It's the New Best

Kristen and Cory were coming to New York with a couple of friends and I hadn't been anywhere fancy for a while (flashback to my first meal at Momofuku Ko, first dinner at Blue Hill Stone Barn, dinner at Alinea and my dinner at Per Se, Oh! and Del Posto with Mom and Dad! if you're interested) so I got us a reservation at Eleven Madison Park, since it's a big deal and I'd never been there.

Less than a week after I made our reservation the restaurant was named #1 on the the 50 Best Best Restaurants list.

Now, it's a pretty crazy and impossible thing to say that one restaurant is The Best in the World (and especially if you're not giving that award to Mom's Tamales) but the 50 Best list seems to be the most respected and accepted list around, so let's just go with it?

(Supplemental Note: this would be my third time eating at the Best Restaurant in America, each of those times having been at different restaurants—Alinea, Per Se, and here)

Anyway, with that recognition, our reservation was suddenly even more eagerly anticipated. Let's see how the dinner went...

First of all, you may ask, "But Brigham, were you excited or maybe nervous to go to Eleven Madison Park?" To which I can only respond "Well, I did look up the address on my way there."

I arrived to find Kristen and Cory and their friends (my friends) Jeff and Melanie wrapping up their "outside Eleven Madison Park in our nice clothes" photoshoot. Cory had just bought that suit today because he loves Suit Supply.

Here is the sign for the restaurant. And also the address.

We were welcomed at the door by Matthew the maitre d' who knew us all by name and special occasion and gently passed us along to a host to be seated.

First fancy moment of the night happened when Jeff asked if they had something into which he could deposit his gum and they brought him this little jar...which was a lot classier then handing him a Kleenex or recommending he stick it under the table. 

The first not fancy moment of the night was they did NOT have purse stools. So if you're looking for a 4 star restaurant with purse stools, pass on Eleven Madison Park and head to Del Posto or Per Se.

The thing at Eleven Madison Park right now is they're serving an 11 greatest hits retrospective menu before it closes for renovations this summer. So each dish came with a little explanation of its historical context and significance.

Of signifiant note: the restaurant accommodated Cory's gluten allergy at every course, bringing out personalized and totally (or moderately) different dishes whenever our dishes were glutinous. And they didn't seem like compromises but totally delicious on their own creations.

Of minor note: We had a 7:30 reservation. Prime time spot, but not for available light photography. These won't be the best pictures you see of the new Eleven Madison Park old menu, but they will be the most my pictures you see of the menu.

#1: Gougeres with Grated Gruyere (2006)
Think warm little French Påo de Queijos. Nice little amuse start with.

#2: Sea Urchin Cappuccino with Peekytoe Crab and Cauliflower (2006)
Second dish of the night and the whole table was ooh-ing and ahh-ing and floored. Spectacular stellar complex beguiling seafood beverage/cocktail/whatever it might have been. Had me raising my eyebrow that the food at the #1 restaurant in the world might be good.

Course 2 sided, they set little tridents on the table and we were like "ooooh, what's next?"

#3: Little Neck Clam Clambake with Veloute and Parker House Rolls (2011)

Ok but what does that name/description mean? Well, they brought us out little planks of soft little warm parker house rolls (foreground), then planks of itty bitty clams with accoutrements in shells (rear plank and planks in the back...there were a few different clams to try) and then in that teapot, sitting on hot rocks and seaweed, was the veloute, which the internet tells me means a light sauce thickened with a blond roux. But it was like a sipping chowder. Everything, very delicious.

Here's another one of the clams. Look how cute.

#4: Prawn Roulade with Avocado and Yogurt (2007)
A super showstopper, just looking at all that thinly sliced perfect avocado you think about the skill required here but then also it was so delicious. Thinly sliced perfect avocado (where have I heard that before?) layered around shrimp with this dynamite yogurt and something else on the side. Left everyone at the table begging for more. A superstar flavor standout.

Here's Kristen and Cory while the light's still good.

Here's your boi in the bathroom of the World's #1 Restaurant wearing the Thom Browne tie he splurged on last year before realizing it just looks like an old United Airline's pilot's tie. EMP was very on their pull your chair out/push your chair back in, replace your napkin while you're away game. Occasionally someone might slip back to the table under the radar and someone would come sprinting, diving, practically, to get that chair for you.

