…And Here’s To You, Mr. Meyer

Maialino

*******

(seven out of ten)

What’s the old adage, mothers are here to annoy their children?  I’m pretty sure that’s it.  So was my approach to my mother’s recent trip to New York to visit.  In response, I decided that plenty of booze and good food would make it a bit easier to bear – and, well, interesting.  Thus began our Danny Meyer weekend.

Mr. Meyer, the quintessential NYC restaurateur – with such great restaurants to his credit as Gramercy Tavern, Union Square Café, and, of course, Shake Shack – recently opened his first fully Italian spot, Maialino (Italian for “little pig”).  I’ve received a number of cracks in recent weeks from friends over the pictures I post of New York restaurants as they all seem perpetually glazed in sepia hues.  Maialino is no different.

It is at once rustic and, because of its location – the lobby of the uber-chic Gramercy Park Hotel – trendy; however, the décor is fighting to stave off such a perception.  There is a great deal of exposed wood, reportedly from a razed barn in New Jersey, offset by Tuscan white; there are bench seats, green check table clothes covered in see-through white cloth; wine bottles and empty glass decanters line the walls in reset wooden shelves.  There is also, much to my delight, a charcuterie/cheese station opposite a baked goods/waiter’s station that one must pass to enter the spaces formal dining area.

As homage to the types of Italian standbys the likes of Tony Soprano and his Jersey clan would patronize, the oblong white plates are encircled with a red ribbon and Maialino is inscribed at the plate’s 12 o’clock position.  In addition, my steak knife’s wooden handle was also etched with restaurant’s name; both details make it hard to remember that this place is only two weeks old.  Kitschy but cool.

We were seated promptly 22 minutes after our 9:00 pm reservation time, a kink I’m sure will be ironed out once Mr. Meyer catches wind of it.  We were, however, seated before famous New York dining critic and Top Chef Masters judge Gael Green, so we were pleased with the egalitarian approach and brushed the delay off to popularity.

As for dinner, I’ll be the first to admit that, perhaps because my mother was in tow, I didn’t approach this dinner with the same ferocity and, well, hunger that I have of late.  This undoubtedly skewed my meal and, I’m sure, omitted some truly great options, most notably anything from the menus rather lengthy Salumi (cured meats) section.  Even more disappointing is the fact that I missed with my appetizer choice.  That’s not to say that my roasted artichoke hearts with thick balsamic dipping sauce weren’t delicious, rather, they just seemed to me meant more for a shared appetizer, or as an accompaniment to a better option, say, the octopus, potatoes and arugula, or my mother’s choice: sardines with tossed greens and radicchio.

Fried Artichokes & Anchovy Bread Sauce

Christine chose the insalata misticanza, or autumn greens with lemon & olive oil.  A bizarrely simple dish for its $12 price tag, it is exactly as advertised, greens with oil and some lemon juice.

Insalata Misticanza - Autumn Lettuces, Lemon & Olive Oil

I also whiffed and didn’t order a mid-course pasta, a rarity for me and altogether poor form.  My mother, however, did manage to order one and I was very glad she did:  tonnarelli cacio e pepe, or tonnarelli pasta (similar in thickness and length to spaghetti) with pecorino cheese and black pepper.  The pecorino cheese melted so nicely, coating each strand with a shimmer of cheesiness and the sharp, coarsely ground black pepper – a common accent to simple pasta dishes like this – added a worthwhile bite and pleasantly lingering aftertaste that really made me wish I’d have ordered the same.

Tonnarelli Cacio e Pepe

Now, if one has the balls to name a restaurant after a food item, he or she better have the fortitude to back it up with an amazing rendition of the dish.  Moreover, as far as fine dining here in the city goes – I’m exempting Burger King and KFC from this comparison – if you have your namesake item on your menu, the chances are very good that I will be ordering it, just to see if you’re as good as you think and say you are.  For instance, the Strip House has, I feel, the finest strip steak in the city; Shake Shack has, yep, you guessed it, a terrific shake; Burger Joint has…well, you get the idea.

