I Got Punk’d by Eleven Madison Park
Eleven Madison Park is one of the best restaurants in the world. Their tasting menu was a bucket list dream for the three other members of my party. For me, it felt like church: something to dress up for and sit through while the adults around me worshipped, amen’d and told me to sit still. I am 33 years old and I eat like a child. I wasn’t initially invited, but when we realized they offered a vegetarian option, I got the fourth seat. You see, we were celebrating my partner’s 35th birthday as well as some other milestones for our friend who joined us. I didn’t want to miss out on this important celebration.
After we were seated, our Captain, Emily approached the table asking who the vegetarian was. And for a quick beat, nobody answered. I forgot that I was a vegetarian for a night. And to my absolute horror, this slight led to a conversation about what I do and don’t eat. How do I explain myself? No, I’m not Jewish. As a child, my dad took us to a pig farm where I held and fed a piglet from a baby bottle. On the way home, we stopped for dinner and my Dad ordered a pink, dinner plate sized slab of ham. So no pork for me. But I eat beef. Probably because I’ve never held a calf. But it must be cooked to Medium Well perfection. And chicken? Sure, so long as it’s overcooked, off the bone, white and cubed. But nothing else. I mean, I eat fish. But again, it can’t look like fish. And it must be covered in sauce. I eat like a child. Shake Shack is right across the street. It’s my favorite restaurant. Am I the worst diner you’ve ever had? I’m so sorry.
As Emily and I were hashing out my dietary restrictions, our conversation began to feel like a medical intake. She was taking notes. Reassuring me. Asking questions. And I started thinking to myself, this woman is a professional. With impeccable handwriting. I could talk to her. She cared for me in that unobtrusive way doctors care for their patients. She put me at ease. I didn’t want to run away. I wanted to stay. And I suddenly craved continuity of care. Was she going to be with us all night? She sure was.
Apparently I wasn’t alone in my feelings about this conversation. My partner Megan was next. When Emily asked her about dietary restrictions, Megan simply said “I”m allergic to Amoxicillin.” And then our food began to arrive.
Ever had Fairy Tale Eggplant? Me neither. But how else would you describe something right out of Cinderella?
That was followed by a dish I can only call the Mystery of the Skinless Tomato. I ate this tomato with a spoon. Where did the skin go? Why didn’t I need a fork? Why was the tomato juice clear? Who are these people and what are they doing to my food?
It was around this time that I started noticing something odd. I realized I wasn’t the only child. I was surrounded by them. And like me, they simply looked like adults. Let me assure you, Captain Emily was no Captain Hook.
A Sommelier/Pyromaniac opened our red wine, not with a corkscrew, but with a branding iron and an open flame. He snapped the neck off of our bottle and served it to us. The process was called Port Tonging. I was floored. Our table neighbors were so jealous. I wanted to Port Tong every bottle in the restaurant. Here’s a video of what we experienced, table side:
The Port Tong process made me realize that preparation can be play. Who cares if we do it the hard way? We’re doing it the fun way. We’re going to blow your mind while we nourish you. I have often wondered who the person was that decided to grind up beef and then smash it back together, grill it and call it a burger. Would my favorite food exist without preparation as play?
And that’s when my ShackBurger arrived. I got Punk’d.
Someone from Eleven Madison Park went across the street, into Madison Square Park and bought me a ShackBurger. I was horrified. I was stuffed. I was in love. I was also so glad I hadn’t told them about my Beefaroni addiction.
After dinner, pre-dessert, dessert, and a post-dessert chocolate course/game called ’Name That Milk’, we were invited into the kitchen for some Cherry Bourbon Snow Cones.
The four of us went from incredibly chatty and giggly to quiet and big eyed. My partner, a foodie, called this moment (and the entire dinner) the best of her life. Watching her experience each individual course was incredibly moving. We’re not religious, not in a way that’s easily defined. But to her, this was a religious experience. It wasn’t much different for her mom, with whom 90% of their conversations are based on food. Our dear friend had her own deeply personal experience with this dinner, one that I’ll never fully grasp. And me? I felt understood. And at home. In a fancy restaurant.
When you sit down for the tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park, you are sent home with breakfast. At the end of the meal, each diner is gifted with a jar of granola. Someone at the table mentioned the granola prior to the arrival of our gift bags. So when it showed up, I knew what was inside. Or so I thought…
And that’s when I remembered… I had told them about the Beefaroni!
I want to thank Eleven Madison Park, Paul the GM, Emily our Captain, Daniel the Chef, and the really really cute “duck chef Andy” for an experience of a lifetime. You truly changed the way I see ‘fancy’ restaurants. And I can’t wait to spread the word about your little hole in the wall. Once the word gets out, you guys are going to be really busy.
And one final note. I write about inclusive design. I like to find ways for companies to create more inclusive experiences for their customers. During dinner, I noticed one small (extraordinarily slight) oversight on your part, and I can’t help but bring it to your attention (ok, I’ll admit, bringing this to your attention makes me feel giddy). Your sauce spoons are for righties. I, on the other hand, am a leftie. I had to ‘scoop away’. Do left handed sauce spoons exist?