaurant almost perfectly mirrored the meal that was to come.
The first course was there, sitting in the centre of the table before we’d even arrived. It seemed like a game – what’s in the little white box, do we open it? We did, but it was just 4 biscuits (boring). Surely that’s not to eat now. We closed the box and ordered a few drinks. The ignorant bunch we are failed to identify them as the black and white cookies famous to NYC. Rather than the traditional sweet flavours, they were savoury apple and cheddar cookies. To me, they were very familiar flavours and reminded me of a childhood late night snack, another pleasant surprise.
The remainder of the afternoon carried a similar rhythm and feel, understated yet sophisticated. Well, apart from the wine ‘list’ (encyclopedia) which showcased more than 4000 wines and could be expertly navigated by the knowledgeable sommelier. The menu wasn’t laden with overly obscure flavours, but it did have a pleasant underlying New York theme, aiming to encapsulate the brunch culture, typical dishes and seasonal produce from around the state.
For me, the modesty of the meal reduced its memorability and It’s somewhat difficult to recover the memories of a couple of dishes. One standout that hasn’t eluded me is the ‘eggs benedict’ course, served in a striking caviar tin and aimed at recreating the well-known New York brunch staple. I can assure you, it’s not your typical eggs benny, for starters it’s topped with a generous serving of black caviar. The small tin contains beautifully and intricately layered ingredients and waiting at the bottom is a slow cooked runny quail egg, this was something special!
The waiting staff were exceptional. We were able to meet most of them, while they diligently floated across the dining room serving tables as pairs in an incredibly synchronised, almost rehearsed routine. During one course, an intriguing deep copper pan holding some sort of animal balloon was brought to our table. It was more of a ‘what the hell is that?’ sort of moment, impressed, but not appetising in the slightest. It was a chef holding the pan, who actually came to visit us on multiple occasions to discuss and showcase some of the cooking techniques that were being utilised behind the scenes. The ‘balloon’ was an inflated pigs stomach, used to braise asparagus and black truffle by continuously pouring juices from the pan over the stomach. The finished product came out shortly after, and the theatrics of the ‘balloon’ served as an exciting insight into the work that went into the meal. In contrast however, there were other courses that left a little to be desired, not because of the flavours or presentation, there was just something that didn’t resonate with me.
It’s an accomplishment in itself to produce a 14-course menu that flows seamlessly from one dish to the next, isn’t overly experimental, looks good and tastes even better. Eleven Madison Park is a classic fine dining experience, while bringing enough original flare to keep things interesting. Its menu utilises Modern European innovation while keeping a strong emphasis on the finer foods that came to life in New York City.
For me a big part of an experience like this is the lingering memory. Thinking back to this day brings a smile to my face and a sense of simplicity and uniqueness.
Overall, it got me thinking. The act of actually ranking these restaurants is a little subjective, I’m sure every restaurant in the World’s Top 50 list is just as special as the next. The list really only encapsulates the experiences and opinions of a select few individuals. Sure, they may be experienced chefs, critics and food enthusiasts, but their judgments and sentiments ultimately vary greatly from one person to the next. At the end of the day it’s a fun game to play ticking each one off the list while you’re exploring the globe. Only 48 to go!