There's eating food and then there's a dining experience. I've been to EMP twice in the past, once for lunch and once for brunch; both times before the current chef (Daniel Humm) took over. I've had a soft spot for EMP since I first went there.
Tucked away, you almost wouldn't notice it's there.
Welcomed inside, you'll find yourself in a beautiful art deco room. A part of me hesitated to come to EMP for dinner because it is absolutely stunning in daylight. Cue a 5:30pm reservation in summer to get the best of both worlds.
But another dilemma presented itself. After having been to EMP a few times, I wanted to go all out. Coming on the heels of a four-star review in the New York Times, a Michelin star and a James Beard award to Daniel Humm as NYC's best chef, I wanted to see what the full EMP experience was like. But no one wanted to come with me.
Not too surprising at the price point I was looking at, but I was faced with the question of whether I scale back or gamble on being to tolerate my own company for several hours. I gambled. Let me present - the Eleven:
Gougeres to start. According to Wikipedia, "A gougère, in French cuisine, is a savory choux pastry with cheese." According to me, it is THE BEST CHEESE PUFF ON EARTH. I had read about these but had never eaten one and had no clue what people were going on about. It's not flaky like puff pastry, but it's very light - kind of hollow. The outer layer is solid and the inner layer is soft. I tried not to eat all of them because I knew I hadn't actually started into my eleven "real" courses, but I scarfed them down in about 30 seconds. Later I was looking around and...I think this serving is normally for two people. This will come into play later.
Hors d'oeuvres. From left to right: carrot marshmallow; big eye tuna; asparagus and foie gras; morel tart; sweetbreads. I think that's approximately correct. Standout item for me was the sweetbreads. I didn't think I'd like them because sometimes I don't like offal but wow. It was like the best wonton ever (I know that sounds ridiculous but really, if you eat it, it makes sense).
Pretty, yes? But no alcohol for me tonight, I knew how much food was coming. Umm I totally forget what this drink was - it was second in the Soft Cocktails section and may have had a funny name. Some who know me will realize the Herculean effort involved in me staying away from the cocktail list. Difficult though it was, it won't be a problem - I'm already plotting to drop by EMP again at some point.
This was the first "real" course of my Eleven. Sterling royal caviar with buckwheat and quail egg. Mmm this was lovely. Ok, let's count them down...
(Ten) Santa Barbara sea urchin custard with sterling royal caviar, green apple and shellfish ragout. I didn't know sea urchin would be on the menu. I think it's kind of icky. I liked this dish, but I still thought the sea urchin texture was icky. Note, service at EMP is phenomenal. It's hard to express how good this service is; it's sort of like a friendlier, more casual version of a formal high end dinner service. We'll get to more of this later.
(Nine) When I'm at a restaurant that claims to be in the upper-echelons of dining, I expect moments of greatness. I expect to taste something transcendent. I don't expect it from every dish, but once we get into high-end tasting menu territory, I want to be surprised and awed. This... It's just a taboule right? Seems a bit meh? Taboule salad with spring crudites and wild herbs to be exact. But do you see the two tomatoes? They were two of the most amazing things I've ever had in my life.
I noticed the table next to me asked about the tomatoes also, so it wasn't just me. Pretty straightforward, they roasted them a bit to get the skin off and cooked them lightly in olive oil. But dear God, the flavour was unbelievable. I wonder if I could order just a bowl of tomatoes? The dish was very good overall but those tomatoes are like...the best food ever?
(Eight) Organic rabbit rillettes with foie gras, cherries and pistachio bread. There was a lot going on here and it was all good. Oddly, my favourite bit were the two candied pistachios - I think because I didn't realize they were there. Oh and see the round ball in the back? With a little stem? It's a hollow pistachio ball filled with a liquid cherry centre.
Remember how I mentioned amazing service earlier? I had called a few days before my reservation to mention that I didn't want any dishes which had a lot of foie gras in it (more than a few bites is too rich for me) and at the start of my meal my captain for the evening noted my concern and indicated that the night's foie gras dish only used the foie gras as almost a garnish and that the focus was really more on the rabbit - leaving me the choice about whether it would be too rich for me. I like rabbit, so I said bring it on.
You know you're in a classy place when they stamp their logo in the butter and provide you with two types of butter. Goat milk on the left, cow milk on the right. I'm not a huge fan of goat milk, but I was all over that cow milk butter. Umm this butter is really really good. They gave me a little baguette and a little rosemary/olive oil bun and I wasn't going to eat it all because I knew it would make me full...but I needed to use it as a butter delivery service so I wound up eating all of it.
(Seven) This was probably my favourite overall dish of the evening. Atlantic halibut slow cooked with artichoke and tomatoes. There are the world's best tomatoes again! And the artichoke puree was deeeeeeeeeelicious. The only part I liked less were the fava beans, but only because I am somewhat anti-bean in general (texture). Oh and that's a mussel on top (breaded and fried).
This made me laugh. The captain appeared with a silver bowl with grass growing out of it and this lollipop "growing" amidst the grass. Yes, I should have photographed it but I was too busy being puzzled about whether my next dish was something that looked like grass but couldnt really be grass. Anyway, this is my carrot lollipop. I liked it much better than the carrot marshmallow! It was chilled so it was like a frozen lollipop!
