The Emperor’s New Food

So last night, Leigh and I went to Eleven Madison Park. For those unfamiliar, EMP is a 3 Michelin star restaurant, and included in almost every food critic’s list of best restaurants in New York City, often at #1. We had been wanting an otherworldly experience for a while, and after a few days of trying to nab a reservation I finally got one for a Tuesday.

This isn’t a food blog and this essay is not a food review, so I’ll dispense with the build-up: we were not very impressed. I’m not against the idea of 12-course tasting menus, experimenting with bold flavor profiles, locally sourced ingredients, or even the idea of paying an extravagant amount of money for a great product. Without getting into any humble-braggy details, I believe firmly that you almost always end up paying for the finer things in life. I’m not the dude who believes that all jeans over $40 are a ripoff. But I suspect, in the case of EMP, that a lot of the patrons may be drinking the kool-aid.

As a cursory google search will tell you, this is not a cheap place to dine, and I think it stands to reason that anybody who parts with that kind of cash for a meal (save for the wealthiest of the wealthy among us) might be tempted to pump up his or her expectations, and also gloss over his or her honest reaction. After all, who wants to admit that they just got bilked out of a few hundred clams? Speaking of the wealthiest of the wealthy, I took a look at the crowd and it seemed that maybe 85% of the people in the place (on a Tuesday) were engaged in some sort of client meeting. In other words, I wonder if the minds behind EMP and other such NYC institutions might coast a little on the fact that their exclusivity and reputation makes them desirable, even if their food is (IMHO) not worth the tab.

There is, of course, no accounting for taste. Maybe the people at Michelin and the leagues upon leagues of raving critics appreciate experimentation, boldness, and creativity much more than I do. As I said, I’m not one to shy away from the strange and out there (I thoroughly enjoyed WD-50 the one time I dined there, and that came with a hefty price tag as well), but I am, at heart, a traditionalist. I’d rather have a tried-and-true classic, executed to perfection, than a bold and daring 12 course tasting menu that hits its mark less than 1/3rd of the time. Nothing I sampled was “bad” per se, but only a scant few of the courses actually made me stop and go “wow” (the cocktails were great, though).

Furthermore, while the service and presentation at EMP were certainly top-notch in a technical sense, it was hard not to feel as though we were being monitored for dutifully amazed reactions to everything put in front of us. With fine dining, I think a restaurant has to walk a tight rope between making the customer feel pampered and setting the institution up as something incredible to marvel at. Too far in one direction makes for a sour experience, and I definitely felt that EMP swung too far towards believing its own legend. Also, the whole experience felt oddly fractured somehow. Things swung back and forth between minimalist and grand. Everything comes out to you on mostly bare plates, arranged just so, with lots of artfully placed morsels, but it’s served in a cavern of a room with towering ceilings and a layout that leaves everyone feeling exposed to the rest of the room, with little o no intimacy possible. It’s somehow ornate and sterile at the same time. I’d personally prefer a more intimate arrangement of tables, with lower lighting and comfortable seating (our corner booth left my back aching minutes into the meal), but that’s just me.

Again, there’s no accounting for taste, and while I knew what I was getting into with this kind of restaurant I certainly feel that the praise continually heaped upon EMP is excessive, to say the least. Even if it’s not my preferred style or something I would eat every day (again, I’d certainly hope not, given the price tag), I feel confident that I can make a fair and impartial judgment on the execution of the restaurant, judging solely by their apparent goals. In the case of EMP, I think they fell well short of the mark that such a reputation and such a bill demands.

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