Funny that New York City is now “abroad”. I grew up 20 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel and had more fun that any human being should when I lived here in the 80’s. Last week, I spent four days tripping down memory lane as I revisited this city that I have always loved. After being away for 25 years, boy was I surprised by what has changed and by what hasn’t.
This time I walked the streets with little bud earplugs attached to my feather light iPhone. Back in the day, my pockets bulged with my pound weighing Walkman, extra AA batteries and the several cassettes I always carried while huge padded headphones kept my ears sweating. I wandered past several old haunts. Ford Model Agency, my old employer, is no longer at the brownstone on 59th St.. My old apartment is still on 19th street. And it is still a dump. Though the methadone clinic down the block is gone.
Soho has changed. There is now a Chanel Store! And Tiffany’s. And Prada. And Aritzia, and every other fancy store you can think of. There are posh restaurants, luxury hotels and tons of fat white tourists. Apartments cost a fortune. I remember it as edgy, trendy and a little bit rough. I should have invested in real estate. I paid more for one night at the lovely Soho Grand Hotel than I paid per month for rent back in 1986.
Socially I went back in time too. I had drinks with my best friend from high school, John Baxley (last seen 1986). He hasn’t changed. I went to a lecture of the Academy of American Poets with my mother’s dear friend. She hasn’t changed.
I went out on the town with one of my old models, Nina Reeves (last seen 1987). She hasn’t changed. And I had dinner with a buddy from university, Ken O’Brien (last seen 2010). He hasn’t changed. Very kindly, they all said I haven’t changed either. Maybe we just need glasses.
I remember restaurants being good, but now they are great. Or at least my meal at Eleven Madison Park was great. In fact it was one of the best meals I have ever had.
You are only given one menu option, in our case duck or beef, before you begin your 16-course meal. Everything else is a surprise. (Though they do ask about allergies and dislikes)
Eleven Madison changed to the no menu format about 18 months ago because it enabled them to meet their goal of serving New York inspired and sourced food. One of our courses was an incredibly funky take on Manhattan clam chowder… 3 different clams cooked three different ways presented on their shells served with a cup of broth made in a teapot table side. Another course was inspired by an old-fashioned Brooklyn egg cream malt, which we learned had never been made with either eggs or cream. Our cheese course arrived with beer in a picnic basket. It was all so much fun.
Every course was equally clever; the ingredients were of the highest quality and the execution faultless.
All this perfection does come at a cost. $195! Before tip, taxes and drinks. I was lucky enough to be the guest of my wonderful friends Jinny and Wilson Lam (last seen summer 2011, haven’t changed at all). But I can’t wait to save up and go again. This is not just a meal but also an experience. The service and food are charming and playful. The whole evening is theatrical and a delight. I was in heaven.
And the best was yet to come… As we finished our 16th course, maître d’ Zach Fischer asked us if we would like to come into the kitchen for a special surprise and a tour. We shouted “yes!”
Entering hallowed ground, we stood behind a counter watching the staff cook meals for the customers still in the dining room while a wonderful young chef created a prohibition era inspired, violet infused, liquid nitrogen frozen gin cocktail. As we sipped this decadent concoction, James Kent, the chef de Cuisine, came over to chat with us. I was star struck!
It is no surprise that Eleven Madison Park has 3 Michelin stars, Wine Spectator’s Grand Award, Triple A’s Five Diamond distinction and was ranked 5th best restaurant in the world in the 2013 S Pellegrino’s list. They deserve every one of these accolades.
I hope they never change.