So it was with great excitement that I knew what I would be ordering at Maialino before I ever stepped foot in the place:  the maialino al forno for two.  In fact, the biggest obstacle to ordering this was convincing Christine to take part in it with me, begrudgingly she did and was not at all disappointed, even if she did eat only a quarter as much as I did.

When I placed my entrée order I looked at our waitress and jokingly quizzed her: ‘Is it any good?’ I asked.  Her response:  ‘I recently waited on a very famous chef who ordered it…he said it was the best thing he’d ever eaten.’  Sold.

The maialino al forno comes on a hulking platter, its burnt orange-colored crisp skin bubbled and still crackling.  Bite-sized chunks of potatoes lovingly swimming in the oil still emanating from the little pig’s finely roasted flesh.  A single twig of wilted rosemary the only garnish, its aroma, when combined with the pigs, creates what surely must be what heaven smells like.  This pig is amazing.  In explaining it to a friend I said: imagine the best fall-off-the-bone ribs you’ve ever had, now multiply it times five.  It’s that good.  The brined skin protecting the meat through whatever process it goes through makes for some of the most succulent, flavorful and, yes, fatty pork I’ve ever eaten.  Much like the hash browns that accompany so many steaks, the potatoes make for the perfect addition to the plate, crumbling easily with just the slightest pressure and packed with butter – delicious.

Maialino al Forno - baby, suckling pig

Equally impressive was how seemingly easy it is for Maialino’s chef, Nick Anderer, to change gears.  My mother’s grilled swordfish was simple in the best possible definition of the term.  It was delicious and moist, still possessing its natural juices, no easy feat considering how many dry and rubbery swordfish filets this city is rife with.

Pesce Spada - Swordfish, Fennel & Mushrooms

I’m continuously surprised by how few Italian restaurants in this town have limoncello on their after dinner drink menus, in my mind, the two are synonymous, but perhaps that’s just me.  Upon hearing my request for a glass, our waitress bemoaned and apologized, explaining that the restaurant’s wine director had not yet started making it.  I would have settled for any, it needn’t be artisan, but quality over quantity is key in the Meyer domain and so I moved on to select a dessert.

Aside from the typical Italian dolci favorites, there were some interesting and exciting options.  I went with the affogato – a favorite of mine – or espresso poured over vanilla gelato or ice cream; though disappointed the espresso wasn’t warm and the gelato cold, it hit the spot.

Affogato

My mother chose to try three scoops of gelato (two pistachio, one vanilla).  It was a rather pedestrian choice that I internally questioned, but she swore up and down that she’d never had gelato before and, if that actually was the case, which I doubted, far be it from me to stand in her way.  Christine on the other hand had a sformato di ricotta, what was essentially a ricotta panna cotta with figs and honey.  It was simple (picking up on a theme here?) and light, leaving her sweet tooth satisfied but not overly so.

Sformato di Ricotta (Ricotta Panna Cotta)

*******

(seven out of ten)

NYT Prediction: I’ll be honest: I feel I didn’t make enough divergent food choices at Maialino to appropriately gauge its scope.  That said, there isn’t a hell of a lot more one needs to know than to be sure to order the maialino al forno.  Danny Meyer has succeeded like no other in a business that’s founded on the rubble of crumbled – and still crumbling – restaurants, and for that he is to be applauded.  Maialino is his love letter to Italian dining and all that such food has come to mean for us Americans, and, though it may not quite measure up to his other great spots or those finer Italian competitors littered about the city, I have no doubt that it will be a raving success. I foresee two stars in its future.

