Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Dinner at Eleven Madison Park

Eleven Madison Park! Currently rated fifth best restaurant in the world, #1in America, #1 in NYC (Well.. according to The World's 50 Best Restaurants as sponsored by S. Pellegrino and Acqua Panna. Hey, if its anyone I trust, its Pellegrino!) It's an all-star restaurant no matter who you ask. And I got to go this past weekend. 

Everyone says EMP is "the best" or, at least, "among the best." And it got me thinking, what makes a restaurant good? Is it the level of prestige that follows the chef through their career, is it the size of their resume? Is it the level of service? Is it the quality of the menu? Does it need to have foie and lobster and truffles, maybe some caviar for old times' sake, all the ingredient staples of a luxury resto? Is it the amount of creativity each dish encompasses? Is it the visual appeal of the plating? Maybe, is it even the price tag itself? 

EMP has all of the above. There is no denying any of that. But I'm wondering, does anyone ever consider crave-ability? How often you think of a particular dish later? If you even want to try it for yourself at home? Or is it just something to consider and appreciate and then move on, like a painting in a museum? 

Restaurants of this caliber are rarely super memorable by the properties of flavor. It's more of an appreciation, a tasting, a fleeting moment of palette-ial (palletial?) pleasure. It's not usually something you remember vividly for long (with the exception of that half-seared salmon at Le Bernadin... years later and I'm still drooling over that dish and its perfect pinot noir wine pairing). But I digress. EMP is fantastic, the service is impeccable, the ceilings are soaring, the chef is a celebrity, the kitchen is spotless. And all 15 dishes of the tasting menu are beautiful and spectacular. But I do have to admit, this kind of fine dining makes me want to go home and whip up big pots of hearty dishes with handfuls of salt and approximations of garlic for the rest of the week.

The 15-course meal at 11 Madison Park is bookended by mini black and white cookies. Savory to start, sweet to finish. The first taste is a Cheddar. Each menu item is titled by an ingredient, as though that's all it is. Don't by coy, EMP. The consistency was like shortbread, there was a taste of tangy cheddar, like an awesome Cheezit (please forgive me for saying that) and a hint of apple. 

While I didn't think the wine pairings were as precise as Le Bernadin, I think the wines were more memorable here. This champagne -- Bereche & Fils, Reflet d'Antan, from France -- had this rich, deep flavor that sang between the bubbles like a wise old mermaid. 

Next dish: Sea Urchin.
The description says "Snow with Smoked Cantaloupe and conch." My notes include "yogurt." I'll be honest, I didn't know what was what here. There was the smoky melon flavor with a fishy undertone. But was the kibbly thing the melon? Or the sea urchin? The dish name is cute because I don't think many people would have any idea uni was even involved here. 

Next, Asparagus.
It looks like white asparagus on a shallow pink petre dish. But beneath the rhubarb-y front is a gelatinous core filled with caviar. This is where the creativity comes into play well at EMP. Little moments of surprise like this. 

Surf Clam, from maine. It's a creamy foamy bite. The description includes fava bean, pickled meyer lemon, green garlic. It's a divine bite, a little fishy, a little bright. It's poetry.

Time for a new kind of clam: Littleneck. This course mimicked a clam bake on the beach, something that brought back sweet memories for my dining partners. There's also whelk with couscous, parker house rolls, and, of course,...

... a smoky pot of clam chowder, which is milky and thin instead of thick and soupy. You drink it like a little cappuccino. 

They never count the bread and butter as a course, but, it's often something I really look forward to (because its familiar, its constant?)

To the left is cow's milk butter, and on the right, duck's milk butter. I know, I would never have thought that was a thing, either. It's thick and rich and fatty.

Now the token Foie Gras course. It was among my favorites, the cold terrine melting better than the butter itself, the heady hint of black truffle that plays alongside the earthy asparagus. This was really one of the most impressive dishes of the night. 

Then they came and affixed a meat grinder to the end of the table for the Carrot dish. I know, it's kind of blasphemy, right? But the carrot tartare -- with rye bread and condiments -- was arguably the most creative dish of the night, and definitely the most fun.

As he grinds the carrot he talks about the farm in Upstate NY the carrot came from, how it was harvested, the happy life it lived with its happy carrot friends.

We each got a dollop of carrot puree and tiny dishes of small condiments. There's carrot oil and mustard in tiny squirt bottles. There's a pickled raw quail egg and fish and ginger and pea and wasabi. 

The waiter recommended we did one row at a time and tasted as we went to see how the integration of new ingredients slowly transforms the tartare to a mature, finalized taste.

Now the Lobster dish, which might have been the bset of the night. It was the most tender, flavorful bits of lobster I've ever tried, poached with snap peas, served with crispy sweetbreads that offset the buttery texture, and morels that are completely saturated in what tasted like butter and lobster stock. And the sauce... wow. You'd be amazed at how much the bottom of a fork can scrape up before calling in the bread for Italian-style backup.

