Lunch at Eleven Madison Park.

I’ve insisted that I don’t really read restaurant reviews, and I swear that is true.  That said, I agree completely with every word former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in in his four-star review of Eleven Madison Park.

Is it distinguished?  Is it impressive?  Progressive?  Superb?  Yes, yes, yes and yessir.  And, even better, Eleven Madison Park offers a two-course prix fixe lunch for $28.00, three courses for $42.00, and a “Gourmand” lunch tasting menu for $68.00, so basically you can decide which option best fits your budget when you sit down.  And yes, I am writing with the assumption that you’ll eventually make a reservation and have a meal here.  I did — three times in the past four months.  It’s that good.

Elelven Madison Park amuse bouchesRegardless of which menu you follow — Gourmand, two- or three-course — you’ll first get an amuse bouche: six gougères, cheesy puffs of choux pastry warm from the oven, and two other little  bites.  Once there were molded domes of golden potato and surprising savory beet-imbued marshmallows; another time there were foie gras macarons and celery root gelée.  With the Gourmand meal, there was yet another amuse: a perfect pale pink scallop standing knee-high in cream of celeriac soup.

Though I’ll fight anyone for the last gougère, it was the soup that I fell in love with.  Its celery root flavor was utterly delicious, that’s a fact not up for debate.  What I became so enamored with was its astonishing mouthfeel: smooth and creamy, with a pleasant weight.

“How amazing would it be to have a robe made of this?” I asked Keith.  Before he could respond, I interrupted myself: “No, wait — underwear.  Can you imagine, long underwear with this texture?”

(Keith’s response: “You’re so weird.”)

Eleven Madison Park Scottish partridgeI don’t care what you order when you come here, because I can guarantee you that it’s going to redefine the word perfect.  I’ve had the heirloom beet salad, which features three different types of beet, each wearing a nasturtium-petal cap and a dusting of crumbled rye toast.  The butternut squash velouté rivals my beloved celeriac soup in terms of texture, but its flavor is far bolder.  Most recently I ate the balik salmon and its accompanying pommes Dauphine, which were lovely and pillowy and delicate.

Unfortunately, the Scottish partridge ballotine is not on the menu anymore, but I can only hope that some iteration of it reappears this fall so that you can try it.  If it were possible to somehow beam a bite of ballotine to all of you, a small plate of it would be appearing at your elbow right now, along with its garnishes of fig, plum and black truffle.

Also no longer available is the lobster navarin — which is a fancy way of saying ragoût, which is the French way of saying stew — so try to console yourself with a plate of the linguini and Alaskan king crab.  It gets its subtle citrus flavor from Meyer lemon, but coarse black pepper prevents the dish from being too precious, adding a much-needed edge.

Somehow I found room for venison and hen of the woods mushrooms; another afternoon, I managed to eat every morsel of my bone marrow encrusted beef tenderloin.  It was a true struggle, but utterly worth it.

If after all of this, you can squeeze in another course, you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  I can’t stress this enough: you must have the chocolate peanut butter palette.  Yes, it’s crunchy, and sophisticated-yet-comforting, and there’s edible gold flakes glittering on its surface, and it’s a heck of a tongue twister.  This is all true, but what takes the dessert from delicious and propels it into the next level is the caramel popcorn ice cream it is served with.  Eleven Madison Park’s popcorn ice cream wasn’t my first, but it was undoubtedly the best.

Eleven Madison Park macaronsEach of my three lunches ended with a plate of macarons — once, when eating there with Ben, we were sneakily given an extra plate, and when we had lunch with Stephanie on Friday two oval dishes of cookies appeared, sans the cloak-and-dagger.  I like a bit of covert ops every now and then, but I can’t complain at all about these little meringue sandwich cookies.  Of course, as it’s a risk-taking sort of restaurant, Eleven Madison Park’s macarons aren’t your standard everyday chocolate or raspberry.  Instead they are peanut butter and jelly flavored, or chocolate-and-banana, or toasted sesame, or green tea, or violet, or pistachio-rose, or Meyer lemon, or brown butter-hazelnut, or whatever other fantastic combo the kitchen comes up with.  I’m partial to the lemon, in case you were wondering, and the brown-butter hazelnut, while Keith always snaps up the PB+J.

