When, like me, you've spent the better part of fifty years searching for the cheapest form of deliciousness possible, it's hard to just swallow hard and accept the fact that eating at four-star restaurants is, well, expensive. Really expensive.
So, until I ate the insanely reasonable $28 two-course lunch a number of times at Eleven Madison Park recently, the only place I could send serious eaters in search of a four-star midday meal at neighborhood restaurant prices was Jean-Georges--where you can still, as of this moment, buy your four-star meal one course at a time, at $14 a plate.
Photographs: Robyn Lee
But Jean-Georges looks and feels like a formal French restaurant, albeit one that serves resolutely contemporary and often forward-thinking food. So in spite of the fact that I am known there (hey, I can sniff out food bargains in any class) and I am greeted extremely warmly whenever I go, I have been searching for a less formal, slightly less fancypants alternative.
Enter Eleven Madison Park, a restaurant I have always liked, often admired, but never fallen in love with... until now. Why now? Because in a strange way I think that the lower-priced lunch menu has brought out the earthier, simpler aspects of Daniel Humm's cooking. And because, let's face it, I love a bargain, and $28 for two courses, an amuse, and some gougeres thrown in for good measure is, relatively speaking, a steal. Strangely enough, that fact was buried in Frank Bruni's recent four-star review (it was only in the box).
Twenty-eight bucks for food that ranges from very good to breathtakingly delicious, served in a gorgeous and resolutely adult room that manages to be quiet and full of energy at the same time? I am so there. And serious eaters, you should be, too.
Amuses bouche change every month or so, but ones I have been served include baby radishes and stuffed cucumbers. And along with these amuses is a little dish of perfectly baked, cheesy gougéres. Try to eat of those little puffy suckers. I have and failed miserably. Damn you, Daniel Humm. You're not helping my diet posts.
Starters range from a rich but light sweet corn chowder with not enough Nova Scotia lobster and bacon, which is presented in three acts, to perfectly executed earthy pastas like ravioli with brown butter, sage, and amaretti, and an even simpler spaghetti a la chitarra with cherry tomatoes and basil. I have never associated Humm with pasta, but he is Swiss, and Switzerland and Italy do abut, so why not.
An heirloom tomato salad with parmigiana and proscuitto looked like a gorgeous still life, but alas, the dish merely proved that even heirloom tomatoes can be seriously lacking in flavor. A slow poached organic egg with farro, sweet corn, and chanterelles, on the other hand, is a guileless, sophisticated, and fabulous plate of food once you break the yolk of that egg.
Humm has properly enjoyed a reputation as a master pig cooker (a pig whisperer, if I can be a little fanciful here), and included on this bargain menu is pork served two ways. The piece of pork loin is cooked to a comfortable pink, but if you order this dish, don't spend much time on the piece of pork loin. Head straight to the little hockey puck of crispy porcine perfection that sits on your plate. You will not speak to your lunch companions until you are finished with it.
Other main dishes range from very good (if unexciting) impeccably seared Atlantic skate wing with cauliflower, capers, and almonds, to an organic chicken breast basquaise with marvelously crispy skin that's accompanied by a tomato stuffed with rice and studded with bits of chorizo and Taggiasca olives. A piece of perfectly poached red snapper in a properly saffron-y bouillabaisse sauce was accompanied by fennel and pieces of squid that were way too chewy to be served in a restaurant this good.
Note on the iced tea here: When you order iced tea here it comes with three syrups, a simple syrup, a ginger-lime syrup, and a pomegranate. I had fun mixing and matching them with my bottomless refills. I became my own iced tea mixologist.
For dessert, there's a fine array of seasonal sweets served on a trolley. Make sure you get the trolley to stop at the strawberry shortcake or the caramel chocolate tart or the lemon meringue tart, all served with a spoonful of delightfully tart creme fraiche. But know that that trolley stop is going to cost you twelve bucks.
So if you are looking to continue along your bargain path, pay your tab, leaving a fat tip for the excellent service at Eleven Madison Park, and head to the B line at Shake Shack across the street. Get yourself a vanilla cone and eat it as you walk back to work, thinking about the great meal you just had every step of the way. You'll end up whistling while you work, I promise.
Eleven Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10010
Service: Faultless, friendly, and accommodating
Setting: Open, airy, elegant half of the Met Life Building lobby with well-spaced tables
Compare It To: Gramercy Tavern, Jean-Georges, Craft, Del Posto
Must-Haves: Sweet corn chowder with Nova Scotia lobster and bacon, corn and bacon soup, gougeres, pork
Cost: $28 for two courses plus drink, tax, and tip