 #5: Foie Gras Torchon with Maple Syrup and Pain D'Epice (2004)
Super rich, deceptively generous portion of foie gras with, surprise!, surprise maple syrup filling. Little apple bread bun on the side. Tasty tasty tasty, some of use benefited from not knowing what they had been served, thinking it was peanut butter or something. They say this is the audition dish that got Daniel Humm his chef job at EMP.

#6: Carrot Tartare with Rye Toast and Condiments (2012)
Watch at least a little bit of this video to see a cook grinding our carrot tartare tableside. Carrot tartare? Carrot tartare. I'll take it over carrot steaks at Blue Hill any day.

So then they served us that carrot with a ton of condiments. When asked how best to eat all of it, the chef recommended we mix it all up. Good recommendation!

I think I can name them all: left to right, top to bottom. Bottles: Carrot oil and a, uhh, mustardy thing. Then: quail egg yolk, "pea mustard", sunflower seeds, shooot some little brown thing, maybe it was fish?, horseradish, snap peas, chives, pickled mustard seeds, salt. 

#7: Turbot, Poached Zucchini and Squash Blossom (2007)
Another technique showcase. Look how they sliced all those tiny zucchini pieces so thin and small to look like fish scales on the fish! The squash blossom was stuffed with ratatouille. I was worried the server had said it was "turtle" under the scales. It was turbot. Safe. But remind me to tell fancy restaurants I don't eat turtle. Put that down as the one thing I will not not not not eat.

#8: Winter in Provence: Black Truffle, Celery Root, Potato and Chevre Frais (2009)
They prepared this one table side, too, spraying the potato and goat cheese foams into the dish and spooning out the olive oil (with a little more black truffle and celery). Definitely didn't know what to think of this at first glance, looked more like a dessert but then that first condensed taste of black truffle hit me and nearly knocked me out of my chair. Total flavor head rush. Like, there is nothing I could possibly say to convey the positively overwhelming (positive) experience of eating all that black truffle.

At the beginning of the meal they gave us a choice of two entrees (just like on an airplane!) I chose...

#9: Suckling Pig Confit with Rhubarb, Leeks and Cipollini Onion (2010)
They took all the meat of a pig (yes, like it were a hot dog) and cooked it in duck fat then compressed it and put a crispy piece of skin on top. It may have shreaded like tuna under the knife and fork, but it tasted heavenly. 

The other entree option was a sous vided piece of chicken with black truffle on top. Had a little bite, very good.

And that was the end of the dinner part of dinner, but not nearly the end of the night. Three hours into our visit, the desserts begin!

#10: Milk and Honey with Dehydrated Milk Foam and Bee Pollen (2010)
Milk ice cream with (surprise!) honey filling. Reminded me of peppermint snow dessert I'd had at Alinea, but milk snow. (And sheesh, check out these totally different white balances)

#11: Chocolate Palette with Peanut Butter and Popcorn Ice Cream (2008)
Oh look! They knew it was our birthdays! Cory got some kinda chocolate mousse or something he was oohing and aweing over while we had fancy candy bars with popcorn ice cream. We kept our candles burning till we were done. Seemed classier. Gives you more time to work on your wish.

Bonus Items: Then they brought out all the cookies. What's the word for the cookies? I can't remember. But you got to pick which cookie you wanted to try and everyone said "I'll try all the cookies." The little dark chocolate passionfruit boat might have been the best one.

To wrap up: a celebratory glass of Martinelli's (or whatever the fancier version of Martinelli's is) followed by a giant jar of granola for breakfast and little, personalized die-cut menus hidden in that little tin. These menus, which had the date on them and exactly what we ate (so mine had the pork, not Kristen's chicken, and Cory's had the names of all the gluten-free foods) may have been the thing that most impressed the table that night. We're a bunch that's not easily impressed, but when we're impressed, it's quite easily.

A little video of Jeff enjoying a preview of his breakfast table side

But we're still not done! Because then they took us back to be wowed by the big shiny silent kichen where, suprise, they had set up a little table to prepare us spectacularly fancy grape sodas with grape reduction, grape slices, grape foam, and frozen grape foam orbs. Please, enjoy some (or all!) of the video Cory took of the pastry chef freezing our grape orbs.

Four hours later*, we say goodbye to the Eleven Madison Park dining room.
*I mean four hours after we got there, not four hours after our tour of the kitchen.

