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Eleven Madison Park, New York.

April 28, 2012

And finally, the piece de resistance, hot on the heels after Per Se, Marea and Picholine. I checked out of my hotel on 4 April 2012, made a couple of futile trips to two so-called flagship Coach stores in search of an elusive Hamptons Weekend Collection, but all in vain, before I strode right on time at noon into Eleven Madison Park at East 24th St and Madison Ave, where Kieron had, of course, made no mistake in ensuring that we had a table reserved exactly four weeks prior to the very date. That’s exactly what Eleven Madison Park is all about – the top dining venue of choice in New York City, where you only have one shot at getting a table the moment the reservations line is open.

By now the setting of these top restaurants is familiar: spacious dining halls with tall ceilings adorned in modern, comfortable and elegant decor that isn’t too heavy, where the restrained use of wood paneling, bright marble flooring and cheerful shades combine to enhance the anticipation of what is to come, staffed by young and friendly faces who provide knowledgeable, attentive but discreet service.  We were settled into a quiet corner and wasted no time in ordering some champagne to get the afternoon going. The persuasive maitre’d had no hesitation in recommending the Vilmart Brut Blanc de Blancs NV, showing a beautifully clear liquid gold, promising an open, transparent and layered wine with less of cream and vanilla but more of crystalline minerality stuffed with delicate white and yellow citrus, demonstrating great balance, carrying just enough weight and presence yet never too dry. Outstanding.

We began perusing the generous wine list whilst sipping this wonderful champagne. One wouldn’t expect the wines to come cheap, but what struck me, surprisingly, was its relative affordability with back-vintages that seemed to be priced at minimal mark-ups, which is most unusual for a top restaurant but, again, probably another reason why Eleven Madison Park is what it is. Of course, Kieron had done his homework the night before, perusing through the very same list online and shortlisting a few options.

There are two choices for lunch, a 4-course menu, and a 8-course chef’s tasting menu that requires at least four hours. As the prospect of being stranded at JFK International was to be avoided at all cost, we took the 4-course menu, itself presented in a very simple and unique 4 x 4 matrix, each comprising just a single word (“Duck”, “Lobster” etc…you get the gist). But there is an additional option, which is to replace the conventional third course with a roasted duck (at additional cost) that is carved by your table-side, reputedly even better than La Tour d’Argent’s famous canard. Naturally, upon hearing that, we opted for it, at the same time requesting if we could tour the kitchen later.

There was no doubt what we would be pairing the duck with: a 1988 Ch Troplong Mondot, priced at USD265. I was reminded that a half-bottle of Pichon Lalande of the same vintage at the one-Michelin-star La Tour d’Argent already set me back EUR165 three years ago, meaning this full bottle here at this three-star venue may be considered an absolute bargain.

Decanted on-site, this wine displayed some evolution at the rim but still remained a deep crimson at its core, giving off an arresting and generous bouquet  of aged old world aromatics, weighty and complex, a glowing sense of sur-maturite, soy, old leather, cinnamon and dried herbs. It opened up further as lunch wore on, lightening up in texture, revealing greater layering and definition, lush and very well-integrated, though not totally seamless thanks in part to its masculine character, developing some aromatic lift towards the long finish – the perfect accompaniment for a world-class long lunch. Indeed, it brought back memories, of course, of my lunch three years ago at La Tour d’Argent where I had the 1988 Pichon Lalande, but also another lunch around the same time with Kieron as well at Saint-Pierre where we had an entire bottle of 2000 Monbousquet to ourselves. Sometimes, you don’t need a top classified growth to complete the meal. Just great food, great ambience, great company, the allure of a lovely wine that can only come from a well-cellared bottle where each sip awakens your senses to greater heights, and plenty of time to enjoy all that.

And so while the 1988 Troplong-Mondot did its magic, we started reminiscing about the great meals we’ve had together over the years and, inevitably again, about which restaurants in Singapore come close to Eleven Madison. Certainly Iggy’s and Les Amis come to mind, but they are just a little short on the surprises in the presentation and execution that earns an already superb restaurant its third star.  And as if to illustrate this point, while we were floating on air from the intoxication, the maitre’d approached to say that the kitchen was ready for us to tour. We nearly fell off our seats…they actually remembered our request!! Of course, we needed no further prompting and followed her into one of the top kitchens of the world, where we were greeted by the sight of 20-30 chefs each at the helm of their art and passion. It might seem chaotic to the uninitiated, but clearly everything ran with clockwork precision. And in an unobtrusive corner stood a high table with two empty dessert glasses…our dessert glasses…our dessert (the contents of which had slipped my mind) was about to be prepared and served live in front of us, a deceptively simple concoction that we downed on-the-spot right there and then, savouring the experience. However, when we’d returned to our seats, we realised that wasn’t even our actual dessert (which was on its way). Another surprise! These are the kind of things – attentiveness to every detail and going all out to ensure that the diner is left with an indelible experience – that firmly cement the final star.

Again, when the bill came – just a shade above USD300 per head – it didn’t seem too bad compared to what one would have to pay in Paris or London, confirming my point of view that New York has the best value-for-money fine dining. Which was better: Per Se or Eleven Madison?? There’s little to choose between them, but I’ll have to pick the latter. The friendliness (the chef actually bothered to go around each table) and the kitchen tour just about sealed it, bringing my week-long sojourn in the Big Apple to a perfect end.

One Comment leave one →
  1. kieron Lim permalink
    April 28, 2012 11:15

    Great review as always Ric! I’m glad you enjoyed the gastronomic tour of NYC. 10 Michelin starts in 36 hours is indeed a milestone! Something we will remember for long time to come. cheers, k.

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