(Six) Nova Scotia lobster lasagna with lemon verbena and heirloom squash. I was told that this is a new item for EMP. The giant piece of lobster was delicious! But I was a bit distracted because the sauce was a bit salty for me and it was a bit difficult deciding how to cut things up so that each mouthful would be full of a delicious mix of food (I wish this was as difficult as life gets).
Next drink - forgot what this was called but it was cherry/mint. Tasty! And see those three thin books to the right? Early in the evening, my captain popped by and dropped off three magazines in case I wanted to look at them. Did I ever! EMP produces its own in-house magazines written by staff and sometimes by patrons. There was one about chicken, one about wine and one about cocktails. Very entertaining. Ok, still with me? We have more to eat, we're only halfway through!
(Five) Earth and Ocean - slow cooked poussin with Hawaiian blue prawns and seaweed. Having the EMP magazines was awesome because it taught me what poussin (young chicken) was before this dish appeared. I liked this one a lot! Somewhat Asian-flavoured because of the seaweed and there was nori tucked in with the chicken. I was sad because I only noticed towards the end of this dish that the garnish sprinkle on top was something spicy that made each bite even more awesome.
You're unimpressed right now. I sense it. I've shown you all sorts of pretty, colourful things and now you're bored. BUT WAIT. This is my special dish. We'll call it 4.5 - braised duck leg with foie gras mousse.
When I made the foie gras call, I also asked about the duck. EMP's duck is supposed to be amazing and I LOVE DUCK. It's also not something I get to eat too often, so I checked into the possibility of having the duck with my tasting menu. But the duck is for two. It's an entire duck. I figured I should cut my losses - I didn't want to wind up paying the duck supplement and only eating one bite of the duck, so I decided to pass and just go with a "basic" Eleven (note - my captain went back and forth with the kitchen a few times to suss out my options - again, amazing service).
But suddenly, 4.5 appeared. They had indulged duck-obsessed me by sending over a special duck course. The braised duck is at the bottom of the bowl and it's covered in foie gras mousse. At first it was a bit salty but after mixing everything up it was yum! Mmmm duck. I'd read a lot about EMP's service going in so I knew it was supposed to be stellar but still...wow.
(Four) Colorado lamb, herb roasted with sucrine lettuce, garden peas and Oregon morels. Um so remember the gougeres? And the bread service? This is where I hit the wall. When the lamb dish appeared, I was getting to be so-very-full. Look close enough and you'll notice this dish looks a bit off because I started eating and forgot to take a photo first. Brain cells and motor skills had slowed down significantly.
There was a lamb sausage, the lamb you see in front and under the peas, there is lamb cooked a different way. Ummm I'm not sure how it was cooked but the lamb under the peas was my favourite. It was almost like...pulled lamb inside? But the outside was all ummm seared? I have no idea. Oh and there was a lamb-filled pasta also. I was so full after this. I think this is when I started getting up a lot more and eating much more slowly.
(Three) The cheese course. Ohhh man I was dying by this point. I was actually going to pass on the cheese course but the captain and I both figured "awww just a little bit." It was interesting, they roll up the cheese cart and you can tell them types of cheese you like / dislike if you have no clue which cheese you want. This is when I discovered that the cheese cart selection is created by the Maitre de Fromage. THEY HAVE A MAITRE DE FROMAGE. I feel so uncouth.
Umm the first cheese pairing was my favourite. I forgot that I don't like goat cheese so the first two are goat and the last (right-side) is cow. But the goat cheese paired with "squishy orangey stuff" was my favourite. Even though these were only slivers, I admitted defeat after eating most of it. This also came with some warm bread which I immediately had a bite of until I remembered that continuing on that track would make me pass out on the comfy couch. Decidedly uncouth.
(Two) Almost there! This is "Milk and Honey" - it's sort of like an ice cream ball filled with honey with crunchy meringue bits on top. I successfully ate it all.
(One) In hindsight, I realized that I could have packed up some of this instead of eating it all but that's not nearly as fun. This is bittersweet chocolate cremeux with black sesame, carmaelized banana and yuzu. I love yuzu! This was good but I only ate 3/4 of it because I didn't want my stomach to explode (very uncouth). Of course, although this is the last of the Eleven, you didn't think we were done yet, did you?
Macaroons. I don't remember what these were because by this time I had eaten so much I couldn't hear. There were actually more choices than this, I think maybe eight types in total? I pointed at the pink one (strawberry basil?) and asked for chocolate ones (the next two) and was also served peanut butter and jelly and the last white one which was the chef's favourite. I managed to eat the PB&J macaroon but boxed up the rest.
But wait! Although we're done with the evening's dining, the fun continues...
This is what I left the restaurant with. And no, I didn't steal any of it, they gave it to me! We have the three magazines, a folder with a copy of my menu in it (although I think a few of the dishes aren't quite right, I adjusted some descriptions based on the online menu), my box of macaroons, a box of fruit jellies and a bottle of olive oil.
Final verdict? So. very. awesome.