So get this: Not 5 minutes after Dawn and I walked into a 3-star Michelin rated restaurant in New York City, called Eleven Madison Park, a sharply dressed young representative of the establishment named Ariel approached us and asked, with her hand extended, “Are you Stu Helm?”
That’s right, Motherfuckers. All y’all Asheville fucks might think of me as just another local lout, a loud-mouthed loser, a homeless-looking bum with BBQ sauce in his unkempt beard, but in New York City, I’m like a muhfuckin’ visiting dignitary, Yo!
Sans the dignity, of course.
My response to Ariel’s inquiry was a shocked expression, followed by a pained grimace, and a stammering confirmation that, “Yes. I’m sorry. I’m an idiot.” No joke. True story. The very first words out of my mouth were to concede that I am in fact, that idiot. Y’see…
When Dawn told me she was booking us a trip to the Big Apple, and that she was trying to get us a reservation at Chef Daniel Humm’s world-famous Eleven Madison Park, I got the gumption to drop them a note ahead of time, just to let ’em know that I’m a food writer from Asheville, and that we might be comin’ to dine. I mean, Why not, right? When Dawn nailed down the reservation, I wrote back, and said:
“We got ’em! We’ll be there on Wednesday! The reservation is under the name Dawn Roe.”
Bahhht… in fact our reservation was for Thursday… and it was under my name, “Stu Helm.” ._.
By the time I wrote them a third email explaining all my numerous errors… yeah… I more or less felt like a complete fucking idiot. I even noticed a typo in the subject line that had been there since my first note to them. ._____.
When I didn’t hear back from Eleven Madison Park via email, I wasn’t surprised, and naturally assumed that they had either sussed-me-out for the bucolic rube that I am… or hadn’t gotten my e-mails at all. I had every expectation that Dawn and I would be just two more anonymous patrons… nobody special… a couple of rag-tag bits of Asheville riffraff that blew in on the wind. Oh, how wrong I was.
Not only did Maître D’ Ariel recognize me from my pictures on line, but she greeted us like VIP’s, and confirmed that they had received all three of my messages! Later on the other Maítre D’, a tall handsome man named Zach, told us that they had actually read my reviews, out loud to each other! Whaaat? Really? How awesome is that??? I had sent them links to my review of Del Posto, which is another Michelin rated restaurant in NYC, as well as my “This Cake was a Shit Show” piece, just to give them a realistic idea of who I am and how I write. Zach told us that they loved my reviews, and that we were “their kind of people.” Well, let me tell you what, Dawn and I were so surprised and psyched that the good folks at this incredibly high-end, super-fance-tastic, world-class restaurant had not only read my shit, but actually liked it… I thought Dawn might cry. True story. Sorry, Dawn, I outted ya.
Before I dive into how frickin’ awesome the food, and service, and… everything was at Eleven Madison Park… let me address any Trolls out there, who will inevitably want to say things like “Well, they knew you were coming, so of course it was awesome,” and “You gotta be anonymous, or your opinion is worthless,” and other completely ignorant bullshit like that.
WHEN YOU BOOK A RESERVATION AT A 3-STAR MICHELIN RATED RESTAURANT, NO MATTER WHO YOU ARE, THEY FUCKING KNOW YOU’RE COMING, AND THEY”RE GONNA TREAT YOU RIGHT.
I guarantee you that not one person in that entire restaurant was treated like a nobody. Just the fact that you’re there makes you a motherfuckin’ VIP, and you better believe that. We observed every single patron enjoying a level of service on a par with our own, and I somehow doubt that Eleven Madison Park was puttin’ on the Ritz that night just to impress me and Dawn. Nomesayin’? They made us feel special, but that’s what they do. They’d do it for you too. I guaran-dang-tee it.
