Criticism — From the September 2015 issue

A Goose in a Dress

In which our intrepid restaurant critic submits to the dreams and excesses of New York’s most fashionable eateries

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Eleven Madison Park is on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Life North Building. This skyscraper was designed to be a hundred stories high; then the 1929 Wall Street crash, like the finger of God, accurate and pitiless, decapitated it at the thirty-second floor. This is a grand restaurant built by insurers, seemingly intended to entertain something inhumanly large — a ship, for instance. If a ship could walk and eat and hold a conversation, it would come here. Freud’s ghost is everywhere in this bright void where light flies through the windows in great shafts, bouncing against gold and brown, and diners float like tiny stick men. It is less horrifying than Through Itself, though some of the diners — birthday parties and lovers? — are giggling at their courage in attempting a tasting menu and all the whimsy it requires.

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. Source photograph by Michael Talalaev

Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare. Source photograph by Michael Talalaev

This restaurant “focuses on the extraordinary agricultural bounty of New York and on the centuries-old culinary traditions that have taken root here.” The chef is Daniel Humm. His food is brought on a fantastical array of china plates and silverware in fabulous permutations. Pretzels on silver hooks? Ornamental charcoal? Dry ice? Internal organs? Domes?

It is ragingly tasteless. One tiny dish of salmon, black rye, and pickled cucumber is, we are told, “inspired by immigrants.” Were they very tiny immigrants? Our main waiter — an efficient woman with a calmly quizzical face, who manages the spiel without once acknowledging its absurdity — repeats it with no intonation but with a twist: “based on the immigrant experience.” Only a person with limited access to immigrants would design a paean to their native cuisine — in this case, Ashkenazi Jewish — within a $640.02 meal (service included) and expect anything other than appalled laughter, or a burp of shame. This is the anti-intellectualism — and pretension — of this particular age of excess.

The secondary waiter is simply a human trolley with a rectangular face and obedient eyebrows; he holds the things for the first waiter to place on the table and rushes away on his feet/wheels.

The Hudson Valley Foie Gras (“Seared with Brussels Sprouts and Smoked Eel”) is divine; the Widow’s Hole Oysters (“Hot and Cold with Apple and Black Chestnuts”) are excellent if weirdly capitalized; but the remarkable thing is the turnip course. A turnip, as you know, should be allowed to be a turnip; that is for the best. A turnip is a humble root vegetable, and should not be expected to close a Broadway musical, solve a financial crisis, or achieve self-consciousness through the application of technology. But here Turnip — with Variations in its Own Broth (in honor of Johann Sebastian Bach?) — is presented without even a carrot for company. The chef — was it actually Humm? — wanted to save the turnip from itself and remake it as something wonderful, because then — then! — he could have proved something to himself. What that is, we will never know; some people can speak only in vegetable. The chef should not have bothered. It is entirely revolting, and the most grievous result of the cult of chef I have yet witnessed. Could no one have told him, “Don’t bother with the turnip course, you’re wasting your time, it’s a turnip”? Bah! Surrounded by acolytes — by enablers — the chef dreams his turnipy dreams and does things to turnips that should not be done to any root vegetable.

Presently, as if we were not amazed enough by the transubstantiation of the turnip, they bring a golden, inflated pig’s bladder in a dish, as a cat might bring in a dead bird — look, a bladder, see how much urine a pig can store in itself! It is an inedible friend to the celery root; it exists to make celery root seem more interesting than it really is. In this, it succeeds. My companion looks as if she wants to hide under the table until the bladder is removed by human trolley. The Finger Lakes Duck (“Dry-Aged with Pear, Mushroom, and Duck Jus”) is better, even if it has lavender flying out of its bum like a fragrant mauve comet and is now a duck/garden on a plate because a duck by itself — well, that is not good enough. These men didn’t make a billion dollars to eat duck the way other people do.

It is not, to me, food, because it owes more to obsession than to love. It is not, psychologically, nourishing. It is weaponized food, food tortured and contorted beyond what is reasonable; food taken to its illogical conclusion; food not to feed yourself but to thwart other people.

We are, for some reason, invited into the kitchen. It is immensely clean, large, and busy, and motivational words line a wall: cool; endless reinvention; inspired; forward moving; fresh; collaborative; spontaneous; vibrant; adventurous; light; innovative. Similar words were written on the walls of the McDonald’s in Olympic Park in London in 2012, but I do not mention this. We stand at a tiny station and watch a woman prepare egg creams. This soothes me — ah, sugar! — and then we return to our table for dessert, which is Maple Bourbon Barrel Aged with Milk and Shaved Ice. It is sugared snow in Manhattan in springtime; it is snow that you eat when you have lost your innocence; it is — what else? — Charles Foster Kane’s snow!

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is the restaurant critic for The Spectator.

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