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“I have to ask, how was Eleven Madison Park? Was it worth the money? I read the New York Times review yesterday. Scathing.”
This, from the young woman who sat down across from me on the subway as I was riding home after spending the previous three and a half hours dining at one of New York’s most exclusive restaurants (my take-home gift bag that held a jar of homemade granola with the restaurant’s logo prominently displayed had tipped her off). I was aware of the NYT review but had purposely held off on reading until after my own experience. I was aware it had not been kind.
When a restaurant with three Michelin stars decides to adopt a 100% vegan menu, it’s going to make headlines. And that’s precisely what Manhattan’s Eleven Madison Park did when it made the announcement upon reopening last June after its pandemic hiatus.
Why vegan, why now?
On the restaurant’s website, chef Daniel Humm explains how the months during this hiatus inspired the shift to a wholly plant-based menu: “We kept a small team employed, and with their remarkable effort, in collaboration with the nonprofit Rethink Food, we prepared close to a million meals for those experiencing food insecurity in New York. Through this work, I experienced the magic of food in a whole new way, and I also saw a different side of our city…It is time to redefine luxury as an experience that serves a higher purpose and maintains a genuine connection to the community. A restaurant experience is about more than what’s on the plate, and we are thrilled to be able to share the incredible possibilities of plant-based cuisine.”
Incredible possibilities, indeed. Our six-course tasting menu featured combinations of ingredients I’d never encountered before, and a couple of the creations truly were stand-outs among some pretty sensational dishes I’ve enjoyed throughout my years of vegan eating. Tonburi (made from Japanese cypress seeds and seasoned with kelp) with corn and ginger to spread on crumpets. Coconut semifreddo with elderflower and blueberry compote. De-lish.
The food was undeniably a work of art in both taste and presentation.
Yet, as a New Yorker who has been here in the city since the first days of the pandemic lockdown back in March 2020, I was even more struck by the experience of community that Chef Humm and his team have created at Eleven Madison Park. And that, as much as the food, is what we’re paying for when we come to a restaurant in such rarefied Michelin air.
More than a meal — a lasting memory
On this particular night, my husband and I were seated in an airy, dimly lit room, joined by a longtime friend and colleague of mine and her spouse. Unhurried, we savored our conversation as much as the food placed in front of us. The multiple courses became the punctuation marks, the shifts to new paragraphs in our extended mealtime. Truly, a meal shared is among life’s simplest yet most divine pleasures. And, if we ever took that for granted, we certainly do not now, after a year and half when New Yorkers have spent most hours isolated in our apartments. For many months, the closest we got to a gathering was hanging out our windows, banging on pots and pans and cheering as part of the 7pm collective call to honor our healthcare and essential workers. Or, last winter, the closest we got to a shared meal was waving to each other as we each dined curbside in our own plastic bubbles or, sans bubble, outdoor dining bundled up in our coats and hats and scarves while feeling just so grateful to be outside among people (maintaining our six-foot social distance) and doing our part to keep local businesses alive.
So, on this early fall evening, it felt like such an incredible gift to have this time with others, sitting together all at one table, without masks (the restaurant, per NY law, checks everyone’s vaccinated status at the door), luxuriating over a delicious and nutritious meal. Moreover, to glance up from our own table and see a large room bustling with activity, a mix of New Yorkers and tourists (Broadway is back! You’re coming back!) doing the same. Sharing a meal has never been more healing and more comforting, feeding our souls as much as our bodies.
What makes Eleven Madison special
But this would be true of any restaurant gathering these days, so what makes Eleven Madison Park so special? Well, it’s because the new commitment to plant-based cuisine means sharing a meal that, in addition to the highest quality of food and service that has always been the standard at Eleven Madison Park, we’re also now sharing a meal that underscores a cultural shift we have been witnessing in various shapes around us: collectively, we are making the choice to be more than mere consumers in this world; we are considering the impact of our actions and choosing to actively support the world around us — human and nonhuman. The zeitgeist, in a nutshell, is laser-focused on how micro-decisions add up to major transformations, on individual, local community, and global scales. And the world is holding each of us accountable, moreso now than ever before. Fact: eating animals creates a demand for animal agriculture. Fact: production of animal products contributes to loss of biodiversity, pollution and our climate crisis. Moreover, as Covid-19 has shown us, animal agriculture has serious implications when it comes to global health. These facts deserve more than our attention; they demand responsible as well as compassionate action.
