With its great skyscraper ceiling, its lofty flower-and-twig arrangements, and its discreet, sky-box dining suites, Eleven Madison Park is the largest member of the Danny Meyer dining empire, and the most conspicuously self-conscious. Since opening its doors in 1998 in the Flatiron district, it has also been a restaurant in search of an identity. It lacks the old-shoe coziness of the Union Square Café and the well-groomed cachet of Gramercy Tavern. It doesn’t have the culinary bravado of its neighbor, Tabla, and it’s not even known for excellent cheeseburgers, like Shake Shack across the street. The traditional clientele tends to be local businesspeople out for a night on the town in their starchy suits. And until recently, the specialties of the house were old bull-market relics like roasted lobster or côte de boeuf for two, the kind of stolid, well-executed food that’s available at any number of places around town, provided you have the stomach for it, and the hefty expense account.
In the last several months, however, much has changed at Eleven Madison Park. The towering floral-and-twig installations have been replaced by more-decorous arrangements of summer flowers and green topiary. Two giant wrought-iron chandeliers, which used to hover over the room in a heavy, medieval sort of way, have been removed, giving the place a lighter, more airy feel. There’s a new cocktail menu, new flatware, and a whole new set of delicately ridged china by Limoges. But the most profound change has taken place in the kitchen, where a 29-year-old Swiss cook named Daniel Humm has replaced the original chef, Kerry Heffernan. Mr. Humm arrives from San Francisco after a well-reviewed stint at the Campton Place hotel. Unlike the more earthy cooks Mr. Meyer has favored in the past, Mr. Humm is a high-minded classicist. He is also an alchemist, a dabbler in the mercurial art of reductions and foams, and, almost overnight, he has turned Eleven Madison Park into one of the more interesting restaurants in the neighborhood.
The kind of showy, even effete, cooking Mr. Humm practices isn’t for everyone, of course. The comforting beef haunches and pig’s knuckles once on the menu have been banished, replaced by precious-sounding constructions like Trio of Hawaiian “Poisson Cru” and Gnocchi of La Ratte Potato with Fleur de Courgette. This food tends to be set on the plate with an extreme, almost Pointillist precision, often in servings barely big enough to feed a cat. But what Mr. Humm’s recipes lack in heft, they make up for in inventiveness, concentrated flavor, and technique. Order the foie gras terrine and it appears, pressed between layers of crushed bing cherries and balsamic gelée, looking like some exotic form of Napoleon. The frog’s legs come deboned, lost in a foamy velouté tasting faintly of spring garlic and chives. A poached egg has been broken into the mixture, giving it body and depth. The gentleman next to me, a devotee of the old kitchen, took one bite, then another. “I have to tell you,” he said, “that’s pretty damn good.”
You’ll find langoustines from Scotland on Humm’s constantly evolving menu (served chilled, with a delicious pesto made from almond oil and peas), blue prawns from Hawaii (poached in butter, with truffles), and strips of fresh Japanese hamachi, marinated in olive oil and salt and twirled around spears of crunchy asparagus and hearts of palm. The profusion of ingredients sometimes results in silliness (the grilled-watermelon-and-tomato salad with a vanilla balsamic vinegar was not a popular item at my table, and a bowl of stylized, foam-laden corn chowder was so light and vaporous that it tasted of nothing at all), but in Humm’s hands, even the simplest kind of food can turn into a gourmet event. The gnocchi, for instance, are folded with olives and zucchini and ingeniously touched with bottarga to provide an extra dimension of flavor. Then there is the suckling pig, which the chef pulls from the bone, simmers in duck fat, and presses into a crisp, Heath Bar–size confection filled with such crackly, porky flavor that I had to order it again on my next visit.
For the record, there are also a few dishes I wouldn’t order again. Some of the seafood items seemed thin, like the decorative, grandly named trio of fish, which tastes like average sashimi, and the lobster, which is cut in meager nuggets and served in an odd swirl of carrot purée and oversweet orange sauce. If you’re a poultry fiend, however, Humm poaches his poularde to a kind of milky tenderness and serves it with silver-dollar-size pieces of black truffle under the skin. The Muscovy duck is glazed with lavender honey until it’s golden brown, dusted with star anise to give it an exotic Asian flavor, and presented at the table (it’s carved whole for two) on a silver tray with a perhaps overly theatrical plume of fresh lavender protruding from its backside. The exceptionally tender Black Angus tenderloin is pooled in rich Bordelaise and crumbled with bits of bone marrow, and if you can find them on the menu (I did at lunch), the melting, sticky-sweet, herb-crusted short ribs transcend mere beefiness to taste like some unearthly trencherman’s form of dessert.
It’s difficult to know whether the hearty expense-account folk who frequent Eleven Madison Park will buy into this new style of food. Despite the cosmetic changes, the big, triumphal room feels a little grandiose and impersonal for such excessively delicate cooking. In an attempt, perhaps, to connect to his new public, Humm tries his hand at bar food, much of which (nice mushroom pizza, weird tea-sandwich-size lobster clubs) isn’t very good. Luckily, there’s not much wrong with Nicole Kaplan’s desserts. For summer, the restaurant’s longtime pastry chef has produced a selection of esoteric ice creams like cornbread (part of a gourmet blueberry cobbler) and salted caramel (served with an extravagant chocolate-and-caramel tart). Sheep’s-milk yogurt is used to produce a soothing approximation of cheesecake, and if you want plain vanilla or strawberry ice cream, you’ll find them squeezed between two halves of a macaroon glace and flecked, in the spirit of Mr. Meyer’s dainty new haute cuisine establishment, with gold leaf.
Eleven Madison Park
Address: 11 Madison Ave., nr. 24th St.; 212-889-0905
Hours: Dinner, Sunday through Thursday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday to 10:30. Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. daily.
Prices:Appetizers, $12 to $20; entrées, $18 to $32. Prix fixe, $68 to $115.
Ideal Meal: Foie gras with bing cherries, gnocchi, suckling pig, chocolate-caramel tart.
Note: The restaurant now serves a gourmet weekend brunch, including pancakes flavored with pecan pralines, and lemon-poppy-seed waffles.
Scratchpad: The delicate balance between menu and décor may be a little out of whack, but the suckling pig alone is worth a special trip. Three stars.