Monday, July 5, 2010

Daniel Humm Has a Thing for Carrots

I had visited Eleven Mad. aeons ago. I think it was probably one of the first "fancy" restaurants I ever occasioned here in New York, and the impression that remained with me even years later was renewed with my most recent visit. The lofty ceilings and airy space had changed little. They picked up a leaf motif, showcasing some of Madison Park's most prominent tree species, but little else was drastically altered. (They will be closed for a period late summer to make some minor renovations, however.) At any rate, as good as I remember it being then, it was as good.. no, better... this time. I can say this pretty definitively, because I have become vastly more critical, the bar is so much higher, than it was so many years ago. And Mr. Humm (right) leapt over it effortlessly.

We started strong. A small Wheat-thin-esque cracker held a silky puree of fois gras napped with an aspic of pomegranate: salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth. Even more divine was the carrot marshmallow (carrot marshmallow?) that was bursting of earthy carrotness and only a mild sweetness and pleasant saltiness. Quite a marshmallow. Along for the ride came flawless, pungent cheddar gougeres. We were off to an impeccable start.
A creamy corn soup, while technically early for local corn, was deliciously fresh (though not pungently corny) , adorned simply with a paper thin slice of mild breakfast radish, a sprig of purslane and a shave of white summer truffle. Perhaps there was a hint of white truffle in the soup as well, or even huitlacoche, but the flavor whistled of early summer. The spring vegetable composition was in keeping with that sentiment, a brilliant array of seasonal leaves, herbs, vegetables and flowers that could well have been framed. A meaty seared scallop nestled beneath shaved strips of rhubarb so thin they looked gelatinous, but crisp and tart and balanced by robust roasted strawberries. These flavors, however, remained a little incohesive, but that is really nit-picking. It was hard to find fault with anything here, and the dishes are so gorgeous here there was a serious battle to snap a photo before destroying the masterpieces with each utensil. Each dish was a little discovery, delicious little surprises tucked into masterful preparations. A perfect example of this was another carrot opus- this time as lollipops: rich carrot pureed with cocoa butter and flecked with crunchy roasted kernels of kasha and spiced with my new favorite seasoning, vadouvan, a French curry blend that is the Queen of All Curries. The pop was meltingly smooth, unctuous with the cocoa butter but tempered by the earthiness of the carrot and kasha, and punched with the umami-rich curry... it all just made you sad to swallow. But then, simply ecstatic that you did.
A light bouillabaisse featured black bass in a heady shellfish stock floating with tiny clams, mussels and cannellini, drizzled over with vibrant chorizo oil. This partnered well with the juicy pork belly and spaetzle with hen-of -the-woods, flecked with nutty whole mustard seeds. Scottish salmon found a classic pairing with Oregon morels, peas and pearl onions, most of which manifested itself in vibrant purees cushioning the fish. The piece de resistance of the main courses had to be the lobster lasagna: big, oceany, meaty chunks of lobster loosely wrapped in impossibly thin sheets of pasta, that held within them even more impossibly thin fronds of verbena, like herb-stained glass windows.

Perhaps I should have just abstained from penning a review at all here; the food is so visually stunning that it could speak for itself. But since this isn't always case, that the gorgeous dishes hold up to their beauty, I need to reiterate that here, they do.
Dessert, too, came in like an early June Valentine: a flirtatious riff on red velvet cake, with a rich cream cheese ice cream hidden by reddened cocoa flakes, red fruit gelato perched atop dehydrated strawberry nuggets, and darling kiss-shaped strawberry meringues, and a small brick of dense, moist cake, all beckoning to inspire a little romance.

As if I hadn't already fallen in love with the place.

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