Eleven Madison Park Explores the Plant Kingdom’s Uncanny Valley

The person with the hammer treats every little thing as a nail, the saying goes. One thing like that appears to be afflicting Eleven Madison Park in its new vegan incarnation. The restaurant’s chef and proprietor, Daniel Humm, is utilizing the abilities he delivered to meat and seafood to whack away at greens.

Virtually not one of the predominant substances style fairly like themselves within the 10-course, $335 menu the restaurant unwrapped this June after a 15-month pandemic hiatus. Some are so clearly standing in for meat or fish that you simply nearly really feel sorry for them.

We must always have seen one thing like this coming when Mr. Humm announced the animal-free policy in Might. Eleven Madison Park is without doubt one of the most intently watched eating places on the planet, drawing press protection even for its minor changes. This one, not minor, made headlines around the world. Many articles quoted a line from Mr. Humm that gave his determination a mushy glow of social accountability: “The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways.”

Buried in his announcement was a less-noticed passage that foreshadowed issues to come back. “It’s crucial to us that no matter the ingredients, the dish must live up to some of my favorites of the past,” he wrote. “It’s a tremendous challenge to create something as satisfying as the lavender-honey glazed duck, or the butter poached lobster, recipes that we perfected.”

In tonight’s efficiency, the position of the duck will likely be performed by a beet, doing issues no root vegetable needs to be requested to do. Over the course of three days it’s roasted and dehydrated earlier than being wrapped in fermented greens and stuffed right into a clay pot, as if it had been being despatched to the underworld with the pharaoh.

The pot is wheeled out to your desk, the place a server smashes the clay with a ball-peen hammer. The beet is cleaned of pottery shards and transferred to a plate with a red-wine and beet-juice discount that’s oddly pungent in a method which will remind you of Worcestershire sauce.

They used to do a similar beet act at Agern, a New Nordic restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, roasting it inside a crust of salt and vegetable ash. That beet tasted like a beet, however extra so. The one at Eleven Madison Park tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint.

I think that the summer-squash dish that seems midway by way of the menu by some means descends from the butter-poached lobster. I don’t know what else accounts for the viscous liquid that appears and form of appears like browned butter, however clearly isn’t. It tastes of vadouvan and one thing else, one thing harsh and sharp that overpowers the nugget of sesame-seed tofu hidden inside a squash blossom.

Again and again, delicate flavors are hijacked by some harsh, unseen ingredient. Marinated wedges of heirloom tomatoes have a pumped-up, distorted taste, like tomatoes run by way of a wah-wah pedal. Rice porridge beneath crisp, pale-green stems of celtuce has a tangy, sharp undertone that one other restaurant would possibly get from a grating of aged pecorino. A tartare of minced cucumbers, honeydew melon and smoked daikon is suffused with an acrid depth.

The servers supply few explanations for the doctored flavors, and no warnings, both. The substances look regular till you’re taking a chunk and notice you’ve entered the plant kingdom’s uncanny valley.

Mr. Humm used to get purer, deeper outcomes out of greens earlier than the restaurant went vegan. Perhaps he ought to carry again the celery root steamed in a pig bladder.

His cooking has all the time been process-intensive, however there appears to be one thing new at play, most probably an effort so as to add umami with fermented liquids wealthy in glutamates. Eleven Madison Park now employs a “fermentation sous-chef,” Brock Middleton, following the lead of different yeast-loving eating places, together with Noma, in Copenhagen, which retains home-brewed garums and different magic juices round to supply an invisible raise.

At Noma, these sauces are administered so subtly that you simply don’t discover something bizarre happening; you simply assume you’ve by no means tasted something so extraordinary in your life. At Eleven Madison Park, sure dishes are as delicate as a unclean martini. It’s doable that a number of the particular sauce is so concentrated that an additional drop or two can push issues excessive. This could clarify why a half-eggplant during which glazed slices of pickled eggplant journey like passengers in a canoe had an intoxicating richness the primary time I ate it and a cloying heaviness the following.

A few the kitchen’s efforts to get vegetation to imitate one thing else succeed. When it occurs, all doubts evaporate for a couple of minutes.

Tonburi, created from Japanese summer-cypress seeds, arrives on chipped ice inside an vintage silver caviar bowl that appears as if it belonged to the Romanovs. The seeds, darkish and spherical and glossy, are typically stated to style like broccoli. At Eleven Madison Park, they’ve been seasoned with kelp. A chef would possibly say the kelp provides umami. I’d say it tastes scrumptious, and I’d add that its taste brings up deep, partly unconscious associations with the ocean. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick, however your style buds settle for it rather than the fishy brininess of sturgeon roe.