Eleven Madison Park

*********

(nine out of ten)

On the way out of Maialino, my mother decided to swing into her “I’ll talk to anyone” mode that all mothers – but especially mine – have somewhere in them.  At what point in life do we stop caring, say ‘fuck it,’ and engage in conversations with, or, even better, make requests of, perfect strangers.  Some may find it endearing and the folks at Maialino may be among them, but to me it’s just my mom’s typical schtick and therefore highly embarrassing.  Regardless of my eye rolls, my mom approached a would-be manager at the baked goods station to inquire about what looked like a sticky bun that was topped with herbs and salt.  After some back and forth and the manager’s all-too-happy-to-assist attitude (another Meyer trait), he offered us some to take home, which we happily accepted.

What happened next would alter our dinner the next evening:  we mentioned that, for the second night in a row, we’d be dining at a Danny Meyer establishment, this time Eleven Madison Park.  Once he heard that the manager asked us to wait right there.  He returned with Megan, the manager of Eleven Madison Park, who just so happened to be eating at Maialino that night.  It’s always great to meet someone on the inside and to have an ‘in,’ so we were happy to meet her and she promised us a great evening on Saturday.  She lived up to her word.

Eleven Madison Park (EMP) is the crown jewel of the Danny Meyer empire, for over eleven (oddly enough) years it has been one of the most revered and elegant restaurants this city has to offer.  In that time it has always promised, much more so than so many other well-to-do spots, an experience as much as it has great food; however, it wasn’t until Meyer hired Swiss chef Daniel Humm in 2006 that it really turned the corner towards true New York greatness.

There are two things one immediately notices when entering EMP through its revolving door, tucked into the corner of the gothic, Credit Suisse building:  the space and the staff.  What surely must amount to the most expensive lease in Mr. Meyer’s domain, EMP occupies a soaring cathedral to culinary advancement smack dab in the middle of Manhattan.  Its walls and tables pure white, glass vases and their contents throughout the multi-tiered room stretching skyward to the ceiling some 40 feet above and creating an understated drama that immediately makes you wonder if you’re dressed appropriately.

Once through the door at EMP one is typically met by androgynously dapper young women, standing sentry at either side of the revolving entry, ensuring the door moves smoothly and effortlessly and that what one may have heard about the restaurant’s award-winning hospitality is not simply rumor.

On our brief walk from the hostess’ modest stand to our table we, right on cue, happen upon Megan, she’s smartly dressed and, as if donned upon entrance, her tone is distinctly calmer and quieter compared to 24 hours prior.  She again ensures us that she has a pleasant evening planned for us, that she will be by in a bit and that there may be some surprises to come later.  I smiled and thanked her and we made our way to the table.

This was my second visit to EMP and based on those visits what I can say is that the eating starts nearly immediately.  Not at all in the gratuitous way many of us have grown accustom to in this country, but in a way comparable to the humble welcoming of friends and family to your home: in small bites meant to whet ones appetite before amusing it.  It was no different the second time around, as long, elliptical plates arrived in short order with one-bite gems, the descriptions of which I forgot nearly as soon as they were explained, but all were outstanding.

Small Bites

As I’ve brought up in the past, well prepared duck has got to be one of my favorite proteins – and EMP has one of the finest I’ve ever tasted.  I would highly recommend the dish:  it’s prepared for two and is presented to the table whole, golden and warm, with dried lilac and provencal herbs shooting from its cavity; it’s then whisked away for preparation and plating.  It’s an event worth seeing.

I happened to mention my love of the dish to Megan on Friday night and, in what amounts to a testament to the lengths these employees will go for their patrons, she shared that with our server.  Menus in our hands, the waiter nodded at Christine and me and said he understood our understandable affectation for the duck and that, while of course still delicious, if we wished to move in a slightly different direction, he would recommend the Blue Foot chicken.

Before I skip right to entrees though, it’s probably best to talk about appetizers.  As is customary it seems these days, we were served an amuse bouche after the small bites – as if our bouches weren’t amused enough – that consisted of a silky pumpkin bisque with an accompanying foam.  Served in small and covered white ramequins, the tops of each were removed simultaneously by three set of servers, a move that, while cliché, felt more apropos, and my mother could do little but remind me how much my father would have really loved this meal.

