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Excelsior

Excelsior

is a word usually reserved for superheroes and giant robots who shout it before transforming into some more powerful form. Nowadays, it has a kind of cheesy connotation, but you have to admit it sounds cool. Once you look up what it means, you realize that it actually is cool.

Excelsior means ever higher.

Funnily enough, it also happens to be the New York state motto, a fact I did not know before deciding what to name this blog post. You'll see it further proves my thesis:

Eleven Madison Park

is the most New York restaurant in New York City.

EMP

Firstly, a bit more about myself. I was born in the American South but moved to a suburb of New York City around the age of seven, where I attended primary and secondary school through to graduation. For university I set off to the frigid nethers of Michigan, and I currently live in Seattle. If people ask me where I'm from, my default response is New York.

For some, it is easy, or rather possible, to answer that question correctly. "I'm from Wisconsin, my parents are from Wisconsin, my grandma and grandpa are from Wisconsin, and there's no place I'd rather be from than Wisconsin." For others, answering is difficult, their sense of place more ambivalent. "What do you mean? Are you asking where I'm from or what's my ethnicity? My mom is French and my dad is Japanese. I've lived in Paris, Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong for varying periods, and now I'm in Salt Lake City." Many in this group of folks don't like hearing this question because it makes them uncomfortable, or because it means they'll have to repeat the same spiel over again. That's one of the advantages of having a blog: whenever someone asks me an oft-answered question, I can just link them to a post like this.

I say "New York" because it is the best exemplification of my personal philosophy. New Yorkers are strivers. We try to succeed to the best of our abilities. We work long, we work hard. We dream big. If we don't like it, we say we don't like it. We're willing to sacrifice to achieve our goals, and we bounce back from tough situations. If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere.

EMP's chef Daniel Humm has unequivocally made it in New York, so naturally I was curious about what many consider the epitome of its cuisine.

Black and White Cookie

The first course.

History... It weaves around us like air, follows us like a spectre, settles in the earth like sediment. I don't like thinking about the past too much. According to Zimbardo's Time Orientation Theory, I'm definitely future-oriented. I like planning things (booking the restaurant), but I like looking forward to things (eating the meal) even more.

But this dish is about the past. I remember the first - and only - black and white cookie I've ever had. I was probably nine or ten, in 3rd or 4th grade. World Trade Center, observatory on the 107th floor. Among concession stands selling various baked goods there shined this large, intriguing cookie, frosted half-black, half-white - half-chocolate, half-vanilla - and I wanted to eat it, so I asked my mom to buy it...

History.

Black and White Cookie

This skeuomorphic amuse-bouche was a cheddar cracker sandwich with just a trace of mostly unnoticeable apple flavor. It's not unusual to pair fruit with cheese, especially as a platter. Paying heed to its origin only in appearance, this snack was entirely savory, lacking even a hint of sweetness.

Sabayon

Sabayon

A precise circular incision made around the top of an eggshell, permitting it to be filled with something other than its native yolk and albumen. A sabayon is an egg-based sauce made with sugar and white wine, whipped over a boil into a nice fluffy aerated mousse. Not seen: chive purée (a gustatory counterpoint) specked with the tiniest cubes of sturgeon. This, a very classically French recipe, works by virtue of its exceptional balance and fantastic use of salinity to accentuate the other flavors. You can sip it straight out of the shell, like a soup.

Although I must say, par for the course.

Oyster

Oyster A bowl of rich velouté sauce - butter, flour, chicken/fish stock, salt - for dipping your oysters, baked into a savory pie complete with crust and crumble and thyme. You can drink the sauce, eat the pies, or dip the pies into the sauce like you would with cookies and milk. Charming, yes, tasty? Sure...

Scallops

Scallops I was unfortunately unable to resist digging in as soon as this was served, so this is only a (much better) secondhand photo (credit). The leek is a hollow vegetable, which when eaten raw has a slight oniony bitterness, but when cooked mellows out into sweetness. Here it is diced diagonally close to its base, the resulting cross sections filled with alternating purées of black truffle and live (read: recently deceased) scallops. The truffle purée was very slight in flavor, and the scallop purée was rich and creamy, similar to a mildly oceanic-tasting Greek yogurt. This literally filled the hole in the chive and metaphorically filled its hole in flavor. Lying underneath this artful bed was a thin, moist flour pillow which oozed a few black truffle flakes upon being cut.

