I’m in the midst of a few hectic days. I just got back from a forty-eight-hour trip to Buffalo for a cousin’s wedding — we left for the airport at 5.15 am, and tomorrow morning I take the 7.30 bus to New York to visit Stephanie in Brooklyn for two days before she leaves to go to Italy for two months. I’m here, on my sofa, for less than a day, and I haven’t had anything to eat since the wedding dinner, and I’m getting that cranky-nauseous feeling from lack of food. Good thing we’re going to Garden at the Cellar for an early meal. I’ve already got the taste of chicken and thyme croquettes on my tongue. I’ll fill you in when I get back.
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.
Regardless 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.”)
I 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.
Each 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
1.15 – 3.30 pm: Lunch at Eleven Madison Park with Keith and Ben; it’s my second time here in a month, and I’m excited to eat. We decide to do the three-course prix fixe for $42.00. After an amuse bouche of gougères, sashimi and cucumber panna cotta, I order the chicken velouté with veal sweetbreads and black truffles, the linguine with Alaskan king crab and Meyer lemon, and the bone marrow crusted beef tenderloin with saffron onions and braised shallots (for $15.00 extra). Try bites of Ben’s scallop with celery, more Meyer lemon and black truffles, as well as the poached pear and the savoy cabbage that accompanies his boudin blanc — though neither of us can remember what it is until Ben texts me afterwards. Also sample Keith’s slow-poached egg with Parmigiano-Reggiano and mushrooms, his ricotta gnocchi with artichokes and bacon, and his suckling pig confit. Ben tries to get me to eat some of his salad of heirloom beets with chèvre frais, rye crumbs and edible flowers but I’ve had this dish before so instead I order a non-alcoholic cocktail called “Up the Alley” that is so good I promptly get a second. We’re too full for dessert but we make room for the two plates of macarons we are given anyway; Ben and I share a caramel-popcorn and a rosemary-pistachio, but after that I eat my own sesame and chocolate-quince.
4.45 – 5.30 pm: Cinnamon-spiced apple cider at the Grey Dog.
7.10 pm: Bowl of pilaf standing up in the kitchen while my parents eat dinner and watch Jeopardy!
7.59 pm: Handful of dried mangoes, which my dad has always fed to the dog, who stares unblinkingly at me — and indignantly huffing — until I share.
11.45 am – 12.21 pm: Milk with Spanish honey — my dad is determined to find The Perfect Honey, so he has several kinds in the pantry. Also, pieces of baguette with Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Tomme Crayeuse and Brebis Ossau.
2.35 pm: Coke Zero (!) and quarter of an orange pepper that I’m supposed to be dicing for tabbouleh. The dog begs for a piece of the pepper’s spongy innards; it’s a favorite snack, along with cucumber peels.
3.18 – 4.14 pm: Light lunch of tabbouleh and oven-roasted Brussels sprouts.
10.15 pm – 1.03 am: Dinner at Babbo with Joann and Keith. We debate over whether we want the traditional or pasta tasting menus before deciding on pasta. Our meal consists of the following: black tagliatelle with parsnips and pancetta; “casunzei” with poppy seeds; garganelli with “funghi trifolati;” pyramid-shaped ravioli with pomodoro; papperdelle bolognese; cacciotta fritters with honey and thyme; and chocolate with shaved dried chilis. I swap my full plate for Keith’s empty one, much to Joann’s dismay. I can’t eat spicy food, even if it’s chocolate. For our last course, we each get a different dessert — Joann a pistachio and chocolate semifreddo, Keith a lavender honey spice cake with sweet potato gelato and me a Tyrolean carrot and poppyseed cake with an olive oil drizzle and orange gelato. I may be a little biased, I think mine is the best.
Oven-Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Balsamic Vinegar, Pine Nuts + Parmesan
Makes three portions
2 ½ cups Brussels sprouts, cut in half lengthwise
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
¼ cup pine nuts
¼ cup Parmesan cheese, grated
- Preheat the oven to 425°. Toss the sprouts in a bowl with the vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper until well coated. Line a roasting pan with tin foil, then arrange the sprouts in a single layer across the bottom of the pan. Roast for twenty to thirty minutes, or until the sprouts brown.