As far as the food goes, I mean, c’mon… Michelin already went in there ahead of us, all anonymous ‘n’ shit, and rated this mofo with 3-stars… that’s their highest rating, Yo! I’m gonna have to disagree with them, however. I give Eleven Madison Park 5,000 stars. Minimum. Also, I don’t know how on Earth anybody wouldn’t recognize the people from Michelin. Seriously…
Anyhoodles… Here’s what we ate…
[ About the pictures – I asked permission to take pictures, and the staff were more than happy to say yes, so I did my best to shoot some nice ones, but you will see for yourselves that the light was fading throughout the meal, and by the time the desserts arrived, it was almost pointless to even try. I was not about to use my flash, and the wee flashlight that the sommelier gave me wasn’t doing the trick. I have observed in the past that the restaurants with the nicest lighting for atmosphere — dim, warm, diffused — are the worst for taking pictures of food. My pics from Eleven Madison Park look terrible, but please be assured that in real life, the food looked AWESOME! No joke. Like, some of the cutest, prettiest, coolest looking food I ever ate! If you wanna see stellar photos of their food, go to the Eleven Madison Park web site and watch the slide show. ]
• Upon being seated there was already a white bakery box on the table, tied with butcher string. Classic New York City packaging with a classic NYC food item inside: Black and White Cookies! These were tiny, and savory, made with apple and cheddar. We popped ’em in our mouths and enjoyed! It was a great little amuse-bouche to start the meal with, because it was, in fact, pretty amusing. The entire meal had a “fun” factor that was a little unexpected, and made us feel comfortable right off the bat.
• The Next items to hit the white table cloth were oysters, both poached and raw with chestnuts and velouté. The plating in Eleven Madison Park is fantastic. Every single dish and item was soops cute to look at and the oysters were no exception. They tasted as good as they looked, and they came with a small dish of “soup,” that was actually an oyster velouté. If you don’t know what velouté is, don’t feel bad, I had to look it up on Wiki, where I found out that it’s one of the 5 “Mother sauces” of French Cuisine. I love French sauces. This little bowl of warm, creamy oyster velouté was awesome.
• Next came eggs Benny! You guys know I’ve been brunching like fuck here in Asheville and eating a ton of eggs Benedict, so I was highly amused when the Eleven Madison Park take on this fave dish came out. The eggs were caviar, and the four English muffins were miniature! SQUEEEEE! I love miniature food! The plating was awesome of course, and consisted of a caviar tin filled with finely chopped potatoes and ham, caviar, and Hollandaise. The tiny English muffins came on their own little board. There was also a mother of pearl spoon involved, and that is an old tradition, because it is believed that a silver spoon can effect the flavor of caviar. It was hard to pick a fave dish of the night, but this may have been it.
At this point Dawn looked at me, and said, “I’m already getting full.” There were eight more courses coming. They were all very small, thank god, but let me tell you that this was a Hell of a meal, and we were stuffed to popping by the end.
• Next on the menu was crab salad with sea urchin and kohlrabi. It was served ceviche style, and came in the cutest little stack. I had never eaten sea urchin before, and I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit that I had to look up kohlrabi on Wiki too. It’s cabbage. So, this little stack o’ stuff was basically a super-high-end seafood salad with slaw. It was fucking amazing. Perhaps the lightest dish of the night, it was also the most delicate in terms of flavor, and appearance. It looked and tasted like fairy food, and more or less melted in our mouths. Again, the photo doesn’t even begin to show how cute this dish was.
• After the oysters, caviar, crab, and sea urchin came lobster. Let me repeat that: Oysters, caviar, crab, sea urchin… lobster. I don’t know about you, but around my house, we call that fancy eatin’! Holy shit. I couldn’t believe the parade of awesome that was being trotted out in front of us. The lobster came in the form of delicious lobster bits, on a slice of poached pear, with a spoonful of lobster bisque and a schmear of rutabaga puree. There were also some wafer-thin disks of truffle, each with a crispy cheese disc on top of it. Was it good? Yeah, it was fucking good. Like really good. Maybe the one thing of the whole entire evening that did not rock my world was the slice of poached pear. Dawn and I agreed that it was a little sweet for us, and competed too strongly with the subtle, warm flavors going on in the bisque.