One last word, and then I promise I’ll stop drooling (intentional pun!) over what just might be my new favorite restaurant: cocktails.  I know I already insisted you have the chocolate peanut butter palette, but now I must put my foot down and stand firm and require you order a cocktail.  I like the Painted Lady, with its frothy egg-white top and dash of house-made bitters.  There’s fantastic non-alcoholic ones, if spirits aren’t for you, like the cool celery fizz and kind-of-dirty-sounding”Up the Alley.”

Okay, that was sixty-two words too many, so I’ll wind it up now.  Just promise me you’ll go?  Please?

Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue
New York, New York 10010
212.889.0905
elevenmadisonpark.com
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Lunch at Jean-Georges.

I know it must seem like I’m the sort of person who thrives on fancy dinners, dressing up and drinking fine wines late into the night, and while that’s not entirely false, I can’t ignore the fun in mid-week lunches.  There’s something decadent and sly about sitting down in cashmere and silk to a four-course mid-day meal, then afterwards sneaking home to change into an oversize sweatshirt, order in a pizza and watch previous seasons of Dexter on On Demand.  What makes lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten‘s eponymous New York City restaurant Jean-Georges even more luxe is the price — for only $29.00, you can get two courses, with each additional course costing $14.50 and dessert setting you back another $8.00.

Basically, it’s the best lunch deal in New York.

I know what you’re thinking: since when is fifty dollars a steal for lunch?  Well, if you can tell me anywhere else that we can have a three-Michelin-star, multi-course lunch for less in this town, I’ll buy it for you. If it’s as good as this, I’ll be happy to do so.  And if they offer housemade ginger-lemon soda ($6.00) to both warm and refresh our palates, even better.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll start with the sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs, lemon foam, a smear of dill and horseradish shavings, like I did last week.  Jean-Georges sea trout sashimiI’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to learn my dish came with foam (on the menu, it is listed as simply lemon), because sometimes I get so bored with it.  After all, it seems as though everyone in a chef’s hat is foaming it up these days, but Jean-Georges’s is more of a cream than a froth, and far more substantial in both flavor and texture than your everyday spoonful of miniature bubbles.  It went surprisingly well with the smooth sashimi, though I could’ve done with a few less horseradish curls zinging their vapors up my nose.  Maybe I’m being a bit nitpicky here, but personal preference is personal preference, no?

My personal preferences, after all, are what led me to order the young garlic soup, which is served with a trio of sautéed frogs’ legs.  Jean-Georges young garlic soupDotted with teensy little leaves of thyme, it was absolutely redolent of garlic, though definitely not at all  in an overpowering way.  I’ve got to say, and maybe this is a bit unsporting to admit, but I sampled Joann’s risotto and eyeballed Keith’s bacon-wrapped shrimp, and, had lunch been a contest, my soup would’ve won for sure.  I mean, not much can beat all that is lovely about garlic — its original bite and its transformation into something sweet and buttery and mellow.  To top it off, my frogs’ legs were light and crunchy; I was encouraged by our server to dunk the meat into my soup.  Afterwards, I was given a much-needed fingerbowl of rose water.

Since I can rarely resist sweetbreads, for my third course  I selected the option that served them with Jean-Georges sweetbreadstoasted pine nuts, dried cherries and pumpkin.  These were wading in a vinaigrette, and as I lifted each forkful to my mouth I inhaled a not-unpleasant jolt of vinegary zippiness; you would think the vinegar would overwhelm everything else on the plate, but it actually sharpened taste of the bittersweet cherries, the sweet pumpkin, the surprisingly-flavorful pine nut and the meatiness of the sweetbreads.  Though my instinct is to wolf down delicious food, I instead managed to savor each bite as much as possible.  Still, I was finished with my dish long before either Joann or Keith.

