A dish of composed eggplant is a standout at Eleven Madison Park, which recently reopened with a menu that is free of animal products.
Illustration: Maanvi Kapur
It’s been two weeks since the chef Daniel Humm unveiled the newest menu at his extravagant, almost comically luxurious Manhattan restaurant Eleven Madison Park. The big news, of course, is that this latest iteration of the restaurant (which was once known for dishes like lavender-glazed duck and opulent blocks of slow-cooked pork) eschews animal products, instead offering a fully plant-based meal. Does it live up to the hype, and the price? Two experts weigh in.
Rachel Sugar: Before we get to our the actual meal, which cost $729.46 for two people, and another $168.76 for drinks, let’s clarify that our main goal was to get two different perspectives — mine as a vegan, and yours as a longtime restaurant critic — on the new food at Daniel Humm’s restaurant.
Adam Platt: I was surprised when you told me you’re vegan because I’ve seen you eat butter.
RS: For work, I’ll eat what chefs serve, because I think my job involves trying to understand what they’re going for. But otherwise, I’m vegan. Have you ever considered cutting meat out of your diet?
AP: No. Are you kidding me? I should be vegan, though. I should be done, at this stage of my consumptive life, with meat and potatoes. My daughters say, every day, “You eat too much meat, dad. You eat too much meat, dad.” By the way, I fortified myself for the meal at EMP by eating almost an entire chicken from Citarella for lunch.
RS: So we were both doing something new here. You were experimenting with veganism, and I was experimenting with eating at Eleven Madison Park.
AP: You’d never eaten there?
RS: No! And we should mention that I had to ask the restaurant’s public-relations agency just to get our reservation, but we did pay for the meal.
AP: We should also mention that I DO have a reservation, although for sometime in the distant future, so we’re really dealing with first impressions here. Maybe you should start by asking me about some of my most memorable vegan meals.
RS: Okay. What are your most memorable vegan meals?
AP: There aren’t any.
AP: I will say that there’s always something vaguely virtuous and satisfying about having endured a grand vegetarian meal, although I don’t think I’ve actually had a vegan meal that’s lasted ten or 12 courses and cost as much as a round-trip ticket to Paris.
RS: That sense of virtue has always struck me as a hurdle. I want food to be pleasurable. I don’t want eating a meal without animal products to feel like self-improvement. People hate self-improvement. “Oh, you’ll feel so great when it’s over” is not the same as “Oh, the meal was so delicious.” So that’s what I wanted from this $700 vegan meal, to be spectacular by any terms. And it started off very well. They brought out tiny cups of “heirloom-tomato tea infused with lemon and thyme.” Very minimalist. A clear broth in a simple white bowl with an elegant bundle of fresh thyme. I will admit: I was skeptical of this because it sounded extraordinarily pretentious, but I was wrong because it was one of the best things I have ever tasted in my life.
AP: It did not suck! In fact, it tasted deeply flavorful like the essence of a thousand tomatoes, and we’re not even in tomato season yet. Not that I care — I’m agnostic about seasons when it comes to tomatoes. I’ll eat a tomato at any time of year, especially if there’s a vat of mayonnaise nearby. Anyway, this was a lovely, spiritual introduction to our dinner, and also to the season of summer tomatoes, which hasn’t arrived yet.
RS: I felt sort of stupid because I knew it would be good. That’s what they do here. They make good food. But this was indeed very good.
AP: How many stars would you give this tea?
RS: Ten out of ten. Absolutely the best tomato tea I’ve ever had.
AP: Go easy with your tens. You can’t give everything a ten. I’d give this delicious elixir an 8.5. It sort of set up the whole meal. It opened up the palate, and it said to both of us, “You are in the presence of master technicians — this is what we can do with plants. And now we’ll give you more of our delicious plants.”
RS: The second course, also tomato, was a tomato salad with pickled strawberries and tiny tomato-stuffed dosas with a shiso leaf wrapped around the end, served in a custom wooden mini-dosa-holder. And it came with dips: pine-nut puree and green-tomato relish with coriander.
AP: The dosa, especially, is a brilliant idea. Sleek, delicious, and beautiful to look at, which is pretty much the image our friends at EMP strive to create the second you walk in the door. And the mysterious little souped-up vegan dips imparted serious umami flavor. Let the record show: We ate this course in monkish silence, much the way I imagine vegans eat all their meals.
RS: It was delicious. I did think, though, if we’re nitpicking, that everything sort of had the same umami punch to it — all the pieces are at the same level. It was incredible, but if this were figure skating, and if I were the Russian judge, I’d say I wanted something to cut through the sameness a little bit.
AP: Everything was amped up to the same level of umaminess. On the other hand, if it were a non-vegan restaurant, it would have all been butter. Still, ten stars for those fucking dosas — I’m a dosa fan — and I’d give seven, maybe six-and-a-half stars to the very good salad.