- While the sprouts are in the oven, toast the pine nuts in a dry skillet over medium heat, three to five minutes, stirring often.
- Remove from the sprouts from the oven and transfer to a serving dish. Mix with pine nuts and Parmesan, season to taste with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
I had dinner at DBGB Kitchen + Bar, Daniel Boulud‘s downtown brasserie/bar, three nights before The New York Times awarded it two stars in its restaurant review, and though I rarely read reviews anymore, I’ve got to say I agree. It’s a fine place to go eat, but not necessarily one that warrants a special trip. If you’re in the neighborhood, though, at least check out the menu and see if anything catches your eye.
Speaking of the neighborhood…
The Lower East Side used to be gritty and grungy, the type of place I’d be scared to take my parents — more for fear of my father embarrassing me as he pointed out Hells Angels and littered, graffiti-ed streets than of anything else. Don’t worry, though, if you’re seeking some grit; in spite of the area’s gentrification, the Hells Angels are still there. Even with their tattooed presence, I feel a bit more comfortable directing my dad to Delancey… even if he still might embarrass me. Chances of that happening, though, are slim at DBGB, where aging parent-types like my dad can comfortably sit in the dining room and non-reservations-holding patrons can order the full menu at the bar.
My offal-loving father would have enjoyed the veal tongue appetizer ($9.00). Dressed in a sauce gribiche and tossed with fingerling potatoes, it was much lighter than I expected it to be. Traditionally sauce gribiche is dribbled over a boiled veal’s head, but since I’ve yet to order (let alone encounter) that on a menu, all I can tell you is that in my uninformed opinion, the animal’s tongue makes a delicious substitute. It still frames the egg-based, caper-y, cornichon-infused gribiche beautifully.
Though I ordered the sautéed skate ($19.00) for my main course, I tried a bite of the DBGB dog ($9.00) and the Beaujoliase sausage ($13.00) — DBGB has a startlingly wide selection of sausages, which can be ordered as appetizers, sides or even an entrée. Ask for the “sausage duo” and you’ll receive your choice of any two sausages and its accompanying sides for $21.00. With the authentic-tasting dog, you’ll get a wiener in a bun, along with sautéed onion, relish and crispy fries; the sweet pork-based Beaujoliase arrives atop a mound of lentils du Puy.
I’m a bit sorry to say that skate was, to my taste, underseasoned; I hate having to salt and pepper my food when I’m dining out, but once I did I was much happier. (My picky parent, on the other hand, would have been disappointed, self-seasoning or no.) The cauliflower risotto the fish rested upon, however, needed no tampering. Studded with toasted pinenuts and decorated with threads of saffron, it was the best thing on my plate.
I was too full after dinner to even considering splitting a dessert — though I was really intrigued by the cassis beer-yogurt at $3.00 for a scoop and $9.00 for a two-scoop sundae with Belgian spice cookies, a blackcurrant compote and a lemon crème anglaise. If I do find myself in the area, and if Prune has no availability, I’d pop in for a taste of ice cream. Otherwise I doubt I’d go out of my way.
DBGB Kitchen + Bar
New York, New York 10003
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. I’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. Dotted 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 toasted 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, it 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.
1 Central Park West
New York, New York 10023
I love graffiti, always have. I remember riding in the backseat on the way to my father’s New York City office and sitting up straighter when we passed my favorite tags along the Henry Hudson. I’d count how many times I’d see them spray painted on brick walls, cement underpasses and in between windows, and that number would glow behind my eyes until I went to bed that night.
New York is different these days, tidied up, and graffiti isn’t a common sight in Boston. Europe, on the other hand, is teeming with street art, and I make a point of documenting what I see wherever I go. Keith, I think, gets a bit frustrated with me, as I can tend to wander off down miscellaneous alleyways with only the most perfunctory of hold on for a second‘s, and then spend a good few minutes angling my camera this way and that. The things we do for love, right?*
Click on the picture below for a slideshow of graffiti I photographed in Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent — unsurprisingly, there was no graffiti to be found in Bruges, but considering that the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, even the teensiest tag would be instantly rubbed away.