Amuse Bouche

For appetizers, Christine had the heirloom beets ‘salad’ with some fresh farm cheese and a ‘rye crumble.’  The way this dish looked was precisely why some people are put off by true French cooking (though not me):  while visually stunning, its tininess is meant more to do exactly what appetizers are meant to do, leave one wanting more, not full.  Going back to my first point though, I’d find it hard to believe that, even if one was disappointed by its portion, this plate could soon be forgotten on account of its sheer beauty and the craftsmanship involved.

Heirloom Beets - Salad with Lynnhaven Farm Chèvre Frais, Rye Crumble and Nasturtium

Much as I did going into Friday night’s dinner, I had reminded my mother before entering EMP that this wasn’t going to be a pedestrian offering of food and that she may be, err, forced, to make some decisions she otherwise wouldn’t.  I think her appetizer was the one limb she went out on, much to her delight.  Mom selected the Alaskan king crab for a starter, which included a number of variations of the crustacean with some green apple, cilantro and a ‘madras curry.’  As crab cake this was not, and I was happy my mom took a chance, and so was she.

Alaskan King Crab - Variations with Green Apple, Cilantro and Madras Curry

Meanwhile, I chose the fresh farm egg, perfectly prepared and with a yolk so large that, once opened with a gentle prod, it became much like a soup.  Included with the egg were autumnal mushrooms and, in a first for me, frogs legs, which tasted, of course, a great deal like chicken.  Every part of this dish was unique in its own right, but together they became such a cohesive offering I’d ignored trying to identify each and rather just enjoyed them all.  By virtue of its colors alone this was certainly a fall dish but definitely not one I’d be opposed to eating year round.

Knoll Krest Farm Egg - Slow Poached with Autumn Mushrooms and Everglades Frogs’ Legs

A quick Google search for “Blue Foot chicken” reveals why the staff at EMP were so excited to have, just that day, received a shipment of the birds from California, after vying for them for quite some time.  The Blue Foot – which, yes, has blue feet – is the American variety of the French chicken Poulet de Bresse, a chicken long revered in France for its depth of flavor and tenderness.  Not to get too detailed here, but, the free-range Blue Foot is slaughtered later than the usual chicken and then air-chilled, which is believed to enhance the flavor and texture of the bird.  Also of note, the bird is salmonella free.

Ok, enough of the zoology lesson.  After hearing of the bird’s preparation: stuffed with foie gras, roasted, presented and carved table-side, Chris and I knew that we’d be sharing that as a dish for two.  Now, I know I’ve highlighted my love of roasted chicken in the past, but this was the roasted chicken to end them all and was incredible, like, last-meal-on-this-planet incredible.  The chicken, already well flavored from its rearing and preparation is all the more enhanced by the rich, earthy goodness of the foie gras.  I’m a firm believer that, much like how adding bacon to most things can improve it, adding foie gras to a dish elevates it ten-times higher than an easy fix like bacon ever could and makes for a tractor beam-like attraction, a la Robert Palmer:  simply irresistible.

A bit hard to see, sorry, but this is the chicken on its table-side carving board

Much like duck or foie gras, anything marrow crusted is not going to be terrible.  So, it wasn’t that hard a sell to convince my mother that, despite her unfamiliarity with the salty deliciousness that is cow’s bone marrow, she was sure to enjoy the black angus beef, crusted in marrow and accompanied by braised shallots.  Given her penchant for talking throughout a meal, I took her silence upon the entrée’s arrival as a sign of enjoyment.

I promise this review won’t go on too much longer.