RS: We were off to a strong start. But the next course, you had concerns. They brought us these immaculate little bowls of “broken rice porridge” with ribbons of celtuce on top, luxuriating in a celtuce-and-ginger broth and accented with coriander blossoms.
AP: The whole setup looked very chaste, very delicate and pure and obviously good for you, and also possibly very boring.
RS: Everything you think about vegans.
AP: I’ll admit, there were all sorts of internal alarms going off in my fatty, butter-soaked, carnivore brain. The dish looked like something — and I don’t mean this as a criticism necessarily — that you’d encounter at a Buddhist koan fat farm, deep in a piney forest somewhere.
RS: Did you still feel that way after tasting it?
AP: Sort of. It had a beautifully subtle texture, which isn’t a bad thing. It’s also beautiful to look at, and they gave it a hidden umami punch — they seem to be putting something in theses dishes, kombu or something, to give them all a uniform kick. I couldn’t help thinking that a few salty lardons of bacon would have enlivened the general aura of this porridge immeasurably.
RS: Then they brought out what is clearly meant to be one of the iconic dishes for this new vegetal age. In a gleaming silver tureen — I think it was a tureen? — we had iced peas bedecked with mint and chive oil and a perfect mound of tonburi, which, as we learned, is an ancient Japanese seed that looks like caviar. Every tonburi seed must be unwrapped individually by hand, don’t forget that! The tonburi seeds had been simmered with seaweed, and then we wrapped the peas and the seeds in decked-out lettuce cups that were actually sorrel leaves, topping everything with dollops of pea-and-miso-lemon “crème fraîche.”
AP: It was all quite impressive, but the little seeds did not taste like caviar.
RS: It was the most traditionally vegan-tasting dish we ate all night. I wasn’t un-happy. Again, it was delicious, it was meticulous, but it had the familiar aura of veganness.
AP: Ahhh the dreaded aura of veganness! I think I actually preferred my little bowl of temple celtuce gruel to this. But it was also an important signifier in the meal to show you where you are, to show you that this is still a caviar-style joint. It’s hard to charge people 700 bucks, minimum, and make it seem like it’s worthwhile, and this dish is one of the ways they do that. On a theatrical level, I think they succeed, although the theater felt a little dated.
RS: It was all very beautiful. I should have Instagrammed it, but I was too proud.
AP: Who doesn’t love faux caviar? Who doesn’t love a polished silver bowl emblazoned with the antique frickin’ pheasants? But it’s all very fin de siècle, very gilded age, and the gilded age is supposed to be over. The dish sort of encapsulates the contradictions that big-money gourmet destinations like this find themselves in: How can we be progressive and “gourmet” at the same time? How do we appeal to the new generation without losing the old one that, by the way, has all the money? It’s the most opulent-looking dish yet, but in many ways, also the most pedestrian. It was a dish that only a real vegan could love, and it seems that you didn’t even love it.
RS: It was vegan-y in a way that I like. Comfortable. Wholesome. But I also feel like I can get that sensation with a tempeh burrito in Berkeley. However, the bread, which came next, was triumphant. Was it bread? They said it was made with sunflower milk and chickpea flour and aquafaba and nutritional yeast and coconut, and laminated with sunflower butter.
AP: So complicated, all these vegan recipes, but it was an almost exact copy of the famous EMP bun and butter, down to the tasteful burlap sack in which the bun was served. You have to give them credit.
RS: But that’s what a place like this can do! That’s why I was so excited about it. Please develop insanely elaborate recipes with 9,000 ingredients over the course of three years — that is perfect.
AP: I’m not going to complain too much about the tricked-up, uncannilly realistic vegan butter that was served on the side, except to say that it was not fucking butter. Like much of the food, it was shot through with that piercing, one-note umami-ness, which substitutes for the great multi-textural rainbow of non-vegan fatty, oil, dairy flavors that Carnivore Nation knows and loves.
RS: Then we had a cucumber-daikon-avocado-honeydew … thing. A salad? A tartare? A cooling melange? Texturally, I didn’t love it. It felt a little slimy.
AP: I’m supposed to say that. You’re supposed to defend dishes like this to death.
RS: What I will defend to death is that kitchens can always do cool stuff with vegetables — kitchens like this are in fact uniquely suited to doing cool stuff with vegetables. There’s so much room. Part of caring about vegan food is holding it to the same standards of goodness as the rest of the non-vegan world. Like these allegedly “wholesome” ingredients can be as exquisite as anything else.
AP: At this point in our dinner, Platt has begun drifting into sullen silence, dreaming of old-fashioned proteins — the kind of crackly, butter- and honey-slicked whole-roasted birds, and beef, and fish for which this restaurant was once so famous.
RS: What about seitan or tofu?
AP: I grew up in Asia. I love tofu. I love seitan. I love them all. I don’t view them as fake meat. I view them as delicious in their own right. They give you protein. They give you a little heft, but you don’t feel like you want to go die after a good tofu dinner. I still eat all this meat, but even I am rebelling. In my old carnivore age, I’m beginning to find the servings in these restaurants — oversized steaks and giant flaps of fish — a little concerning, actually. So bring on the seitan, please, but maybe give me a little bit of animal protein for that fatty, crunchy, back-of-the-mouth goodness.
