New York: A lot of song and dance

Two servers came to the table. One stood holding a tray; the other placed a small pot, leveled off with a rich, cream-coloured filling, precisely right of centre on the tablecloth. In silence, he twisted back, then straightened with a larger ramekin in his right hand while his left spooned an half-inch of crumble onto the small pot. Both spoon and ramekin settled back on the tray. He turned back once again holding a paper envelope tied up with string which he placed table centre with both hands. I blurted out, “Very mysterious!” and both men laughed. The main guy said in a normal voice, “This is just a lot of song and dance. It’s bread and butter.”

But of course it wasn’t just bread and butter. Not at Eleven Madison Park, a 3-star Michelin restaurant voted the third-best in the world — for which I had woken up at 6am and slept on hold for 36 minutes to get one of the last reservations for 5:30 pm exactly 28 days later.

Three stars in Michelin-speak means “Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey.” In 1900, when the Michelin brothers started the guide in France, there were fewer than 3,000 cars in the country and they figured starting a travel guide would encourage people to buy more cars and hence more tires. They added restaurants in 1926, and then critics to review the restaurants. Fast forward 90 years and there was me, making a special journey to NY to spend $200 more on one dinner than I got for selling the first car I ever owned. Completely worth it.

There’s the food, of course. A parade of “exquisite, tiny courses” as one friend put it although I was thankful for their petiteness by the time we got to the 10th course. And that isn’t counting the amuse bouche or the fact that the first course alone comprised four little dishes. These kind of fancy restaurants typically offer a tasting menu where you might choose Flora vs Fauna, or Sea vs Land, but mostly you eat what you are given. 11Mad provided options at almost each course, and sub options within those. “Would you like the foie gras or [something else as I’d stopped listening at foie gras]? … Foie gras? In terrine or pan seared?” We jumped at the chance to add wine pairings (old world, local region or reserve), neither of us willing to tackle the 195pp wine list. I found myself throwing back the 4oz glasses (8 in all) like I was doing shots, just to keep up. As a kind of party favour, 11Mad presents you at the end with a caviar-sized tin with an round paper accordion customized to list all your menu choices paired with the wine you drank. I was thankful since my hastily scribbled notes got more incoherent as the dinner progressed, with phrases like “rice-crackery-thing” and “tarty-bits.”

But it isn’t just the food, which is creative and flavourful and artfully presented. The maitre d’ emailed me a friendly note a few days before, asking how he could make the evening even more special than just getting in. My words, not his. I took Maitre D’ Matthew (Matt to me by the end of our correspondence) at his word and explained it was my friend’s milestone birthday and she’d love a surprise champagne cocktail made and named for her.

We walked in at 5:30 pm on the dot having squandered our lead time by an inability to find the restaurant despite the its name also being its address. Matt welcomed me and turned to my friend, greeting her by name and wishing her a happy birthday, much to her delight. His best wishes were echoed by those of the server who led us to the table, the sommelier who explained every wine in great detail and the guy who walked by periodically to put down course-specific cutlery. All done with class and no singing, but enough attention that a few courses in, one of the guys sitting at the adjoining table leaned over and also wished her a happy birthday. And after he and his buddy had downed four bottles of wine, he leaned over and passed us each a bite of his whole trout on a fork. 

A whole team of servers is assigned to you but the handoff is so smoothly done that you suspect a dossier has been compiled. We asked if there were a chance to go into the kitchen, as our table buddies had done. The woman in charge of checking on us towards the end let us down gently. She’d love to but everyone had asked and most, weeks ago. We shrugged good naturedly and after we’d signed the papers mortgaging our places to pay for the meal, we got up to leave, completely satisfied. Our chairs barely pushed back, and she was at my elbow, leading us to the kitchen. It was like the final edible flower placed with tweezers in the negative space of nouvelle cuisine well-plated. That’s the song and dance way of saying the cherry on top of the sundae.

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