I have to admit that the wine parings have caught up to me for the Nettles dish. I remember the strong taste of spinach, not so much the nettles creamed with fingerling potatoes or the goat cheese foam (goat cheese foam? It sounds like the punchline to a hipster joke).

There was only one choice we had for the night: duck for three, or lamb for three? We went with the duck, of course, but we wound up feeling a bit confused when they showed us the entire duck breast and then brought it back to us in small bits that coulodn't have possibly added up to that entire breast. 

Especially not with the first of two duck courses, since it was duck prosciutto. The charcuterie was nice and salty; I don't remember the foie gras and pickled lettuce.

I DO remember the wine this course was big and fat and funky and tasted like horses that trampled into a sheep's barn and I couldn't get enough of it. 

When the Duck came, I remembered every bite. This was the only thing we had where I really pined for more. And rightfully so, because where's the rest of that duck? It's glazed with a fragrant, herbal honey lavendar topping. The skin is crispy, the meat is juicy, it is perfectly cooked. There are hints of rhubarb, pistachio and fennel. I could eat this every day and never get sick of it. 

Now back to the fun, but instead of clambake, its Greensward Picnic. There's a picnic basket with prezel, mustard, pickled strawberries, cheese. There's beer from Ithaca. The ceramic plates look like bent, misshapen picnic ware. I feel like I'm in Central Park on a half day Friday.

There will be another post for the desserts, but first let me make room for the Malt. I think it was made tableside. I don't remember the preparation as much as I do the surprise of that first sip, it's mellow egg cream with sweet vanilla and poppy seltzer. I don't usually like malted drinks, but this egg cream's for the books.

And so there it is, the first 12 courses in what is ultimately 16. It's fun, it's whimsical, it's luxurious. Add in a card trick at the table and it's theatrical dining at its best. What else can I say?

I really want to know what they did with the rest of that duck, though.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Omakase at Yasuda

Finally. After years of working just around the corner from Yasuda and looking longingly through the window on my lunch breaks, my dreams have come true. I've had sushi every which way -- in a goblet, on an oyster shell, with mousse, blow-torched, wrapped in cucumber, topped with yuzu -- and I was ready to just have it done RIGHT. Good sushi. Good rice. No extras. No filler. No room for creativity. Just sushi, simple and perfect.

I knew I was in for a treat (I mean, I'd been anticipating this meal for years) but I had no idea sushi could be this amazing. Every piece was clean, pristine, disappeared like a cloud in my mouth. Even the taste was so pure it needed a little something -- soy, wasabi, salt, whatever -- to make the flavors stand out just a tiny bit more. 

My only request in the omakase was to start with sashimi. Prime our palates a little. Our private sushi chef got right to work, slicing ultra thin pieces of tuna, yellowfish, Alaskan trout (I think?), with chewier bits of orange clam and squid. We had a little coarse sea salt for the clam and squid, making two of my lesser favorites something I couldn't get enough of. Wow. Now we were excited for sushi.

I didn't write down anything or take many pictures. I really just wanted to experience and enjoy. The sushi chef would plunk it down. We'd pick it up with bare fingers and toss it back. And so it went. There were playful pairings that really made you pay attention to the subtle flavors of each fish: there were three types of salmon, different types of tuna (including bluefin, which I guess I should have morally refused but instead indulged and unregrettably enjoyed), fresh and saltwater eel. There was scallop and just-cooked shrimp. Everything piece melted onto the perfect rice beneath it, slightly vinegared, a little salty, every grain distinguishable from every other while the fish dissolved into it. Amazing. 

Even the seaweed here was unlike any I'd had before. Not crunchy or jarring. It was soft and fresh and a little sticky between my teeth. It was filled with toro that again, melted into the rice around it. A nice, filling way to end the omakase. I was full and satisfied but not too stuffed to go out for a nice bottle of wine after.

When we were done, our sushi chef -- who started off a little standoffish but had really warmed up to us by then -- asked if there was anything we didn't have that we'd like to. We both asked for uni. He said it was out of season, but put something together for us that worked just as well, if not better, than uni. It was part of a scallop. He said it was only available in the summer and that people went crazy for it. It was really similar to uni but bigger, slick and creamy like a freshly shucked oyster. Our eyes popped open. We asked him to tell us more about it. And so he gave us a brief tutorial of the anatomy of a scallop. It appeared that the part he was indicating was the reproductive gland. "You had male. This part female." Hmm. It was hard to decide whether to be grossed out by what we just learned or happy that it was so amazing. We both had the same "hmmmm" reaction. I guess its just like a big roe. No one had ever told me about scallop roe.

We finished the sake and headed back out into Midtown. This is it, we said. That's the last sushi we can ever eat.

(I might have ruined it with that Karumazushi bit, but, for the blog's sake of food drama, I'm gonna go ahead and say that is that. Forever. Now I'm done.)