RS: Our next course allegedly contained tofu, somewhere, although where was not exactly clear to me at the time. What I got was an assortment of squash with sesame in a broth of lemon verbena. Honestly, I kind of forgot about this one until I checked my notes.
AP: I looked at my photo feed, so I can tell you that — like most of these dishes — it was quite lovely to look at, a medley of yellowy, summery squash colors all intricately carved and tweezed and plated. Unfortunately, there also seemed to be a lot of that umami paste, so the essential vegetable-ness, and even tofu-ness of it all eluded me a little bit.
RS: But then came one of my favorites: the world’s fanciest jalapeño popper. I thought it was delightful. It came with a zillion different toppings, to be administered with three tiny spoons and one large set of tweezers. By that point in the progression of courses, we hadn’t had a fun one in a while. The dosa was fun. The popper was fun. It was joyful. There was a sense of humor. The caviar seeds, I felt, were deeply humorless.
AP: The great vegan canon is not known for its sense of humor, but this was one of the finest, most ethereal, most pleasurable jalapeño poppers that I’ve ever tasted.
RS: Then there was The Beet. I’ve noticed that chefs love showpiece beets these days. Here, the beet was dehydrated and smoked and roasted over the course of three days, and then it was baked in a beehive-shape ceramic vessel made by a potter in Staten Island, which was ultimately shattered with a silver hammer by our server, who then used giant shears to bushwhack through a tangled herbal nest to reveal our majestic beet. It looked organ-y. A surprisingly visceral experience.
AP: This seemed to be the faux filet part of dinner, the beginning of the final crescendo, with a lot of theatrics thrown in. But I appreciated all of the theatrics and as usual at EMP, the service was more or less impeccable. I also appreciated that unlike the eighth or ninth course of a regular tasting menu, I wasn’t feeling impossiby bloated, staring at another goddamn “kobe” beef filet through a haze of regret. I was happy to eat my fancy beet, but there was that omnipresent vegan umami thing going on again. Let the beet be the beet!
AP: You’re the person who should be fighting for the essential beet spirit of this beet. Stand up for your people! Fight, vegan, fight!
RS: The first course — that tomato tea — was transcendent in a way that felt like ultraluxury. I have no idea how they did it, which is what I want from a restaurant like this. And, like you say, it’s not even tomato season, but it was the most intense tomato experience I’ve ever had. So they can do it. And they’re opting, for whatever reason, which I’m sure is excruciatingly intentional, not to do it with something like this beet, which felt like a direct response to filet, just like the tonburi felt like a direct response to caviar. There was still a bit of meat-based framework, even if there was no actual meat.
AP: Unlike your average vegan joint in Bushwick, they’re trained to make every bite a heightened experience at restaurants like this. Sometimes, I thought they were a little afraid of letting the vegetables just be vegetables. I can’t believe I just said that.
RS: I just want the ingredients to be trusted. And I thought we got that with the last dish, which was roasted eggplant with more pickled eggplant on top. There was still that same umami flavor, whatever it is, but it worked for me here. An authentically meaty eggplant. I loved it.
AP: I loved the eggplant steaklike creation, too. It was sprinkled with coriander blossoms, I dimly recall, and beautiful to look at. The eggplant had a kind of soft, but meaty texture, and there was a tinge of teriyaki-style flavor.
RS: And at that point, we’d been eating for what, three hours? According to my notes, dessert was served three hours and 22 minutes in. First: a lone palate-cleansing strawberry, stuffed with strawberry “yogurt,” sake lees, and finger limes.
AP: One-thousand stars for that gussied-up, slightly tangy strawberry, which was served with proper haute-gourmet ceremony, atop a little mountain of crushed ice.
RS: That was followed by … I don’t even know. The menu describes it as “Blueberry with Elderflower,” which is an understatement. It was a semi-frozen coconut-blueberry … puck and when you broke into it, there were slow-cooked blueberries and meringue bits and mochi balls and bits of something called “rice cream” — there was a lot going on. It was sweet and salty, and also fizzy?
AP: There was a smooth, comforting, dairylike aspect to it, which may or may not have been coconuts. It was icy and refreshing, but also opulent. A thousand more stars!
RS: They finished strong.
AP: Were you in veggie nirvana?
RS: I don’t think I could be. I’m so deeply uncomfortable with the price. Not that I’m saying it’s too high for the level of skill and number of people that go into it, but the number still makes me itchy.
AP: You seemed a bit uncomfortable in this rarefied, ultra-luxury world in general.
RS: I mean, yes.
AP: Weirdly, I think you might have been more critical of the meal than I was. I left feeling sort of enlivened and refreshed.
RS: I left feeling like I should have Instagrammed those peas when I had the chance.