Back in 2013, New York Times critic Pete Wells reviewed Daniel, which at the time held four stars from the paper. Wells employed a stealth diner — an anonymous colleague seated at a different table, under a different reservation — so that the critic could more easily identify the perks to which he was treated that other customers didn’t receive. There were no major infractions, but the different level of service was enough for Wells to demote Daniel Boulud’s French flagship down to three stars.
This week, Wells once again takes on a restaurant that received four stars from a predecessor. In this case, it’s Eleven Madison Park, and from the get-go, it looks like things might not end favorably for EMP partners Daniel Humm and Will Guidara. Here’s Wells:
A few days in advance of a recent reservation, the head maître d’hotel, Justin Roller, sent an email warning, “Our tasting menu lasts approximately three and a half hours, so please plan your day accordingly.” The last time I got a message like that, it was from my doctor, shortly before my colonoscopy.
Uh-oh. Wells follows that up by mentioning that he wasn’t impressed with the restaurant’s menu several years ago, which involved performances from the servers, including long dish explanations and magic tricks. (“The most ridiculous meal I’ve ever had.”) In fact, he sees traces of that still lingering, and he’s not a fan now, either:
Even now, when any ingredient is grown in New York State, someone is sure to point it out. Hang on, New York has farms? And chefs can cook their stuff just like the ingredients I get at the supermarket? Wait, I need to write this down. Constantly mentioning the region only underlines the shallowness of Eleven Madison Park’s approach to it. (A server announced that the oysters grew “upstate” in Greenport, N.Y., which will be news to Long Islanders.) Mr. Humm doesn’t dig down into the natural and cultivated landscape of his region the way, say, Christopher Kostow, Sean Brock and Dan Barber do. He practices entry-level locavorism.
But then, a breakthrough: Wells notices that everyone in the dining room (including himself) is “almost goofy with happiness.” Humm’s kitchen continues to turn out breathtaking food that’s still grounded in classic technique — such as a slice of chilled foie gras terrine layered with red cabbage “that looks like a slice of marbled Bundt cake,” and the “Best of New York”–approved truffled celery root that’s braised in a pig’s bladder. And then there are the servers, who, Wells writes in the review’s postscript, “set a new standard for ambitious dining.” (Here’s 1,300 words on everything it takes to make that happen.) In the end, hey, even the dish presentations are kind of charming: “The dopey speeches work like pickup lines; you may smirk, but at least you respond, and once you’ve done that, a conversation can start.”
And so, everyone’s having fun of a sort that isn’t necessarily part and parcel of the world’s most elite restaurants. Everyone, that is, except the server who told the Times restaurant critic that Greenport is upstate. They’re probably squirming a little after reading this review. (Though maybe Guidara and Humm will send the poor person on an educational trip to Claudio’s this summer.) Everyone else in the review, though: fun! Four stars! Make sure you order some foie!