In the aforementioned NYT review, a major criticism by Pete Wells is that Humm is trying too hard to find plant-based substitutes for some of the dishes that put him on the Michelin map. Why spend so much time and effort trying to make a beet a duck? (I paraphrase.) This kind of criticism is not new in the vegan world. In fact, the very same week of the review, The New Yorker favorably reviewed one of our city’s best vegan restaurants, Delice and Sarrasin, and yet still touched on this theme. David Kortava called out the ratatouille as “perhaps the best dish in the house” while making the point that it is one of the menu offerings “not trying to be something else” (although he also lauds the restaurant’s “vegetal reinterpretation” of foie gras).
Here’s a piece of the conversation around vegan cuisine that often gets short shrift, and it’s Wells in his NYT review who touches on it with his limited praise for Eleven Madison Park’s second-course Tonburi: “I’d say it tastes delicious, and I might add that its flavor brings up deep, partly subconscious associations with the sea.”
New sensory experiences around new foods
For, as much as the vegan community is relishing the mainstream embracing products like Beyond, Simply Eggless, Gardein and Good Catch Crab Cake, we need to understand as practicing vegans and as advocates that substitutes often are something others (and ourselves) crave when what we’re actually reaching for are the memories or the emotions those familiar foods evoke. A burger isn’t just a burger, it is a burger experience. More specifically, it’s the burger memories.
For me, that can mean childhood memories of summertime backyard barbecues, carefree afternoons playing Marco Polo in the pool with all the neighborhood kids — kids on the block, now all grown up, who I haven’t seen in decades. As Wells says, the subconscious associations. And it’s these associations a true artist like Humm is trying to elicit. He is not a magician and not trying to be one; rather, he is the artist, using an altogether new palette with the goal of achieving a certain degree of familiarity of tastes, smells and textures for us. And, beyond recapturing a sensory experience, he’s aiming to take it to the next level.
So, while substitutes are terrific, especially for generations who grew up on burgers and chicken nuggets, if we can create new sensory experiences and memories around new foods, that will be the ultimate transformation we are striving for. When we have a generation whose comfort foods from childhood are a black bean salad or avocado toast rather than mac and cheese, there’s the real win. These individual foods, the individual meals, these micro-decisions of the day-to-day, are what together comprise a new world vision, in which we are empowered to live our values that have kindness and compassion at the core.
How our actions impact others
When it comes to the pandemic experience, we each have our story, we’ve each had our individual epiphanies. But I suspect they share this universal theme: while we are so excited to get back to the things we’ve missed — whether it’s a favorite meal or a hot yoga class — we’re also considering how our actions (or inaction) impact others. Wells quotes Humm: “It’s crucial to us that no matter the ingredients, the dish must live up to some of my favorites of the past.” This is not to say he is trying to recreate his recipes using plant substitutes.
Rather, he is showing us how making better choices for animals, the planet and our own health doesn’t have to mean giving up any of the flavors of life. He’s challenging himself, as well as each of us, to let ourselves evolve. At its best, art is about being provocative, it’s about accountability, and it’s also about experimentation. Trying new things, figuring it out as we go along — isn’t this what we all have been doing for the past eighteen months, as the landscape has shifted on an almost daily basis?
As for Wells’s dining experience compared to experiences of other Eleven Madison Park patrons, I have a foodie friend in Michigan who informed me that he’d heard several first-hand reviews of the new vegan menu, “most of them significantly more favorable than Pete Wells’ recent NYT review.”
I checked Twitter the morning after my dinner there and found other positive comments, including a tweet by Matthew Strugar who, it seems, had also been there the evening before. “…forget the haters, this was a great meal. I feel like I have eaten a fair share of fancy food in my 25 years vegan and this was one of the best meals I’ve had. Expected to be like ‘this is nice but no big deal’ but…better than that.”
So, to my fellow subway rider, my response: first, I’m so glad you asked, and that you’re considering more closely the food on your plate and possibilities. Second, yes it’s worth the money. It’s not the only great vegan meal in town, but it’s certainly one of them. Bring along someone — or a group of friends — you’d like to have those hours with, then sit back and enjoy creating that memory together. A meal that can last a lifetime.[simple-author-box]