Should you choose to get dessert at Jean-Georges, you’ll notice that its menu isn’t as straightforward as in other restaurants.  Rather than listing options like tarte tatin or tea cake, Jean-Georges chocolate dessertit instead categorizes ingredients or even a concept. Last week, we chose from Market, Harvest, Chocolate or Strawberry; underneath each heading was a description of components we would then receive. I chose Chocolate, and ended up with Jean-Georges’s signature chocolate cake, vanilla bean ice cream and a wintergreen soup with chocolate noodles.  I quickly slipped the most creative item on my plate, the wintergreen soup, onto Keith’s, but that was only because I’m no fan of mint.  Besides, the normally-boring molten chocolate cake and usually-uninspiring ice cream were both utterly superb, proving once and for all that sometimes simple trumps complex every time.

Jean-Georges is open for lunch Mondays through Saturdays from noon to two-thirty.  Reservations, which are a must, can be made at OpenTable or via the phone at 212.299.3900.  The menu changes seasonally, and, unfortunately, the price has gone up from last year’s $28.00 for two plates to the current $29.00.  Regardless, it’s still a bargain.  If dressing for lunch is not for you, a similar deal can be had next door at Nougatine, Vongerichten’s more casual eatery.

Jean-Georges
1 Central Park West
New York, New York 10023
212.299.3900
jean-georges.com
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Lunchtime at Albert Cuyp Markt.

Oh, there’s still so much I want to tell you all about our trip last month, and there’s still so much I want to tell you about other things (I know you don’t think I’ve forgotten to keep you posted about my CSAdventures) but somehow time has gotten away from me.  Bear with me while I figure it all out, and in the meantime, enjoy this little slideshow of photos I took at the Albert Cuyp Markt in Amsterdam.  (Click on the legs.)

Albert Cuyp Markt, 8

Unlike London’s Borough Market and Montréal’s Marché Jean-Talon, the Albert Cuyp Markt is an actual street market; the vendors set up and break down their carts, trucks and booths each morning and night.  Don’t worry though — the street is closed to automotive traffic during market hours (Monday through Saturday from eight in the morning until six at night).

Also unlike Borough Market and Jean-Talon, the markt offers products ranging beyond produce, including clothing, furniture and even electronics — which reminded me more of some of the markets I’ve visited in Hong Kong, Thailand and Singapore.  There’s still a lot of food to sample, buy and smell, however.  My favorite was Amsterdam’s infamous raw herring sandwich; fatty, sweet and rich, I wish I had one in my hand right now.  It was that good.

What’s amazing about this market is that it’s in the center of a picturesque part of Amsterdam known as the Pijp, whose little pockets of ethnic communities definitely flavor the markets’ stalls.  Crave a Surinamese sweet?  Need a tagine?  The markt has everything you need, and frites to boot, so if you plan to visit, I highly recommend doing what Keith and I did: skip breakfast.

Albert Cuyp Markt
Albert Cuypstraat between Ferdinand Bolstraat and Van Woustraat
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
albertcuypmarkt.com

Lunch at L’Espalier.

L'EspalierlogoThere’s a saying, I think, about the people you know or knowing the right people.  There may be more to it than simply that, not that it matters; I’m terrible at idioms and I don’t really have a lot of so-called connections — except at the relocated L’Espalier, which shares kitchen-space with the newest Sel de la Terre, where my cousin Niki works, which means she gets a healthy employee discount at both restaurants…

I hope you can see where I’m going here, since I’m dangerously close to confusing myself with my own addled sentences.  What I’m trying to get at is this: it helps to know people, and because then you sometimes get to eat meals like this.

