Aromatic crocks of duck broth warmed our insides, arriving with croissant rolls, duck fat butter, and sea salt for dipping. Then, a vibrant salad of kabocha squash, served alongside pear, chestnut, and radicchio for a sampling of fall’s rainbow produce. If duck fat butter was not enough foreshadowing of the decadence to come, Hudson Valley foie gras made it clear. Served atop velvety blood sausage with a devilish cranberry blood sauce, the simply seared foie shined.
Long Island seafood stole the spotlight in a dim-sum-style stack, deconstructed tableside into four separate raw bar tapas: a Widow’s Hole oyster with yogurt and lemon; diced scallop with pistachio in a yuzu vinaigrette; marinated blue crab with pickled radish; and vichyssoise with caviar, smoked blue fish, and quail egg. We debated our individual favorites, but sampling the briny, fresh flavors together propelled the success of the course as a whole.
If not apparent by the food imagery alone, a key aspect of the meal, and the service of this meal, was the constant interaction with food and staff. We not only selected our seasonal ingredient, but also how our foie would be prepared and our final protein for the evening, venison or duck. They presented this duck whole for our viewing pleasure, as well as rare white mushrooms that looked like hamsters, later used for a mushroom broth. They let us touch the hamster mushrooms and laughed along with our musings. The staff was more than approachable; they were genuine. I ordered a Manhattan from the famed Manhattan cart, offering themed Manhattans based on the boroughs, and we engaged in a fifteen-minute college football debate with the bartender as he tippled one wonderful cocktail. Exquisite food need not be served at arm’s length; at least not to diners who look to laugh and learn from the experience.
We received the Finger Lakes duck twice; first on a delectable charcuterie plate with sausages and liver, and then on a grander scale, dry aged with a crisp skin rubbed in cardamom and other fall spices.
We chatted about our meal, other new favorites around town and out of town. I let Doug do most of the talking while I just watched, lost in the awe of sheer talent surrounding us. The back of house ran like a well-oiled locomotive, propelling its diners through tastes of the city. A pastry chef prepared for us a frozen concoction of a cocktail, a ghoulish and ideal nightcap for his Halloween birthday. That was the essence of Eleven Madison: food prepared with seriousness, but not taken too seriously.