Truly the star dish of the night.

Breakfast

Benedict "Eggs Benedict" - a spoon of quail egg hollandaise tops a bed of caviar surrounded by cauliflower crumbs, underneath which lay small cubes of ham. Buttery English wheat muffin. The mother-of-pearl spoon is the most interesting component here, traditionally served with caviar because of its beautiful rainbow layers (to contrast with the tiny dark spheres) and its delightful hard crunch. After mashing the caviar against the roof of your mouth, the proper procedure is to break the spoon with your fingers and munch on the broken halves. Weird, yes, but the flavor is simply indescribable - like nothing else in the world.

Kidding. I hope you didn't believe me. You're not actually supposed to eat the spoon because you'd likely choke, and it's hardly fragile enough to break with your hands alone. In actuality, this particular spoon is celebrated for its lack of flavor: caviar happens to react with certain metals and alloys used in silverware (EMP uses Guy Degrenne, unsurprisingly) which can impart, as you could guess, metallic notes. Someone along the line figured out that mother-of-pearl doesn't react this way.

Please note: I am no caviar connoisseur nor do I wish to be; it is an expensive taste with low marginal returns on investment. While caviar is tasty, a large part of its elite mystique results from its exclusivity, and plenty of foods in an average grocery store, such as the common tomato, can be just as good. But, in case you're curious, this is how I'd describe caviar: elementally it is a milder, softer form of salt, brine-kissed, formed into beautiful black spheres in the ovaries of a female sturgeon. Each tiny egg releases this flavor in a demure burst when the pressure of your tongue breaks the surface tension of the orbs.

Bread

Bread No lie is it for me to say that, if offered, bread is the single most telling part of the dining experience. Bread is by no means a necessity, but should it be included, it better be good, because fortune tellers exist in the world of gastronomy and their name is Bread, which with incredibly accuracy predicts the overall quality of the meal.

This bread came in the form of three rolls, conjoined like Siamese twins. Its looks remind me of the croissant, though it is of course no crescent. Nor was it composed of the flaky, buttery layers that characterize an actual croissant; on biting in, you notice it is a wheat blend, mostly white but speckled with brown germ. The surface is crispy and the interior is fluffy. I detected complexity in neither aroma nor flavor.

The butter to the left is infused with juniper berries, rendering it somewhat ginny and tart, and the bowl in the center contains a shattered sheet of salt. These accoutrements were wholly unnecessary, as the bread already tasted buttery and was already salted.

Now this would be quite good offered in any run-of-the-mill restaurant, but was wholly unremarkable for a haughty establishment as this.

Foie Gras

Foie It means "fat liver" in French and is literally the engorged liver of a duck. It also means "moral sacrilege" to a large number of informed diners because much of it is produced via gavage, or force-feeding the ducks corn through a metal tube shoved down their throats. To these, I say there is a reprieve: simply watch Dan Barber's TED Talk and realize that moral absolutism is an inferior philosophy.

Regardless of whether - and as much as I'd like to believe - Chef Humm sources his foie from humanely-treated, naturally-fed ducks, there is no denying that its culinary merits are deserved, or that he understands exactly how to evoke its full glory. To say this was perfectly seared is easy, but that descriptor connotes a sense of satisfaction rather than one of superiority.

And this conveyed a sense of superiority. Plump and tender, juicy and buttery yet not creamy, light in the mouth but rich in the stomach, this warm foie had an exceptionally complex flavor, what in 2015 can best be described as an overarching umami oleogustus with a light salinity and an implacable floral hint of lavender, perhaps more on the scent than the palate. A cube of smoked eel, with its slight sweetness, gave it even more depth. Its seared edge carried a pleasant bitterness, complemented in flavor and contrasted in texture by fried shells of brussels sprouts. Finished with diced celtuce atop a base of vegetal mousse.