Unless you also plan on giving up sushi forever, I have to warn against going here. It really is just that good.

204 e. 43rd St.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Lunch Special at Karumazushi

I've wanted to go to Karumazushi since I read about it in Ruth Reichl's novel Garlic & Sapphires. Considering the place is so expensive, I went for a $20 lunch special the other day. Maybe I would have been happier with it if I went BEFORE Yasuda instead of after.

Anyway, here's the lunch special, which I admit is pretty good for the price. The sushi isn't top notch, some pieces are too chewy, some are a little discolored. The toro roll was pretty great though.

I don't know what the rest of it was, since they didn't tell me. It didn't really matter because my heart was elsewhere -- at Yasuda a few blocks away.

Stay tuned for a post on our omakase meal at Yasuda. It will probably be my last sushi post ever, because I have now officially been too spoiled to eat anything less than sweet pristine perfection ever again.

7. E. 47th St.
2nd floor

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Omakase at Neta

It's funny how most menu items cost about same across the board -- a good burger is about $18, a nice roasted chicken dish is $25, a filet's about $32 -- and tasting menus are completely all over the place. We had an awesome four-course meal at Cava in Portsmouth for $35 and 11 courses at Europea in Montreal for $70 -- not including the multiple courses of desserts. It's hard to go from getting so much bang for your buck to paying high end for omakase -- $135 at Neta -- and getting so much less. Yeah, you have to factor in where you are (West Village is not New Hampshire) and the quality of food you are receiving (high-end sushi is not Spanish tapas) but when the difference of two tasting menus are over $100 apart, its hard not to wonder where all that additional money is going.

Anyway, with that rambling cost analysis aside, I have to say that Neta's sushi is great, fresh, high-quality and all that, but it's not very memorable. It was funny going through Europea and Au Pied de Cochon pictures and remembering what every bite tasted like, and then looking through Neta pics -- literally taken the day we got back from Montreal -- and only having a few items stand out.

While I waited for my dining counterparts to show, I sipped on this Rangaku, a punch made from "merlow barrel aged birds eye chili mead" from South Africa (so... red spicy honey wine?) and rooibus ginger tea and yuzu sorbet. It was kind of like a sake -- clear, sweet, balanced.

I asked the difference between the $95 and $135 omakase. Like I expected, the higher priced omakase includes higher quality ingredients, and isn't necessarily larger save for a course or two.  

We started with this. I don't remember what it was. Was it fluke and shrimp? Maybe.

Then one of the dishes for fancy omakase only: toro tuna tartar with sturgeon caviar and toast. It was pretty decadent.

Then Spanish Mackerel Tataki topped with a myoga vegetable salad with ginger and soy. Not as memorable. But then back to the kickass...

Sea urchin with raw scallops! I mean, what more can I say. It's more about the freshness and the fact that they're my favorites than anything else. The preparation is an afterthought.


This next tempura dish was meant to flaunt their veggies, I think. The Times review said they had respectable vegetable sushi, and most people aren't going to ask for it by name, so here it is. Shisito peppers and tofu and a little bit of soft shell shrimp. The spiciness and crispiness was a nice counterpoint to the scallop and uni from before.

My absolute favorite of the evening: rice with spicy salmon tartar and bonito flakes, served on a hot plate. It reminded me of a decadent bibimbap, hot crispy rice with cool, wet fish on top and saltiness from the dancing bonito. Sooo gooood.

Now onto the sushi. My favorite kinds to start: salmon with Szechuan sauce, spanish mackerel and toro. As you can see, the fish was gleamingly fresh, and had that perfect bite to it. Is umami a texture thing, too?

Then orange clam, scallop and kanpachi (amberjack).

The cooked fish. Softshell crab and seared toro.

And rolls. Tuna and eel. None of which were as good as the rounds of raw sushi.

Finally, a palate cleanser of rice in shiso.I thought it meant more fish was coming but...

... we were cleansing for dessert. Which was this grapefruit sorbet.

Okay, so when I left I was pretty pleased and all, but as I thought about it I realized that as one of the more expensive tasting menus we've splurged for, not just in that past week but ever, and thus it should be one of the more memorable. The fish was fresh -- can't argue that -- and the creativity was there -- sure, to an extent -- but I feel like we should have been eating less shrimp and a little more types of toro, maybe some crab, maybe that duck & foie I saw on the menu (though after our weekend in Montreal it was probably the last thing we needed). And definitely dessert! Ice cream, chocolate, something. Grapefruit sorbet is more of a palate cleaner in and of itself!

I also think we missed out on something by sitting at a table. They say there are two types of people in a sushi restaurant -- those at the sushi bar and tourists.

I'm going to Yasuda in a few days and when making the reservation I said the word "counter" and "bar" at least five times. I'm excited to do more... uh... comparison research.

Anyway, I'd definitely recommend hitting Neta for a cocktail and some a la carte sushi. I think I'm getting stingy with my omakase recommendations.
61 W. 8th St.