Desserts at EMP are some of the most decadent available in this city, offering both seasonal variables as well as staples.  I went with a staple: the Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2, the restaurant’s ode to the ideal dessert, which is the deepest, darkest chocolate tart I’ve ever tasted, accompanied by a stripe of caramel, caramel ice cream, sea salt and, of course, gold leaf.  It is the best completion for a meal at EMP and lives up to every part of the restaurant’s reputation for excess and refinement

Eleven Madison’s Symphony No. 2 - Chocolate Tart with Caramel and Maldon Sea Salt

Christine opted for a seasonal choice, selecting the ‘Caramel Apple,’ which amounted to a broken down version of the carnival favorite, except prepared by a world-class chef, so, consequently, it was amazing.  Complete with toffee, walnuts and granny smith apple ice cream, she couldn’t have been happier with her choice

“Caramel Apple” - Toffee, Walnuts and Granny Smith Apple Ice Cream

Finally, my mother chose the sheep’s milk yogurt cheesecake with cranberries and gingerbread.  The tanginess of the sheep’s milk rivaled that of the cranberries briefly, before the smooth chill of the cake and the spiced gingerbread offset them both, creating a wonderful autumn dessert.

Sheep’s Milk Yogurt Cheesecake - New England Cranberries and Gingerbread

As is common with restaurants of its stature, the eating at EMP isn’t concluded simply with the ordering of dessert.  Rather, macaroons – the small meringue sandwich cookies – are next, typically with a digestif.  Before we could get to this point, however, Megan made her second trip to our table and asked if we wouldn’t mind following her for a bit of a surprise.  This is when my heart started to palpitate.  She proceeded to walk us up the slight ramp to the EMP kitchen doors.  We then entered the kitchen.

I’m a novice to kitchen tours.  Growing up, I’d wanted to become a chef and dreamed of creating dishes that were as enjoyable as those we’d just had, but at no point in my fantasy did the kitchen look anything like the one at EMP.  It is, quite plainly, a well-oiled machine.  Amazingly clean, it is stark white and tremendously organized.  There is a ‘cold’ station, where any dish that is required to be prepared and/or served cold is made.  There are comparable stations for essentially every particular phase of the meal, each of which having upwards of, from my count, six to eight chefs: small bites, amuse bouche, entrée, accoutrement, desserts and sweets.  As a testament to how impressive the kitchen is as a whole, even the dish washing station is a sight to behold:  as Megan explained, each individual glass, plate and silver is hand buffed or polished before making it to the dining room floor.

It occurred to me, mouth agape, that I was having the most memorable dining experience I’d ever had, in New York or anywhere, and I kept spinning round and round, section to section, drinking it all in.

Leaving the kitchen felt the way it feels when you quickly exit a Jacuzzi only to hop into a swimming pool, a bit of shock giving way to chilled refreshment.  Megan led us to a small lounge area near the restaurants door, where, on a glass table situated between two small couches, multi-tiered plates held the long awaited macaroons and beside it sat a bottle of very good and very strong cognac, with Megan’s compliments.

Cognac and Macaroons

In the note I wrote to Megan in the days following our dinner, I thanked her for her hospitality and kindness.  Moreover, I thanked her for something I could never repay her for:  the memory.  It is said that one remembers the company of a dinner more than the meal itself.  However, what Megan, the chefs and staff at Eleven Madison Park afforded us that night was the perfect balance of the two, and I know that for years to come I’ll be reminded of that meal with my mother and I will be forever grateful.

One may think that this must alter my opinion of EMP, that because they treated me so well that I somehow ‘owe’ them a positive review.  Well, I suppose that could be true but every aspect of this restaurant is deserving of such regard, all things have been considered, down to the most granular of details, and most of it done before you ever enter the door.  To me, there is no such thing as perfect; all things are subjective in the end and that is why I will never reward a ten-star rating.  Where a restaurant stops in its pursuit of perfection is what defines it, and that is why, with its seemingly unending quest of completeness, I believe Eleven Madison Park is the finest restaurant in New York City.

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