Waldorf Salad

Salad A waitress pushed a cart over to the table, atop which sat all the ingredients necessary to make this dish. A Granny Smith apple, a little bit of blue cheese, some walnuts, diced celery root, half-dried grapes, a light mayonnaise... While she prepared the dish, she explained its history, originating as a recipe in New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel.

Put euphemistically, I was not very pleased by this, the spectacle seeming to suggest that diners want definitive proof that the food is prepared by humans, which at a restaurant of this caliber should be far past the ghost of a bygone assumption; the history lesson lacked any semblance of meaning or emotion; if you're going to tell me a story about food, I want to hear about blood and war, the spice trails of the Silk Road, the bazaars of Istanbul... not some pecunious retreat for pampered foreign dignitaries and entitled One Percenters.

An apple celeriac soup was hidden beneath the wooden salad bowl. This was much better - the only thing all night to make me pause and think in deep appreciation.

Soup

Apple and celery, blended into a fine puree, tossed in a light crème and blended again - or reduced, perhaps - until all that's left is this mysterious, delicious chilled milk.

Butter Poached Lobster

Lobster Very good. Another classically French recipe, poaching lobster with butter imbues it with a luxurious flavor and creamy texture, perfect complements to its intense saline umami. Paper-thin butternut squash lines the top, adding a sweet note, tasting even slightly peachy. The richness is cleverly intensified by a sauce of butter caramel, which plays to the lobster's natural salinity. Some steamed lacinato kale adds a deeper vegetal note (and a hint of hipster).

Maitake

Mushroom Say what you want, but you can't fault a restaurant for plopping down a big mushroom and serving it as a course. I really don't mind munching on mushrooms all day due to their extraordinarily complex flavor profiles. This maitake, "hen of the woods," tasted of earth and soil - strangely pleasant with its soft, fluffy texture.

More thoughtful was the mild horseradish purée with the exact consistency of buttery mashed potatoes. This was the perfect complement to the mushroom. Shaved white horseradish and a soft crouton complete the dish.

Venison

Venison The other star dish. I admit I was highly skeptical as I was cutting this with my knife because it didn't seem particularly tender, but Chef Humm correctly understands that all meat is not created equal, and that the tougher, gamier deer deserves a treatment that exemplifies its particular qualities rather than one that works well with the traditional fare of beef, lamb, or pork. Upon biting into that first juicy chunk, I realized instantly that this was not only delicious but exceptional. Although this was by no means tender, the texture was such that upon each successive chew, no fullness in the meat was lost, nor did the flavor lose any force.

What do I mean by "fullness?" If you've ever eaten a steak, you know that the texture changes as you continue chewing, often becoming loose and stringy near the end of mastication; this had none of that. For such a lean cut, its juiciness tricked my brain into believing it was more tender than it was. I admit this cooking was mystifying, perhaps it was a sous-vide which usually results in such evenness, but that fails to explain how it was so saturated with jus. I faintly recall the waiter mentioning it being wrapped in a salted crêpe, although that was probably more for the tableside presentation than the plating itself because there was certainly no crêpe in the dish.

Although this venison was deservedly meritorious, a dish by itself it does not make. Look at those tiny red chips. Beets. Or beetroot, if you're one of those silly Aussies. A brand called Terra sells beet chips in a variety of grocery stores, but these are hardly remarkable and that brand's only value proposition is that it makes chips using exotic (read: non-potato) vegetables, a novelty play that's worked surprisingly well for the twenty-or-something years it's been in existence. Regardless, the beet chips in this dish were stellar: crisp but not hard, lightly salted, softening and releasing their sweet beet flavor as your saliva rehydrates their cells.

Fondue

Fondue A washed rind cheese from Connecticut's Cato Corner Farm melted into a fondue, which is then poured into a semispherical cavity carved into a squash, and finally baked. Stylish, yes, albeit moreso in the traditional sense than the classical. The fondue itself was fine, the quantity was not; there was simply too much. The squash, which could only be consumed after the fondue, was perfect, every bite uniformly dense, the flesh slightly sweet, the skin slightly sweeter due to our old friend Maillard.

