December 21, 1998 | Vintage Insatiable
Practice Makes Perfect: Eleven Madison Park and Gramercy Tavern
If you see Danny Meyer lurking in the bushes, he's probably scouting a restaurant. The man is a fool for history-in-the-greenery, a true city parkophile. The farmer's market that brought life to the mythic park just steps from his Union Square Cafe prompted an emphasis on everything seasonal. Nostalgia for the upper bourgeois domesticity of early Gramercy Park dictated the look and feel of his Gramercy Tavern. If you're willing to take it from the vox of the populi in the newest Zagat, Meyer runs the first and third most loved restaurants in our town. Now, he has steeped himself in the glorious turn-of-the century legacy of a humbled green square just south of Flatiron to launch his new Eleven Madison Park.
The once grand park across the street must have seemed like an omen. He had to have the sweeping block-long space in the Metropolitan Life Building even knowing he'd be parrying endlessly with landmark guardians. Even knowing he could not tear down the wall that would force him to open not one but two restaurants side-by-side, Eleven Madison and its infant sister, Tabla.
It's too soon --- five weeks from opening --- to engrave any judgement in stone about Eleven Madison Park. (Indeed it took Gramercy Tavern two years to fit into its genes.) But food world first-nighters never wait. Admirers and competitors, restaurant chroniclers, and cuisinary Cassandras have been claiming the tables at Eleven since the day the kitchen sent out the first terrine of beef shanks, foie gras and pig's feet--- a triumph of nostalgia and audacity.
Frustrated by the rather scrimpy slice a few days later, our exuberant quartet simply orders seconds. It might be launching jitters or it might be that the chef has a lot to learn about sweetbreads and scallops. His mushroom fricasee is smalltime compared to Daniel Boulud's masterwork. But we're impressed by the cider-braised pork, crisped roast chicken and skate Grenobloise --- lemony, buttery and perfectly cooked on-the-bone with wilted spinach. And dessert chef Nicole Plue, recruited from Hawthorne Lane in San Francisco, is a smart find for her sensational butterscotch pôt de creme beside a fruit topped brioche, the warm apple beignet with cinnamon calvados ice cream and a powerful oval of sublime chooclate in bergamot-scented cream.
That first early tasting is bumpy, the serving crew friendly and eager but raw as might be expected. Still, feeling battered by the many chef-lemmings about town hung up on overzealous fusion, I am pleased by the kitchen's focused decorum. A quick glance at the menu tells what Meyer is up to here. So do the buff bistro jackets sported by the waiters. Eleven Madison celebrates French tradition with gentle modern tweaks --- foie gras three ways, a sea food choucroute, lobster pôt au feu. The fare is French not merely to distinguish the place from Meyer's pioneer works but because that's what dining well used to be in the Park's golden days.
From the black leather banquette you and I see tree-tops and lights in high-rise office buildings across the park, but nourished on a diet of time-warp in novels like “The Alienist” and “Time After Time,” Meyer sees the bustling world that encircled Madison Park from 1880 to 1920 when eating well meant eating French: Delmonico's (in its 7th incarnation), legendary Sherry's, The Fifth Avenue Hotel (The Plaza of its day), the original Madison Square Garden. Theodore Roosevelt was police chief and later mayor and cilantro had not yet been invented. It's a theme, not a theme park, Meyer is quick to point out, a story line he used to provoke his architects, Peter and Paul Bentel, and chef Kerry Heffernan (who stepped in three weeks before opening to replace a chef unwilling to bow to the auteur's vision.)
There is even a scattering of untranslated French lingo on the menu. Such airs are not enough to create a fog but sufficient to provoke a flurry of queries by anyone secure enough to flaunt ignorance. The cheese puffs served with aperitifs are a borrow from Taillevent, an icon of Parisien hospitality. Eleven Madison couldn't be French without cheese: a modest selection, all in top form, served with Amy's dark nut bread. The wine list is slavishly French and the Calvados collection, an obsession.
Clearly, it's daunting to insert a restaurant into a sacred landmarked interior where nothing can touch the existing fixtures and invade the window frames. Neon comic book pow didn't conquer landmark edicts at Le Cirque. The staccato of Gingko and London plane tree leaves strike me as dinky in the vast, soaring space here. The hoop of spotlights designed around the existing fixtures are poor Rube Goldberg. The skyscape through tall windows does help. And where landmark taboos end, at the bar, the low origami gold leaf ceiling, its angles echoed in a terrazo floor. feels cozy and sophisticated. That and a bowl of supernal smoked almonds make us loathe to move into the dining room for our most recent dinner.