L'Espalier 1We had gone to L’Espalier for the set-price lunch, but once we placed our orders the extra courses began to arrive.  Actually, now that I think of it, before we placed our orders,  first the complimentary glasses of L’Espalier’s reserve sparkling wine arrived.  The week before, some of my visiting Filipino relatives, Keith and I received similar treatment at Sel de la Terre — otherwise, we wouldn’t have been prepared for the utterly absurd amount of food we were served over what became a two-and-a-half hour lunch.  This oyster with caviar was just the beginning.

(I should note that prepared or not, I couldn’t keep up with our server’s detailed descriptions of the gifted courses.  The oyster, for example, came topped with a foam and rested on a gelée, but what type of foam and what flavor gelée?  I don’t know.)

L'Espalier 2Our second freebie (not counting the wine) was by far the table’s favorite, but let me take a minute here to state how this actual bowl was my favorite; I love Royal Copenhagen, and while I participate in the “white plate” school of thought — food looks best on a plain white plate — I would happily expel myself for just one place setting of this design.  I would, obviously, be even happier if that place setting included not only this bowl but this bowl of soup: cream of Vidalia onion over ham, fava beans and a seared diver scallop.  Honestly, if you think the bowl is pretty, you have no idea what the word means unless you’ve tasted this soup.  It was smooth and complex, and if I were forced to eat exclusively this for the rest of my life, I’d die a very contented woman.  (If you want to judge for yourself, know that the soup is currently a part of the dinner service prix-fixe.)

L'Espalier 3After our oyster amuse-bouche and precursor  course, our ordered starters arrived.  I had chosen the black pudding with chanterelles, spicy mayonnaise and a fried egg, prioritizing my love of black pudding above my dislike of spicy food and condiments.  You know, I’m so happy that I didn’t chicken out about the mayo, mostly because 1) it wasn’t that spicy after all; and 2) the black pudding was fantastic.  It was deeply flavored and incredibly textured.  I don’t think it’s that clear in the photograph, but the pudding was just barely holding itself together, breaking apart with the slightest pressure of my fork.  It was exceptionally creamy, almost like a pâté — which is one of the foods I like best in the world, so obviously anything that reminds me of it is going to get high praise from me.

L'Espalier 4At this point, I was already comfortably full.  I had purposely skipped breakfast that morning; the last time I went to L’Espalier, my skin felt stretched beyond its limit, and I really wanted to avoid that uncomfortable gorged sensation.  The folks in the kitchen, apparently, wanted to get me to that point as soon as possible, sending out yet another gratis dish of food.  This time it was a fried soft shell crab glazed with chili and served over a pickled carrot slaw (which is, as I type, now on both the dinner and lunch menus, which do change quite frequently).  If the idea of eating a crab shell and all freaks you out, try it fried, my friends.

L'Espalier 5I’d never really understood the mechanics of muscle memory before this meal, but somehow I think the arrival of my entrée just made something click in my mind.  My stomach distinctly remembered the way it felt in L’Espalier’s dining room last March.  I mean, if I was on the brink of awesome discomfort prior to the crab’s arrival, my duck confit put me over the edge.  Let’s not even go into the spring succotash or the baby carrot and pea shoot salad.  I can’t even think about the leg’s sweet and crispy skin without groaning a bit, even now.  I was definitely groaning at the table, perhaps a little too audibly.

L'Espalier 6I managed to keep my moaning on the inside for the cheese plate our server put together — it’s cheese, people — but this predessert was another story altogether, even if it was just a a pretty little scoop of sorbet, a dollop of pineapple essence, a fruit-flavored gel and a strawberry half.  I love a sorbet, so even in my almost-bursting state I managed to chase a spoonful or two around the plate.  The gel, however, stayed exactly where it was minus an exploratory taste, only because I’m a glutton for both punishment and food, it seems.  Interestingly, I wasn’t the only martyr at the table…

L'Espalier 7See, we had a bit of a time constraint for lunch; Niki had to go to work, and L’Espalier’s generosity already had her behind schedule.  Luckily, her commute from the dining room to the kitchen was a short one, but she had been anxiously checking the time even before the arrival of the cheese plate; regardless, she ended up dashing out during our final dessert after having a bite of pain perdu, a slice of panna cotta and a taste of crème anglaise.  We, of course, were able to stay behind and linger, luxuriating in our plush chairs — though I was preoccupied with not slipping into the deepest “food coma”* ever.