There’s a plant-based model of the restaurant’s great bread, like a savory croissant rolled right into a crisp golden swirl. Initially kneaded with cow butter, the laminated dough has been rejiggered with butter created from sunflower seeds, and it’s an unqualified success. So is the nonbutter that arrives with the bread, molded into the form of a sunflower, shiny yellow with a darkish eye of tangy fermented sunflower seeds within the heart.

If the pastry kitchen, beneath Laura Cronin, is straining beneath the problem of working with out butter and eggs, it doesn’t present. There’s a captivating two-tone pretzel — darkish chocolate on one aspect and toasted sesame paste on the opposite — that hits you want a a lot improved Reese’s peanut-butter cup. A fair lovelier duet comes within the remaining course, a coconut semifreddo beneath frozen elderflower syrup swirled with blueberry compote.

There could also be extra bartending ability and expertise at Eleven Madison Park than at another restaurant within the metropolis. The brand new mission has spurred the bar to contemporary achievements, with a lineup of cocktails that make scrumptious and typically unbelievable use of vegetation. A distant relative of the old style incorporates crimson bell peppers; for a drink known as merely Sesame they’ve even found out the way to make clarified milk punch with the “whey” from sesame tofu.

Eleven Madison Park has skilled its viewers to anticipate “endless reinvention,” considered one of 11 touchstone phrases and phrases on an indication that hangs within the restaurant’s huge and exact kitchen. Every time the restaurant has overhauled itself — the cryptic grid menu, the magic tricks on the desk, the themed New York City menu — it has gone overboard, then pulled back to a much less excessive place.

Its expertise for overcoming its personal missteps was one cause I gave it four stars in its final assessment in The New York Instances, in 2015. (I’m not giving star scores whereas eating places are nonetheless being rattled by the pandemic.) With time, Mr. Humm might cease overcompensating for ditching the animal merchandise, too. Beets aren’t superb at pretending to be meat, however their potential to style like beets is unequalled.

The nervousness, political upheavals, protests — even the boredom — of the pandemic interval have conspired to provide an pressing sense that individuals with energy, within the restaurant enterprise as a lot as another, have to work for change or get out of the best way. Mr. Humm acknowledged this in his announcement in Might, writing, “It was clear that after everything we all experienced this past year, we couldn’t open the same restaurant.”

Thus far Mr. Humm, who says he’s a vegetarian, hasn’t instructed us his objections to serving animal merchandise, if he has any. He appears to need us to assume Eleven Madison Park is main the restaurant enterprise to a greater place, however how are we imagined to consider that this isn’t simply one other card trick when he hasn’t expressed an actual opinion?

Diners who don’t eat animals for spiritual or ethical causes will in all probability welcome the brand new menu. These whose chief concern is the environmental harm finished by livestock farming might have much less cause to rejoice. Folks have a tendency to consider manufacturing facility farms and feedlots after they hear about meat and sustainability. However Eleven Madison Park didn’t purchase industrial pork for its compressed brick of suckling pig. Because the servers had been all the time reminding you within the outdated days, the pork, eggs, cheese and different animal merchandise got here from small, impartial regional farms. Now, lots of its greens are grown to order on farmland it leases in Hoosick, N.Y.

If each restaurant that helps sustainable native agriculture adopted Mr. Humm’s new path, these small farms can be in serious trouble. To call only one doubtless end result, builders can be lining up on the barn door to make provides. Millions of acres of pasture and cultivated fields throughout the USA have been misplaced to suburbs, which produce half of the country’s household carbon emissions.

And whereas Mr. Humm not often talks concerning the backside line, it’s apparent what occurs if you hold charging $335 for dinner whereas eliminating a number of the costliest objects in your purchasing record, like caviar, lobster and foie gras. (It’s the identical factor that occurred in 2016, when the restaurant primarily halved the number of courses in the tasting without changing the base price.)

Eleven Madison Park nonetheless buys meat, although. Till the 12 months ends, the menu provided to prospects who ebook a personal eating room consists of an optionally available beef dish, roasted tenderloin with fermented peppers and black lime. It’s some sort of metaphor for Manhattan, the place there’s all the time the next stage of luxurious, a secret room the place the wealthy eat roasted tenderloin whereas everyone else will get an eggplant canoe.

What the Stars Imply Due to the pandemic, eating places will not be being given star scores.

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