Throw a rock in New York City and it is likely to sail through the window of a great restaurant. Uptown, downtown, fine dining is all around the town. You actually have to work hard to get a bad meal in NYC, but you must work even harder to be known as the best of the best in a city studded with the best of everything.
So when our friends Josh and Sunday messaged us that they had snagged a reservation at Eleven Madison Park and would we like to join them, I got back to them ASAP with a Y-E-S and on a lovely spring evening last week we strolled through Madison Square Park, admiring the spring blooms and the antics of the unabashed squirrels there that shake down passersby for handouts.
Eleven Madison Park is a jewel in the crown of restaurateur Danny Meyer, whose culinary triumphs in the city include our favorites, Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. Truth be told, the CE, whose tastes run to one-course dining a la the hot dog vendor on Broadway by the subway station, was staring wistfully at the Shake Shack in Madison Square Park as we made our way toward 24th Street. And guess what – that’s a Danny Meyer establishment, too!
I coaxed the CE away from the siren song of burgers and fries, and we were warmly greeted as we stepped into the gracious setting at Eleven Madison Park. The room is stately but airy – the vibe is by no means overly formal. Lots of people in street attire, although as the evening went on we saw a bit more glitz.
One look at the cocktail list and we knew this would be a different sort of restaurant experience. Featured front and center on the list was Eleven’s “Manhattan Cart”. Our waiter, a bright and bemused gentleman who might be better termed as our guide and mentor for the evening, waved a hand and a trolley cart clinked our way. We discussed the Manhattan menu for a full five minutes, with Josh settling on an “Arthur Avenue” Manhattan and me dithering a bit until finally alighting on the “Brooklyn” choice. It was, without a doubt, the very finest Manhattan I have ever sipped.
And then we were off. Our waiter played the White Rabbit to our collective Alice and down the rabbit hole we popped. Far from stuffy, the entire experience was playful and inventive, starting with the delivery of a card from which we were each to choose one of four flavors: cherry, strawberry, celery or coffee. Then we were asked about dietary restrictions. Sunday is a vegetarian, and the CE and I mentioned that we are psychologically allergic to anything with tentacles. Josh will eat absolutely anything; his tales of backstreet dining in Japan raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
Each of the endless courses was tailored to our preferences – caviar, oysters and who-knows what else for Josh, while the CE and I were given tasty substitutions suited to our more pedestrian tastes and Sunday reveled in the creative vegetarian delights delivered to her. We were all enchanted by the arrival of the “apple cart” from which our waiter prepared tableside a delectable Waldorf Salad. We also finally found out what our earlier chosen flavors were for – we were each treated to a fizzy bottle of soda – cherry for me and the CE, strawberry for Sunday, and coffee-flavored for Josh, ever the culinary adventurer.
Along with our salad, a copy of the original cookbook by the Waldorf Hotel’s famed chef was delivered for our perusal. Known for customizing the experience to its patrons, Eleven’s staff was no doubt aware that Josh and Sunday are well-known Manhattan rare book dealers.
About ten courses into our adventure (the evening was largely seafood based, with servings that included sturgeon, lobster and halibut) a picnic hamper was delivered to our table, replete with a cheese tasting and house-made pretzels and pickles and a perfect accompaniment of a house-brewed brown beer.
For dessert, we were indulged with fireworks: a tableside preparation of Baked Alaska.
Just as we reluctantly accepted the fact that the spell must be broken and we would have to return to life as mere mortals, a vision appeared before us. A smiling honey-blonde angel in a business suit arrived at our table and greeted us and I momentarily wondered if I had died and she was my escort to a heaven that exceeded even the paradise of Eleven Madison Park. But no, she was there to invite us all to a personal tour of the kitchen. We looked at one another, mystified as to how we had won this lottery but we had the presence of mind to quickly grab the opportunity.
At first, all I could do was stare at the meticulously sparkling clean floor. It was a dazzling, mirror-reflecting clean. Then I noticed the calm but serious bustle, like the proverbial duck gliding along the water with feet paddling furiously beneath.
Our escort told us all about the workings behind the scenes at the restaurant while we were served paper cones of coconut shaved ice and then wished a convivial farewell. As we stepped out onto the street I had to look back just to make sure Eleven Madison Park was not a Brigadoon of which I had dreamed. I think we have no choice but to return again one day just to prove that our experience was real.
Best night ever!