Regardless of whether you’ve got an in at either L’Espalier or Sel de la Terre, the former has excellent deals on prix fixe lunches.  Even without Niki’s employee markdown, forty dollars for three courses here is a real deal, as is the twenty-four dollar “power lunch.”  We clearly had a stunner of a meal, discount or no, and while chances are incredibly slim that I’ll ever receive so many culinary tokens from a kitchen staff ever again, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t book another L’Espalier lunch and happily pay full price.  I’ll just make sure to wear elastic-waist pants.

L’Espalier
774 Boylston Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02199
617.262.3023
lespalier.com

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* This is a phrase I hate, but here it’s unavoidably apt.

Lunch at Alive + Kicking, or Lobster Monsters.

Alive + KickingCheck out these monsters!  Priced at ten dollars a pound, five of us got three two-and-a-half pound lobsters, two lobster sandwiches and a pound of steamers.  It was way too much food — but, man, was it fun to eat.  Messy, too.

By the way, Alive and Kicking is located in what is basically a garage kitted-out with water tanks, sinks, coolers and a cash register.  Stop by only if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves, splatter yourself and others with lobster juice, sit at a beat-up picnic table and eat what may be some of the freshest seafood in town.

Alive + Kicking
269 Putnam Avenue
Cambridge, Massachusetts 02139
617.876.0451

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Lunch at Myers + Chang.

Not too long ago, Stephanie and I met up for some food and a bit of catching up.  We had put together a list of restaurants open for a weekday lunch; one spot after another got crossed off until we were left with Myers and Chang, an Asian restaurant on Washington in the South End.  We had both been wanting to check it since it opened, so we had made plans to meet up at noon.

myers-chang-2Myers and Chang calls itself an “indie diner” serving variations on traditional Asian fare.  I don’t know if I would personally describe the restaurant as a diner per se, mostly because the space is way too stylish and slick to be your everyday greasy spoon.  After all, the first thing I noticed when I walked in, even before I saw Stephanie at our table, was the bold and graphic dragon decal emblazoned across the floor-to-ceiling window.  What other diner has décor like that?

myers-changAfter much deliberation, Stephanie and I decided to share a few small plates — the better to tour the menu, right?   We chose the pork belly buns ($9.00), the crispy spring rolls ($5.00) and what the menu described as “Mama Chang’s pork dumplings” ($11.00).

The first of our dishes to arrive were the spring rolls, which were made with chives, bamboo shoots and shiitake mushroom.  They had a pleasantly green flavor, very fresh, and weren’t the least bit greasy, even though they had clearly been deep-fried.

While we were busy eating and having a gossip, the pork buns appeared.  While these pieces of braised pork smeared with hoisin were nothing compared with Momofuku Noodle Bar‘s drool-worthy buns, Myers and Chang’s little sandwiches were still quite nice, moist and fatty.

Our last dish were the potsticker dumplings, which, like the buns and rolls before them, were nice.  I guess that’s where I have trouble with Myers and Chang.  Everything was fine.  And that’s it.  I left scratching my head a bit.  Where were the chefs’ personal touches and updates on these typical Chinese and Korean dishes?  Our food tasted good, don’t misunderstand, but why would I be drawn into a self-stylized diner with Chinatown a few subway stops away?  I’d give Myers and Chang another chance to blow me away with their food — they’ve won me with their aesthetic and with their servers’ cheerful demeanors — but I’ll make sure I’ve got a few Chinatown backups at the ready.

Myers + Chang
1145 Washington Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02118
617.542.5200
myersandchang.com

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Lunch at Blackbird.

