Eleven Madison Park– 5 stars

The quest for the best vegetarian food in New York continues.  The blog turns one month old today, and we’ll be celebrating with the first perfect, five-star review.

If you’re looking for great vegetarian food in New York, look no further.  Eleven Madison Park, a three-Michelin-star restaurant for 2012, really epitomized how a top restaurant should accommodate vegetarians.  The food was great, the service was impeccable, and the overall experience was fantastic.  EMP is, to date, my favorite New York restaurant.

Eleven Madison Park’s vegetarian options were great, though the menu is a little unorthodox.  They present you with a four-by-four grid that lists various ingredients.  (You’ll see our menu below.)  You pick an item from each row to constitute a four-course menu, or an item from three rows to make up a three-course menu.  The restaurant typically has a dish in mind for each ingredient, but if you don’t want that particular item, they’ll make something else with that same main ingredient.  Each row contained a vegetarian option, but we were going with the three-course lunch, so I skipped the “lettuce” course.  Obviously all of the desserts (row 4) and about 1/3 of the earlier courses were vegetarian, which is quite respectable.

I went with the ricotta (which was a gnocchi, but much better than other gnocchis I’ve had recently), eggplant (which is hard to describe, but I’ll get there shortly) and pistachio (a pistachio cake with pistachio ice cream).

Anyone that’s eaten at EMP will tell you that you need to block out a good chunk of time for the experience.  Our lunch took nearly three hours, and that was with “only” three courses.  I use this term loosely, though.  The gnocchi didn’t arrive for about an hour after we ordered, but there was plenty to keep us busy in the interim.

EMP’s famous cheese puffs started the meal.  They were delicious: warm and light, tasty and enough to whet your appetite:

Next up was some “tomato tea”.  It was served with a parmesean crisp and was infused with lemon and thyme.  It was refreshing, tasting light a very light, lemony tomato soup.  I found it a bit too salty for my liking, though.  The salt distracted from an otherwise nice interlude.

Up until this point, the vegetarian selections were the same as the non-vegetarian selections.  That changed with the next course.  I had a mushroom zabaglione with chive oil.  My dining companions had something similar, but with him. I liked the adaptation, the presentation, and the zabaglione itself.  It was creamy, with the mushrooms settled on the bottom.  I never did figure out if it was served in an actual egg shell or if it was fake.
At this point, we were given a tour of the kitchen (no pictures allowed, sadly) and got to watch an employee make us an “edible cocktail”.  It was a manhattan, of sorts:  the vermouth was frozen in liquid nitrogen, and the whiskey was mixed with liquid nitrogen.  The result was a slushy whisky with a hard “shell” of vermouth, with a cherry.  Delicious!

 

 

  We returned from the kitchen to find some warm and delicious bread at the table.  The bread was fantastic, but it was made even more so by the two types of butter they were served with.  (Cow’s milk and goat’s milk butters, though the bread really didn’t need additional butter.)

After the bread, and about an hour after we ordered, we got our first course.  Mine was ricotta gnocchi with olives and artichokes.  (The usual version would have come with bacon.)  The gnocchi was served in a lemony cream, but the cream was not heavy.  I had several other gnocchis during the summer and found them all to be very heavy and not what you want on a hot summer day.  This was the opposite:  creamy, but light.

My main course was “eggplant”.  This consisted of a thin slice of crispy eggplant (what you can see on top) served over a roasted eggplant, with wheatberry granola and fresh licorice.  The “wheatberry granola” had a nice crunchy texture, almost like unpopped popcorn kernerls (but not in a bad way).  I found the licorice to be a little too bitter and skipped most of it.  The eggplant was tender and a nice contrast with the wheatberry granola.  All in all, the main course was very good, and pretty creative.


Finally, it was time for dessert.  I had picked “pistachio”, which meant pistachio ice cream, pistachio crumble, cherry sorbet and cherry crumble.  The ice cream was good, the sorbet was nicely tart, and the crumble tasted like pop rocks.  All in all, a nice ending to the meal.  (Look closely and you can see my notes on the left side of the frame!)  I topped it all off with a coffee, got our little box of macarons and sweets, and–three hours after we arrived–we were ready to leave.

EMP gets a perfect 5-star rating.  The food was great, and there were several vegetarian options.  The kitchen was very willing to modify courses as necessary to accommodate me.  (I didn’t know the zabaglione was coming, or that the gnocchi normally has bacon, but the kitchen adjusted both without my having to explain anything.)  The kitchen had clearly put some thought into the vegetarian courses, rather than treating them like an afterthought.  I might quibble here and there with the particulars (a little less licorice with the eggplant; less salt in the tomato tea) but that’s nit-picking.  Overall, the experience was great, and substantially better than anywhere I’ve been so far.  So:  the best vegetarian food in New York City:  Eleven Madison Park!