Take a stroll around New York and you might find a cart or two selling large, fluffy baked pretzels sprinkled with large grains of opaque white salt. Chef Humm's take on this looks like the root of a vegetable or a tree branch. Pretzel bread - the ends brittle and crisp, the middle warm and robust. Dijon mustard, quince marmalade, and of course cheese fondue are available to spread on your pretzel individually. It is the bread which they complement, not each other.

Foolish it would be to comment on each individual leaf of this mixed greens salad, pontificating about how they somehow maintain their original crispness even after being doused in vinaigrette, so that I will not do. But is a soft crispness, neither bracing nor biting. Carrots, turnips, red and green lettuces, spinach, chives... Nothing terribly exciting, but still better than the packaged stuff in the grocery aisle, which commonly suffers from unevenness of texture and excess bitterness.

Gewürztraminer

Grape Introduced as the product of a search for "the ultimate pairing," this petite intermezzo became immediately the bearer of a heavy burden.

You will find in many restaurants a "wine pairing" in which a sample of wine arrives with each course - or every few courses - chosen to highlight the particular character of the plate(s) with which it is paired. This is usually curated by the sommelier, a trained wine connoisseur in service of the restaurant with the responsibility, among others, to taste each course and find its match in an alcoholic beverage. This succeeds in some cases and fails in others, clearly more of an art than a science, especially given that dishes change every day. A great sommelier needs not only to have an encyclopedic knowledge of oenology but the ability to read the atmosphere. He must present the bottle in such a way, use the right words, the right gestures, the correct pour, for his guests to receive the maximum amount of satisfaction. Call it an act, call it a ritual - a plot - perhaps a comedy, but to the diner and to the restaurateur, its qualia remain forever sacrosanct.

Ultimately, to set the diner's expectations for him is a very bold move indeed. Thus I came to the conclusion that for this pairing, "good enough" would not be not good enough. The chef, or the sommelier, or whomever its architect cannot be forgiven with a mere 80% or 90% match, which would for any other dish be more than sufficient. Excelsior. It becomes your manifest purpose to ensure that every, in the most literal sense, aspect of your pairing | the appearance, the aromatics, the initial taste, the temperature, the flavor, the viscosity of the liquid, its smoothness, its aeration, the aftertaste | reaches the very ceiling, the ne plus ultra of harmony. No small charge.

At its simplest, grape juice and ice cream. Gewürztraminer the grape and Honeycrisp the glace, laced with caramelized vanilla extract...

How was it, you ask?

'Twas good.

Milk and Honey

Dessert Milk and honey happens to be an especially euphonious phrase. It also carries a certain elite air. Curious to learn its etymology, I discovered that it comes from the Bible's Book of Exodus, used to describe the ancient region of Canaan - the land of milk and honey (as opposed to dust and locusts). This obviously calls forth images of paradise, which I suppose is how the phrase "milk and honey" now colloquially means "the good stuff."

We have here an aerated and solidified cake of milk, very crispy, half an egg of milk and honey custard, yolk of bee pollen ice cream. The different textures here were curious, but altogether this was quite a passable dessert. Milk and honey sounds better as a metaphor than it tastes as a flavor combination.

For those wondering, bee pollen is bitter, nutty, and grassy. This ice cream version wisely toned all three notes down.

A Game of Palate

Mast In which is presented a swath of four mystery chocolates, each produced using the milk of a different mammal: Goat, cow, buffalo, sheep. It is the diner's responsibility to determine which bar matches to which milk, that is... But there's a reason nobody makes chocolate using goat's milk or sheep's milk - it just doesn't taste good - and the buffalo milk, which tasted incredibly similar to the cow's milk, doubtlessly costs a hell of a lot more.

More egregious is the fact that Daniel Humm is partnering with Mast Brothers to make this; Mast Brothers is guilty of producing inferior product and slapping on pretty packaging to sell it to hipsters. As a chocolate aficionado, let me tell you that any bar claiming to be "craft chocolate" without disclosing the origins of its beans or the concentration of the cacao is a complete farce. Compare the two below:

Mast vs. Craft

I didn't eat any of the chocolate we took home.