Critical Verdict: The food was better than I expected. The service was nearly as good as I expected (the swirl of service was eventually dizzying, the room got a little hectic)(YET at the same time, it was fun to see so many different diners enjoying their meals and being treated so nicely.) Would I go again? Sure, no rush. Would probably go back to Alinea first. Was it worth the $300? Sure, I guess. Why not. Special occasion, special dinner, special price. Did it fill me up? Sort of, but I'd eaten so much dang food with the Utahns over the weekend I don't think I ever need to eat again. Favorite dishes? That sea urchin cocktail, the avocado shrimp, anything that was a sauce, the foamy dish (black truffle part in particular). #1 Restaurant in the World? Ehhh, what a funny thing to say about a restaurant, especially if you're not saying it about Mom's Tamales. But I will say this: It must have been hard for them to win that honor with their bathrooms being such a long walk from the dining room. That's probably what they're renovating this summer: Moving the bathrooms closer.

And you know what's weird? No bread basket.

Epilogue: Out on the street, Cory receives Facetime birthday wishes from the kids. And on the subway I see a woman with a giant bird.

Birthday at Home

I flew home to Chicago last Thursday to spend the weekend at home for my birthday. I ate a lot and caught a bad cold. Let's mostly talk about the food, ok?

Straight from the airport Mom and I went to Los Barrilitos, a taqueria we already knew served spectacular tacos al pastor at rock bottom prices. Best tacos al pastor east of the Mississippi!

I had read about another place right down the street from Los Barrelitos called La Chaparrita, so went down and had a look. And a bite. Delighted to find the establishment very much dedicated to Santa Muerte, the official unofficial Mexican saint of death.

But this isn't just a taqueria interior decorating blog! It's important that we talk about the tacos at this taqueria. As you may see from squinting at the menu, most of the taco meats at Chaparrita are off cuts—brain, tongue, sweet breads, tripe—even in my strongest moments, I'm still a little cowardly about those sorts of things. But I had read and read about how great the crispy tripe was at Chaparrita, so I got one (and an al pastor, and a cesina) and GUESS WHAT. It was the BEST TACO I've had all year! So, so crispy, like the edges of a smashed burger, with bits of fat here and there. It only tasted delicious and I'd eat a dozen more! Other tacos were very good, too. 

That night we had chicken curry casserole for dinner. A classic.

Friday Mom and I went to lunch at this place Quiote in Logan Square that has clearly got Rick Bayless's Xoco in its cross hairs. We over-ordered (that's all I did on this trip) and got the torta ahogada, a mollete, a pair of tacos, and a bowl of pozole. Leftovers were finished on Sunday.

Back home to Oak Park, we went and saw the Lost City of Zed and even had time to walk to the theater.

That night we had dinner at what we had been calling "Dos Urban Cantina" but was actually probably "Dos (urban cantina." The waiter let me order way, way too much food. I don't know what I was thinking. I wasn't thinking! But a number of the dishes were awfully good.

Saturday, in no condition for lunch, I took a trip to the Art Institute courtesy of sister Emily. I hadn't been there since before it had opened its new modern wing.

But before the modern wing, the old stuff. Starting with the Tiny Rooms.

Then I walked through a pretty decent Chicago rain, past our Chicago outdoor art, up to Gibson's, where we were having dinner that night.

This was my dinner. the 22oz WR Chicago Cut. It was great, but I tried a piece of Mom and Dad's strip, and was like "ooh, I think this has a better char on it" but Mom had a piece of my steak and said "That's what I thought about yours." Just goes to show that the char is always darker on the other side of the table. There was other food on the table, like vegetables and potatoes and shrimps, but let's just keep the focus on the beef.

Then we saw My Fair Lady at the Lyric. The lobby was a panic, the show was good. Henry Higgins was a spaz.

Sunday. My birthday. I blew out all the candles! And look at this great card from Emily.

I was supposed to fly back to New York Sunday night but my cold was so bad and my flight was delayed so I just rescheduled for Tuesday to try to get a little better before I traveled. And to take advantage of being in a house with multiple rooms to go between and do laundry and such.

Tuesday Mom and I stopped at Jarabe on my way to the airport because this place is a quadruple-fire emoji rated excellent restaurant. 

And then there I was at Midway, on my way back to New York, where I saw a Wheaton service dog. So now I've seen it all.