Friday afternoon found Keith and me in almost the same place as the night before, but instead of being at 615 West Randolph, we were at 619.  And  instead of sitting inside Avec‘s slick wood-paneled walls, we sat by Blackbird‘s sleek floor-to-ceiling glass window overlooking the street.

Blackbird is owned and operated by the same team behind Avec, but the parallels between the two restaurants mainly end there.  Both spots share an attention to detail, but it’s clear even from the sidewalk that Blackbird is Avec’s more sophisticated older sister.  While Avec is all edgy hard angles, Blackbird’s interior could only be described as, well, sexy.  It’s almost as if each surface craves human contact, particularly the soft gray banquettes.

Sexy or not, lunch is definitely the more economical way to experience Blackbird, where the dinner entrées average out at $32.50; the restaurant offers two different prix fixe menus alongside its à la carte choices.  You can select three courses from a set menu for $22.00, or spend $15.00 on a sandwich and a salad; for an additional five dollars, you can even get a glass of Blackbird’s featured wine.

blackbird-1Regardless of the special lunch deals, I ordered off of the regular lunch menu, mostly because one of the appetizers sounded too good to pass up: duck tartare with dried strawberries, A1 and tater tots ($14.00).

First of all, isn’t this the prettiest plate?  Second, a clarification: the A1 smears each encased dollops of strawberry preserves, and  were dotted with crumbled up bits of dehydrated strawberries.  It was not mixed with the tartare, which was probably the most surprising thing I’d eaten in a long time.  The first bite I took brought Asian flavors to mind — mostly sesame, specifically — but after that all I could think about was its marvelous texture and delicate taste.  In fact, I soon realized that I was sliding smaller and smaller amounts onto my fork, to make the tartare last that much longer.  When my plate was scraped clean, I asked for more detail on the tartare, and learned this: the following parts of the duck are roasted at a low temperature for four hours, then bound together with a housemade mayonnaise — breast, skin, and heart.  Now, eating heart didn’t and doesn’t bother me at all, but I did say to Keith that I found it interesting that this particular ingredient hadn’t been listed on the menu.  Should it have been?  Or is Keith right in saying that the sort of person who doesn’t mind eating a duck tartare probably wouldn’t mind eating heart?

But back to my dish…

I should take a second to say that the tater tots were fantastic.  Not too long ago, Keith and I ate at Cambridge’s Garden at the Cellar with our friend Melissa; the three of us discussed the restaurant’s tater tots.  They’re like deep-friend balls of mashed potatoes, I had said, to which Keith had replied, Isn’t that what all tater tots are? Melissa and I tried to explain that sometimes tater tots are made of shredded potato, which is exactly how Blackbird makes theirs.  Crunchily, saltily, perfectly so.

blackbird-2For my main, I chose the croque-madame, a grilled ham and Fontina sandwich topped with a fried egg and served alongside a substantial pile of pommes frites ($11.00).  I’m always so torn as to what to do with the egg on a croque-madame; I don’t know if it’s “proper” to break the yolk and let it soak messily into the toast, but that’s how I like it.  While the sandwich itself was very nice indeed, I almost felt sorry for it, as it had to follow as incredible an opening number as the tartare.  Personally I’m very familiar with having to play second fiddle, so in that regard I’m sympathetic to the  croque-madame, charming as she is, but at the same time I don’t know if anything on the menu could compare to my starter, I really don’t.

There’s a thoroughness at Blackbird that’s lovely to behold; Keith had a gorgeous little baby spinach salad with morels and white asparagus ($12.00) that was so beautifully composed that I wish I had a photograph of it to share with you.  Since I haven’t, I’ll just hope that those of you who can do drop by Blackbird.  Take advantage of the lunch menu, and pretend I’m there with you, praising each plate set in front of us.

Blackbird
619 West Randolph Street
Chicago, Illinois 60661
312.715.0708
blackbirdrestaurant.com

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