Penultimatum

What makes Eleven Madison Park the most New York restaurant is not the food. It is Chef Humm's philosophy - Excelsior - the philosophy of New York. It is the will to be better; the Japanese call it tsuyoku naritai. Three macarons, four stars in the New York Times, fifth in this year's San Pellegrino World's 50 Best Restaurants... the accolades don't stop.

Except with me.

Elevating street food to haute cuisine can result in either deserved sublimation or saccharine sentimentality, and needless to say EMP's attempts fall into the latter. The failure of the kitchen to deliver a standout experience speaks not to Humm's devotion to the New York ethos, which is steadfast, but the flaws in the ethos itself. For when its top adherents strive for achievement instead of art, the art that results is ultimately hollow.

Conclusion

Not every New Yorker makes it in New York. I didn't. That's why I went to Michigan for school and why I moved out west to start my life. You see, I'm only pretending to be a New Yorker.

Rule 1: You gotta live in New York to be a real New Yorker.

But to be a Seattleite, you have to have been born and raised here. Seattle has a notably isolationist culture in which respect is determined by how long you've been living here. Least welcome of all are the tech workers who have been called here by the city's economic boom. This makes sense; they - and I - are partly responsible for the skyrocketing home and rental prices, for slowly driving away an artistic, creative culture and replacing it with one that is homogeneous and bland.

Still, I don't think I'd ever consider myself a Seattleite even if given the opportunity. To wildly generalize, Seattleites like four things: board games, ganja, beer, and mountains. Of these, I only like mountains (hiking), but it's more in the sense of a vague curiosity than an all-encompassing love.

I feel these demarcations accurately capture the zeitgeist of each city's unspoken social norms, arbitrary though they are. Perhaps it is a fool's errand to associate the self with a place, yet so many do it so effortlessly and it makes me wonder: do I really belong anywhere? God knows. I'd certainly like to. But if I ever become so pretentious as to declare myself a "citizen of the world" when asked where I'm from, you have my permission to slay me - wherever, however.

I'll stick with New York for the time being. Regardless of the degree to which it is true, the fact remains that those two words communicate a world of information. Most of it I still identify with, with one notable exception: Excelsior.

Friends, this is no minor change; it is a profound loss of personal identity. No longer do I have the desire to climb, locked in a relentless survival match with countless others in the metaphorical battlefield of life, believing that the longer I hang on, the happier I'll be. This philosophy has not equipped me to escape the hedonic treadmill, arguably it has done quite the opposite. While I still (and should always) like the idea of self-improvement, I'm no longer infatuated with the rigid ethos of victory at any cost.

I have no idea what I want to replace it with.

Actual conclusion

You'll never be able to eat a meal at EMP in the same form I did. That's for the better. Daniel Humm has made the wise decision to change the menu, focusing instead on 6 or 7 key courses instead of the smattering of 14 described above. I hope as he does: that this will force the kitchen to focus on culinary merit rather than sheer, tourist-dazzling spectacle.

To address one salient criticism that goes, "Oh, he's being real clever. Halve the food, double the price! What a scam."

  1. Much better 7 kickass dishes than 2 or 3 with 10 mediocre attempts.
  2. The meal will no longer take four grueling hours.
  3. You'll be equally full at the end.

But yes - while removing tipping is a good thing, replacing it with a mandatory 38% service charge is not.

This isn't the first time Humm has changed the dining experience. In fact, in the old days (before I ate here), EMP had an à la carte menu along with a tasting menu. It was wiped out in favor of the tasting-menu-only paradigm, a decision made in the pursuit of greatness. Reducing and concentrating this tasting menu is a decision made in the same vein.

And because EMP was able to put forth a couple of transcendent dishes here, I do hesitantly, optimistically recommend its new iteration. Hesitantly, because I believe one thing: food should merit its reputation, not reputation the food.

Like Spinning Plates
by Radiohead
Dash Berlin remix

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2017 Update: The new paradigm worked. I'm a prophet, people!

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