Quickly the staff has begun to absorb the drill and there is an overall feel of graceful welcome, hallmark of a Meyer operation. How shall we dress for dinner? Tonight's metamorphic crowd is clearly unintimidated: lingerie and black leather pants, ravelled jeans and pulls, milk-the-cow country casual, couturier grunge and dernier cri grey-flannel, all seemingly able to leave behind $75 or so per person for three courses and a decent wine. Tonight I'm wild about the choucroute of salmon and foie-gras-stuffed trout as well as the luscious lobster pôt au feu. Both the lamb rack and the roasted breast and confit'd leg of duck are savory, impeccably cooked, pleasingly garnished. But listless scallops, mushy foie gras torchon, the starchy discs identified as marjoram dumplings in faint-hearted bouillon and sweetbreads-manque make me wonder if Heffernan is over-his-head or out-of-his milieu.
Still we leave contented, puffed up by Plue's first-rate desserts and buttery cookies and by Meyer himself spinning tales of landmark triumphs, and spreading his infectious passion for old New York. Even though Meyer and his Union Square partners are already focused on Tabla, accents of India next door, odds are his team will be fussing with Eleven Madison till it works.
11 Madion Park at 24th Street. 212 889 0905.
Danny Meyer Patterns Taillevent
Do I seem optimistic? Having witnessed the long-nuturing and blooming of Gramercy Tavern over the past two years, I don't think so. Tavern arrived on the scene six years ago in a sophomoric muddle, only weeks after Meyer had announced he was putting himself up against Lutece, Bouley, and Le Bernardin in hopes of reinventing the four star restaurant. He cited the iconic Taillevent as his model. Not even the Pavillon in its golden days could have lived up to the fanfare. It took a while to gather a management team and imbue them with a Taillevent sense of service. Imagine, a maitre d' who senses a need behind his back and tends to it instead of sending the waiter. Imagine the reservationist who asks, "May I put you on hold?" (Though I can't envision Taillevent's Claude Vrinat seating a shirtsleeved pilgrim in short pants like the one I tried not to look at aspiring to Tavern last May.) Still with flavor-impresario Tom Colicchio as his partner and the gifted Claudia Fleming sending out apple tatin with clabbered cream, and coconut tapioca with passion fruit ice, dinner at Gramercy is vibrant with stunning sensory surprises.
I never knew got the connection to old Gramercy Square until Meyer confided his fantasy for the Tavern. He doesn't expect us to. It's his personal muse. But the suited captains, the waiters old-fashioned dress, the open grill that serves the first-come-first-served tables in the bar do indeed have an Edith Wharton air as do the fruit-laden beyond-lush floral displays. The cellar, deep and eclectic, backs up such seriousness. There are first-rate wines by the glass, too, and the cheese tray under its protective cheesecloth, is irresistible. Each time I visit, I insist our pals share a cheese tasting, not to overdo and kill the appetite for dessert.
So I've watched the polished captains in their discipline and discretion. I've been psychoanlayzed and cured by the resident wine maven. I've discovered the pleasure is dropping in on a whim to eat the simpler, less expensive grilled food in the Tavern surrounded by Robert Kushner's exuberant vegetable frieze --- a privilege cognoscenti treasure.
And I've loved Colicchio's smart dance in the past half dozen meals. This past spring he seduced us with sauteed morels, salsify and spring onion surrounding a chunk of pork deep within its unabashed fat. Luscious barely-gelled salt-baked salmon got a bouquet of spring's morels and tangy rhubarb. Crab fondue floated in a smashing green pea soup. Two outsize diver scallops nested on roasted root vegetables with slices of sweet garlic in a truffle vinaigrette. Roasted garlic and rosemary flavored rabbit saddle, its toothpick-thin chops, and the tiny nubbins the mouth identified as liver and kidney. Rhubarb compote and black pepper ice cream graced the mango tart.
Right now the boutique scallops and savoy cabbage are perfumed with white truffle oil on the $62 prix fixe. Figs, cinnamon and a ping of star anise accompanies foie gras in papillote. Langoustine roasted to texture perfection lounges on salsify puree napped with a sauternes sauce. And the chef is a hero to those of us who never get enough sear urchin. It's the signature tang in his fine tuna tartare. And it bathes fat tendrils of crab tucked into two spiny shells beside lush nubbins of sea urchin ---a stunning juxtaposition. Suddenly the sweet crab becomes the best sea urchin you've ever tasted. Saddle of rabbit is remarkably juicy in a gathering of watermelon cucumber, fennel and mustard. Everyone at my table fights to order the roasted loin and braised shank of lamb with cranberry beans, cabbage and artichoke, but roasted sirloin with braised beef cheeks comforts the unreconstructible carnivores too.
Now and then a waiter betrays some human frailty or a fish is merely good. No matter how cranky I get when confronted with Flemings' bay leaf fetish or her cilantro syrup, I can't persuade her to abandon such modish tricks. But these are such minor quibbles. I admit I was too testy judging Tavern in its adolesence, even though ridiculous advance hype fueled my barbs. What cheers this professional eater after all is seeing that Gramercy Tavern is everything that Danny Meyer once promised it would be.
42 East 20th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South.
Click here to return to the Vintage Insatiable Archives