• Next came a giant pig bladder, with a tiny ball of celery root in it. – True story. Captain Pam (more on her later) wheeled out this giant-ass, muh-fuckin’, blowed-up pig bladder, and cut that shit open. Out popped a couple of braised celery root balls! There were truffles involved and some savory gravy/sauce too, as well as a blob of delicious white stuff too. I didn’t write down every detail, I’m sorry. There was a lot going on, and it was a once in a lifetime thing for me and Dawn, so I didn’t wanna spend the entire time writing and taking pictures. The white blob was effin’ good, whatever it was, and so was the celery root ball. Subtle, soft, savory as fuck, and very very tasty.
Let’s take a break at the pig bladder to talk about Fine Dining. What is it? Well, I don’t really know nuthin’ ’bout nuthin’, but from my limited experiences with two Michelin Rated restaurants, here are my thoughts:
• Fine Dining is as much about time, space, and service as it is about the food. Both Del Posto and Eleven Madison Park are in New York City, which, just in case you didn’t know, is crowded as FUCK. The very first thing I always feel upon entering NYC is “get the fuck away from meeeeee!” (Yes, that’s a feeling.) Every moment of every day that you’re in public space, it feels as though there are a million people about an inch away from you. There’s a line for almost everything, and people get right the fuck behind you in line. Like, right on your ass. Here in Asheville, we’re used to a certain amount of space in between us and the next human being. That space is at a premium in NYC, but when you walk into Del Posto or Eleven Madison Park, they have space for you. High ceilings, big tables, single occupancy bathrooms. Holy fuck. Those two places offer an oasis of space from the crush of the crowd outside. I was so inspired I even checked out some menu ideas for fine dining, I knew it would be a while before I ever came to a place like this again so I wanted to make sure I could recreate some dishes!
• Take your time eating at any Fine Dining restaurant you go to. With our first experience at Del Posto, we tore through the meal, and split the scene. Later we had regrets, so at Eleven Madison Park, we took our dang time, and it took all night. These establishments don’t mind you occupying the table for as long as you want to. For real. Fine Dining is not about flippin’ customers, and banking on volume. Relax, stay. As we say around here, they ain’t mad atcha.
• Service is over the top. Both Fine Dining places that Dawn has taken me to had a small army of employees that attended to our every need. Host, coat-check person, Maître D’s, at both venues we had a “Captain.” At Eleven Madison Park our captain’s name was Pam, and she was awesome. She did most of the presentation of the food, and talked to us about everything, answering questions, and offering detailed info about any aspect of the meal or venue that might be of note. Pam had an assistant named Natasha, and a small team of food runners and such. There was also a gentleman named LJ who was like our table-keep. He made sure we had water and bread at all times and cleaned-up the table in between courses. LJ was our guy, and could give the men of Imperial Life here in Asheville a run for their money in the super-handsome department. In addition to Pam’s team, was Sommelier John, Maítre D’s Zach and Ariel, GM Billy, and my Coffee Guru Alex. I just wanted to give a shout-out here to as many members of the staff as I can remember, because they took amazing care of us while we were there. At the end of the night it was all hugs, and “I’ll look for you on FaceBook!” That might have been the Asheville in us coming out, but these folks were genuinely friendly, and they made the experience really fun.
• Speaking of fun… Fine Dining is like dinner and a show. My buddy here in Asheville Chef Joe Scully has a fancy French word for all these carts that are involved in Fine Dining service, but I just call them “carts.” Sooo… yeah, all these frickin’ carts come out of the kitchen and every one of them involves some kind of table side prep, usually something pretty impressive, like cutting open a big, inflated, pig bladder, or lighting your dessert on fire. Both of those things happened at our table side, and it was super fun to watch. Maître D’ Zach told us that the team at Eleven Madison Park had recently retooled their whole schtick in order to make the Fine Dining experience more fun, and I think they nailed it. It was as fancy as can be, without ever once seeming stiff or pretentious.
• Now all the time, space, service and fun in the world won’t make up for mediocre food, and I’ve had some of the best food ever at places that were packed asses-to-asses wall-to-wall, so the food at a Fine Dining establishment must be a cut above… more like five cuts above the best food you’ve ever had. Simply put: It has to be some of the best in the world, which must be hard to do in a world where great cooks are slinging awesome eats out of a truck, and Dim Sum joints can become famous for being fantastic AND cheap… so, I’ve noticed that at Fine Dining places they tend to use really frickin’ high-end, often exotic ingredients to begin with, and I always end-up eating something that I never ate before, usually something that I think of as being food of the extremely wealthy and/or Bond villains. Sea urchin for example. Of course the food prep and presentation are always amazing, and I have truly eaten some mind-blowing things during a Fine Dining experience. Again, sea urchin is a good example. YUM! Fine Dining forces you to eat weird stuff and love it. I guess it has that in common with southern cooking. Hog jowls, Yo.
