Thursday, July 26, 2007

Review: Eleven Madison Park during Restaurant Week

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Ave, at 24th Street
(212) 889-0905

It is said that societies can be judged by the way they treat their lowest citizens. I think the same can be said of restaurants. If Eleven Madison Park fawns all over me— a young, bargain-hunting Restaurant Week lunch patron— they will fawn all over anybody.

And fawn it does, the staff of course but also the room itself. Stepping into this soaring art-deco space, beautifully framed by towering windows and elegantly simple décor, feels like arriving at a spa. A gentle murmur of voices, punctuated by an occasional laugh or clinking glass, warms a room that might otherwise feel cold but very elegant. In contrast to the dark woods and rich colors of Gramercy Tavern, for instance, Eleven Madison Park feels more formal, more decadent. The polite and efficient welcome reflects the service in general: polite, attentive, and largely invisible.

Seated with my friend at our throne— a two-person table spacious enough that it could easily seat four— I draw no scorn when ordering the $24.07 prix-fixe Restaurant Week menu. The level of service is identical to the last time I ate here- a corporate dinner for four that cost at least $500.

My big-eye tuna tartare appetizer is excellent, and I have never seen such perfectly diced cubes of carrot and celery, scarcely bigger than grains of sand. The simplicity and precision of the dish are impressive. But the salmon entrée outdid even that: tender chunks of the fish slipped away with the mere touch of the knife, the thin breaded “skin” on top adding a richer touch to the mild fish. The combination is sublime. And all around this artful concoction is a pool of “white tomato foam,” which sounds gimmicky but comes across as a wonderfully light, creamy tomato sauce. It’s like eating a cloud.

Desserts are restrained and perfectly respectful: bittersweet chocolate moelleux (warm chocolate cake) with a raspberry filling, peach clafoutis with sorbet. But at this point I almost don’t want to eat them, for fear of losing that salmon taste in my mouth.

And remember: I’m paying $24.07 for this. Granted, the normal lunch menu is closer to $70. But if Eleven Madison Park can raise salmon and tuna tartare to these heights, imagine what they can do with foie gras, lobster, and truffles. As the proverbial Low Citizen, I am more than satisfied with the humble offerings. But I want to go back, and move up in the world.

Oui, on mange des hamburgers...

It’s simultaneously frustrating and exciting to talk to un-initiated French people about hamburgers. On one hand, they make declarations, Jose Bové-style, about the pitiful state of American food, and you have to listen to it. On the other hand, you get to prove them wrong.

Enter the Blue Smoke burger. This is no secret, and for cause. It is simply exceptional, perfectly medium rare, served relatively plain with a steamy pink core and a slight smoky taste. The brioche bun puts the normal rubbery sandwich-sleeve to shame. And it only sets you back $10. I mean, 7 euros. And it’s nothing like “MacDo.”