Tatler Asia’s editorial director, Eric Wilson, recounts his recent return to Eleven Madison Park—his first since the renowned New York fine dining restaurant went meatless in June—and reflects on his experience
The journey to Eleven Madison Park, which has emerged from the pandemic in a new incarnation as the world’s most famous plant-based restaurant, begins through a metallic revolving door set within a soaring limestone and marble loggia of the grand art deco Metropolitan Life North Building on Madison Square Park in New York.
The journey to Eleven Madison Park began more than a month earlier when I sat at my laptop to make a reservation at 9 am EST on 1 July (or 9 pm Hong Kong Standard Time). The moment the following month’s bookings were released, I felt a rush of excitement as I saw all the dates of August suddenly available. I clicked on the first table available at a decent hour, but it suddenly evaporated. I clicked the next one, and the same thing. Gone. Click. Poof. Click. Poof. Sixty seconds later, all the bookings were gone, and I was left only with the option to join a waiting list that’s reportedly 15,000 long for the most in-demand restaurant in America.
My journey to Eleven Madison Park began when my husband, an incurable optimist, suggested we walk in right when they opened at 5:30 pm on the last night of our summer holiday to the States to see if we could snag seats at the bar—he’d been tipped off by the concierge at our hotel that there were six spots that sometimes became available, if you were lucky, and nice, and daring enough to set foot into a four-star fine-dining establishment unannounced. Normally I wouldn’t tolerate this sort of potentially mortifying gambit, but we were staying across the street at the Edition with a few hours to kill before our midnight flight back to Hong Kong, and had a backup reservation for our final dinner in the city, ironically at a classic chop house down on Broadway since there’s nothing like a New York steak, so what could it hurt to humour him this one time? Surely, we’d walk into that revolving door, dressed in our identical grungy airplane clothes and sneakers no less, and revolve right back out onto the street. We’d laugh about it. But that didn’t happen.
We entered. After quickly making our case, we were ushered to the side, out of the view of the proper guests and slightly away from the grand dining room with its grand windows looking out onto the park, as a wave of uniformed servers whispered comments back and forth, and a very pleasant young woman was dispatched to the bar area, then returned a moment later and escorted us to the bar, where we were seated in the 2nd and 3rd stools from the right, the first being occupied by a man wearing—my God!—shorts. He was a restaurant owner from Connecticut in town for a food-and-beverage trade show, and had heard the same thing about the seats at the bar. Meanwhile, diners in fancy dresses and suits, and apparently some members of a Korean boy band, slowly filled the dining room visible though a cutout in the small bar.
Ever since I posted this experience on Instagram, I’ve been asked by hundreds of people what the new Eleven Madison Park dining experience is like. Is the food good? Is it worth the price (US$335 a head for the dining room tasting menu, or $175 for six courses at the bar)? Can vegetables really live up to all this hype? And my answer is always the same: It was worth it to me.
I’m no restaurant critic, but I understand the laws of supply and demand. Eleven Madison Park has been a tough table to book in all its incarnations, which makes it all the more desirable to be there. When I was kid reporter for Women’s Wear Daily in the late 1990s, when the restaurant first opened, I went there for lunch on one occasion with the CEO of Oscar de la Renta, and I remember being awed by the glamour of the space, the perfect white tablecloths, the silverware, the hushed formality of a bank lobby and its suitably as a place to leave all your money. Duck was the first dish I ate there, and I can still remember the crisp edge of its skin. Years later, after the restaurant was taken over by the chef Daniel Humm and the stars and accolades piled on, I went back on special occasions or when friends were in town, but the more famous Eleven Madison Park became, the more it felt like everyone there was checking off an item on their bucket list. But the pandemic has forced everyone to re-evaluate everything, and Humm’s response has resonated around the world:
“We have always operated with sensitivity to the impact we have on our surroundings, but it was becoming clearer that the current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways,” he announced, reopening in June with a plant-based menu and a business model that includes a note of philanthropy—for every diner in the restaurant, Eleven Madison Park provides five meals to the needy through a partnership with Rethink. For a restaurant as famous as this one, which topped the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2017, this was undoubtedly a risk, “abandoning dishes that once defined us,” Humm wrote.
Since then, the response has been respectable, but with a somewhat muted sense of enthusiasm. Some diners have complained about the duration of a meal, which can last three hours or more. The Hollywood super-agent Ari Emanuel was kicked out for throwing a “hissy fit” over the length of the service the week before my visit, according to the New York Post. A month later, Pete Wells would butcher Humm in a review in The New York Times, noting a signature beet dish “tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint”, and called out the chef for offering an optional beef dish in its private dining room.
It’s certainly fair criticism of Eleven Madison Park to note that while its intentions are well-meaning, its pretentions are self-defeating. Humm calls the food “plant-based” because he thinks “vegan” sounds lesser. His press release describes the beneficiaries of the restaurant’s donated meals as the “food-insecure”. Of course, this sort of spin is commonplace in the world of luxury marketing, so it’s not really relevant to what’s driving customers to join the waiting list for a dinner of beets and cucumbers. Rather, it’s to see what he’s done to them in the name of fine dining, and that remains a pleasure of demented discoveries. Beets, for example, are roasted and dehydrated over several days, wrapped in fermented greens, and served with beet-juice reduction in an elaborate table-side presentation in the dining room. Cucumbers are minced and served in a style of tartare, and the bread is made from butter made from sunflower seeds; the accompanying butter in a sunflower mold with an eye of fermented sunflower seeds.
Now, as to the question I’ve heard most often—was the food actually good?—I say it was what you would expect. Our meal at the bar was abridged, without the fantastical explanations or even all that much attention from the servers, and lasted about two hours. Some of the dishes were clear and others involved ingredients and treatments that might have been prepared in another language, such as the tonburi “field caviar” service that uses a Japanese seed that is common to Akita Buddhist shojin-ryori cuisine. Here, it looked like a tin of caviar resting on a bed of beautiful legumes. The cucumber tartare that followed was more intriguing in its finely grated texture than surprising in its taste—which was like most other cucumbers, with the addition of some fine herbs. “Squash with sesame tofu and lemongrass” was wonderful—a base of marinated and grilled tofu is layered with squash pickles and squash ribbons, topped with teensy white flowers and an ingredient that is identified as “time” (aka sesame seeds that have been ground for many hours). The man in shorts complimented the server, noting its resemblance in texture to a fine piece of seabass, only to be gently scolded that the plant dishes are not intended to synthesise non-plant dishes.
Each plate was presented as a perfect, artistically crafted circle, with the exception of the eggplant course, which was roasted and grilled with shisho and coriander and served in the shape of an eggplant, and it tasted like a very great, very well decorated eggplant, with various textures and twists in every element upon its fabulous face. It looks even better on Instagram, like an Easter egg-plant.
Still, it was an eggplant. On the flight home, I thought about our meal, and wondered, did I really enjoy it or was I satisfied for having checked that box? I did, and yes. Would I recommend it? For bragging rights alone, absolutely. Was it worth it? It was to me.