• Everything else, from the dishes to the music to the fact that I learned what a proper sauce spoon looks like, was unique and uplifting. The plates, bowls, saucers, cups, and glassware, as well as the carts, where made by local NYC crafts people. The music was at the perfect volume, and had been hand selected that night by Zach, to fit a somewhat obscure Miles Davis connection that they reinforce in subtle ways. There was continuity throughout the meal, and all five of our senses were gratified to the same level of fun and luxury. And the sommelier seemed to have a 6th sense thing going on with Dawn. He was very good at his job.
The main courses were next. Dawn ordered the duck, and I got the pork cheek. Dawn’s came with a side of butternut squash, and mine with taters.
• I tried a few bites of Dawn’s duck and it was fucking great! The skin was done better than any duck skin I’d ever eaten. It was crispy and crunchy and had a lot of good flavor to it. Afterwards Dawn told me that she liked the duck, but had decided that duck in general is not her fave protein. We should have switched plates! Now I feel like a jerk. :/ Just in case you don’t know what salsify is (again, I had to look it up myself) it is a root vegetable, more common in Europe than North America. It’s mild in flavor, and is sometimes called an oyster plant because of its oystery taste. It’s also kind of potato-y. So, maybe it’s patoystery?
• My pork cheek was effing perfect. I love pork cheek, a cut of meat that I was first introduced to by Chef Steven Goff at the old King James Pub here in Asheville, and it became an instant fave with me. Eleven Madison Park served it braised with onion and mustard, and some very savory jus. The onion came in the form of two transparently-thin, very well-cooked, vertical slices, one placed atop each pork cheek. Underneath was a small pool of the delicious jus.
• Both side dishes were very pretty to look at, and tasted excellent, although I had side dish-envy for Dawn’s butternut squash. Arranged in a bright orange spiral pattern at the bottom of a large of white bowl, and sprinkled with a tiny amount if thyme, the squash was prettier and tastier than my star-shaped display of confit potato wedges. In fact the potatoes were the only dish that I did not finish. I was set to explode from being full by then, and I knew there were a few more items coming our way, so I left a slice and a half of my potato star behind.
I’ve called this a 10-course meal, but that all depends on if you’re gonna call the amuse-bouche a course (it is usually not considered to be one of the courses) and how many of the desserts they gave us can be counted as courses. If I count the number of different dishes and food items that Dawn and I each took a bite out of, there were 20. Here’s what-all they served us AFTER our main courses…
The fanciest people in the world eat a fruit and cheese course in between the main course and dessert. While that sounds almost completely insane, it serves to transition the palate from savory to sweet. What’s even more insane, is that in between the main course and the cheese course, they brought us each a bowl of consommé. Mine was pork, Dawn’s was duck. We basically drank a bowl of broth before tucking into cheese, before tucking into dessert… or should I say the first of four desserts. In. Sane.
• The cheese and fruit came in the form of a wee little apple, cheddar, bacon marmalade tart, with a tiny side salad of various greens. The crumbly tart shell was filled with bacon and cheddar, and then topped with a half of a baked apple. This thing was the bomb! It did make me think that my friend Chef Greg at the Barleycorn here in West Asheville might be able to bust out one Hell of an Apple Cheddar tart with his famous bacon jam involved. Hint hint.
• Baked Alaska was the primary dessert item and, wow, what an item it was! Captain Pam wheeled out the special dessert cart and lit that shit on fire! Baked Alaska is basically cake and ice cream covered in a layer of browned meringue. The meringue is usually browned by pouring some sort of liqueur over it, and setting it ablaze for a moment. Pam did this deftly, and we were impressed. Then she wheeled that giant-sized dome of flame-browned awesome away and brought back a small piece for each of us. The small pieces were merciful to say the least. We were seriously full of food and beverages by then, and the big ol’ baked Alaska was scaring me. The small pieces were manageable, as in: I managed to stuff mine in my face and push it down into my stomach. I was definitely running out of room for sure.
ABOVE: Baked Alaska is on fire! BELOW: L- Dessert sized portion of the baked Alaska R – Coffee and name the milk game.
• That didn’t stop me from eating chocolate. Neither did the fact that I’m allergic to chocolate, it gives me headaches. I did not give one flying fuck that night, and there was no way I wasn’t going to play the “Name The Milk” game! Four bars of chocolate came out, along with two game cards. Each chocolate bar had a symbol on the wrapper, and those four symbols were printed on the game card, in a column on the left hand side. On the right hand side of the game card there was a column of four animal icons: A cow, a buffalo, a sheep and a goat. I think you can guess where this is going. Pam described the qualities of each animal’s milk to us, and left us to taste each bar, and match chocolate bar to animal on our cards. I am happy to say that I guessed them all correctly! Yay me! Dawn said she got them all right too, but there were so many lines on her card… yeah, nice try, Dawn.
• After the chocolate was more chocolate. Ready to die from being full, I took a deep breath and chowed my “chocolate covered pretzel.” I put that in quotes, because it was so much more than what it sounds like. It was more like a cookie, or sweet biscuit, in the shape of a pretzel. I was a little out of it by then, but I think there was also caramel and salt involved with this thing. I turned to Dawn and said through a food haze, “This is the world’s most awesome twixt bar.” She did not disagree.
When we were finally done… we still weren’t done. Zach came back to our table at the very end of our meal, and asked us to step with him into the kitchen. That usually makes me feel uptight, because people is workin’ back there, and I hate being in the way. Well, no worries. Eleven Madison Park’s kitchen is huge for one thing, which is a very rare commodity here in Asheville, let alone New York City. It also runs like a fucking ballet. There had to be 30 people in and out and around that kitchen, maybe even more, and it was quiet, orderly, smooth, highly functional, and it even had a tiny table / counter type of thing for visitors to stand behind, out of the flow, and have… you guessed… one more little bite to eat. I was feeling as bloated as that pig bladder by now, but we didn’t say no when a very nice young woman came over and rolled two sticks covered in maple syrup around in some shaved, flavored ice, to make us each a “lollipop” for the road. The chef du cuisine Chris Flint was in the kitchen, and even though it was still the dinner hour, he took the time to smile, wave, and even step over to shake our hands. That was pretty effing cool, Man. To me, that’s the food equivalent of meeting a rock star.
After all that, we circled around, through the kitchen, to the very front of the house, where our jackets were waiting and our whole team was there to see us off, including Captain Pam and Billy the General Manager, who asked if we had time for one more thing. Dawn and I looked at each other, and said “Yes.”
It was about 1 degree outside, so Dawn and I stuffed our bloated bodies back into our winter gear, but in true New Yorker fashion, Billy just tucked his hands in his pockets and the three of us walked about two blocks, through a cute little park (so many cute little parks in NYC!) to what could be described as Eleven Madison Park’s little sister: A very cool, jam-packed, bumpin’, bar/restaurant night-clubby type of place called NoMad. Holy fuck. Suddenly Dawn and I felt super old and tired. We’d been eating and drinking since 5pm, and it was now getting close to 11, but we were game to see what Billy had in store for us. He handed us off to Aubry, the GM of NoMad who took us through the serpentine venue, down a hallway, past all the crowds, down some stairs, through the kitchen, out a door, we were briefly out side, and then through a rough wooden door, behind a curtain, to a little room all decked out like a Swiss ski chalet. I shit you not. There was a fake fireplace, a deer head on the wall, a bench made out of a toboggan (which, for you Southerners, is a sled in this case, not a hat), plus one thermos of hot chocolate, one of hot apple cider, and a fondue set. We were somewhat stunned.
Aubry explained that this room used to be part of an alley way, and then they boxed it off for a little break room for the workers, and then they decided to trick it out as a VIP room for the guests too. They change the decor seasonally, and since it was winter time, Swiss Chalet! Aubry left us in there all alone.
Dawn and I were seriously full and getting a little sleepy to boot, so we chillaxed in the tiny chalet for about twenty mins, sipping politely at the hot chocolate ( of course it was amazing, and yes, I did get a screaming headache a little later from all the chocolate.) I dipped one piece of bread, about the size of a sugar cube, into the cheese fondue, and that was it… I tapped out. Maximum intake had been achieved. We had officially placed more molecules of food into our bodies than our bodies are actually made out of. We somehow managed to find our way back to the hosts’ stand, but missed Aubry, so we said goodbye to the other folks at NoMad, and squeezed our swollen girth through the door, to walk back to the hotel in the brisk New York City air. It was a great walk. I like winter. It was an awesome meal. A fantastic experience. They even styled us out with parting gifts. Some awesome glass canisters with their house-made granola inside.
Now, of course, this was HELLA expensive, and it was Dawn’s treat. She got a chunk of money as a reward for doing something related to her job, and decided to spend it on this dinner. It would be tacky for me to tell you how much she spent, but I can tell you this: I would have to write about it for 7 months for Ashvegas before I made back the money it cost for both of us to eat there. Don’t worry, I’m not gonna write about this experience for 7 months, but I’m gonna talk about it for years, and remember it forever.
And that’s a big part of the Fine Dining experience for me and Dawn: The misty water colored memories.
They can’t be beat!
• The closest you can come to this type of experience here in Asheville is at the Inn on the Biltmore Estate. Now, that’s according to Chef Joe. I’ve never been there.
• The closest I’ve personally come to that experience here in A-town is at Vue 1913 in the Grove Park Inn, which is pretty amazing, but without as many carts.
• And of course, some of the special wine pairings and beer pairings, and Chef’s tasting menus here in Asheville, by Table, Chestnut, and Posana and the like, and Blind Pig Suppers and stuff like that here in Asheville come close in terms of memories and once-in-a-life-timey-ness.
• In terms of the food itself, we’re doing pretty dang good here in our little town. The above mentioned venues, as well as Nightbell, Curate, All Souls, Cucina 24, and others are all really great. There are too many great food vendors in Asheville to mention here.
So we can count ourselves lucky, my fellow AVL Food Fans! We have great fucking local food, but if you really want a world-class, no-holds-barred, fancy-to-the-max dining experience that’ll take all night, and fill every crevasse of your body with amazing, exotic, food and beverages, you gotta go to New York City and check out Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park. It’s the bomb-titty-ass-bomb of all bombs.
Tell ’em Dawn and Stu said “Hey’ey!”
[ More about the pictures – I have suggested publicly as well as privately that restaurants who want people to take nice pictures of their food might place a small lamp at each table. Some of my friends have wrinkled their noses at that idea, stating that such lamps would ruin the atmosphere. Well… of course I would never suggest that harsh, horrid lighting be installed at the tables just for good pictures. That would be dumb. Here in Asheville, go check out the Smoky Park Supper Club some night. The lighting in the room is dim and cozy, just the way I like it, and they also have the cutest little lamps at some of the tables. The light directly beneath the lamps is fucking perfect for taking pictures of food. So, it can be done. I’m not saying every restaurant should do this. Only the ones who give a shit if people take nice pictures of their food. ]
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Stu Helm is an artist, writer, and podcaster living in Asheville, NC, and a frequent diner at local restaurants, cafes, food trucks, and the like. His tastes run from hot dogs and mac ‘n’ cheese, to haute cuisine, and his opinions are based on a lifetime of eating out. He began writing about food strictly to amuse his friends on Facebook.
now that review makes me want to visit NYC’s food scene. Looks like you had a heck of a blast, Stu!
Pretty late to the 11 mad party there stu. Are you going to act like you discovered this, just like the avlfood scene.
Gueridon Service is the cart thing.
You don’t understand, Tyler. It doesn’t matter where the restaurant is located since all Stu Helm’s reviews are ultimately about Stu Helm.
Cool. A review about a place I’ll never go to.
My review of my breakfast this morning: had a piece of bacon, a few biscuits, and an egg. Tasty. Made me full.