When asked about their aspirations, the bright eyed, sharp knived contestants of the TV cookery challenge show Masterchef will more often than not reply, ‘to earn a Michelin star’. Rarely do they express the immediate desire to cook delicious food, food that will make their diners smile. This comes as somewhat of an afterthought. The recognition, prestige and potential stardom of becoming a Michelin starred chef is, primarily, what drives them forward.
Contemporary epicureans also tend to wear their Michelin stars like military decorations. I know of one particular chap who summarises his year of fine dining by totting up the total stars awarded to the restaurants which he has visited. Meanwhile, food critics such as Jay Rayner, blast the Michelin Guide for being outmoded and undemocratic.
One of the key advantages of writing a monograph about walking New York is the privilege of returning to the city on a regular basis. On each visit, I make it my duty to walk the entire length of Manhattan Island, from Battery Park to the Harlem River and marvel at how rapidly the city has changed. These walks are always fueled by street food.
Knowing New York’s street food is knowing gentrification: the immeasurable disappointment of returning to a specific street corner to find that the old mom and pop bakery selling the city’s best bialys has been replaced by a 7-Eleven or a Duane Reade. Yet, wandering with a knish, pretzel or a hotdog in hand remains one of life’s simple pleasures.
A number of my walks passed by the soaring art deco windows of Eleven Madison Park, currently rated by Tripadvisor as the best in New York. The restaurant never failed to pique my curiosity. I had read about its minimalist gridded concept menu, its endless reservation waiting list and its purportedly sublime French-American fare.
On one occasion, I remember sitting in the sunshine in Madison Square Park eating a Pastrami Russ which I’d picked up earlier from Russ and Daughters. As I bit into the cured salmon and sauerkraut bialy, I began to imagine the various diners having lunch behind the closed doors of Eleven Madison Park: the formality of three Michelin starred dining versus the sublime informality of eating a good sandwich on a park bench with a stranger.
The three Michelin starred restaurant has a indisputable esoteric lure, almost as if the act of alchemy itself were being practiced on location for the entertainment of a select few. There is a communality about street food. You can buy it regardless of whether you are wearing a Zegna fatte a mano suit, or a bright yellow chicken costume. But, for the ‘exquisite’ pleasure of formal dining a certain uniform is required.
I once remember receiving a phone call to confirm my reservation at Le Bernardin, another of New York’s three Michelin starred restaurants. At the end of the conversation the maître d’ warned me in a rather clipped manner that guests who were not wearing a jacket would be turned away. As a schoolboy I repeatedly forgot my PE kit and was scolded for it. Nowadays, I like to think that I have developed the skill to match the appropriate attire to the appropriate venue without being reminded. I later called by the restaurant and cancelled my reservation.
It is this unnecessary starch which deters many diners from venturing into Michelin starred restaurants. They imagine the judgmental glances, the simmering snobbery. And yet, thankfully, the sneering waiter of the 80s comedy sketch is somewhat of a rarity in contemporary upscale dining.
When I next found myself walking on 23rd Street I decided to call into Eleven Madison Park on the off chance that they had experienced a last minute lunch cancellation. I was in luck, and was shown to a table which looked out over the park towards the elegant limestone and terracotta shard of the Flatiron Building. The airy, high ceilinged, art deco dining room was decorated with blossoming cherry branches. A scattering of Patrick Bateman doppelgangers compared business cards in shades of eggshell and bone.
Almost immediately, a cardboard carton tied with blue and white string arrived at the table. Inside, an unexpected nod to New York street food: a black and white cookie. However, rather than being half vanilla, half chocolate, this particular cookie was flavored with parmesan and black truffle. Tasty, although a little heavy on the truffle.
My server had informed me that my menu card was hidden beneath my precisely folded napkin. Sixteen basic ingredients were listed in a grid, of which I had to choose four: cauliflower, hamachi (a bony fish also referred to as the Japanese amberjack), octopus, foie gras, sunchoke, plantain, cobia (also known as black salmon), lobster, cabbage, chicken, rabbit, beef, vacherin (a cow’s milk cheese), milk, pear and chocolate.
After making my selection, a series of amuse-bouche arrived. First, an apple and thyme tea, followed by miniature blinis with fried quail’s egg, pancetta shavings and chives, and finally sturgeon sabayon served in an eggshell. They were each miniature works or art: precise, delicate and a delicious surprise to the palate.
Next came the sunchoke which had been prepared in a number of ways: pureed, sashimied, roasted. Each were earthy and magical. Then the lobster, cooked to perfection and presented with deep fried leek roots which were as nutty and morish as cashews.
Formality breeds criticism — the rabbit was slightly undercooked to the point of being wet. A thumbs down. The milk desert too was unremarkable, and looked as though it had been dropped from the very top of the Eleven Madison skyscraper and caught by a waiter standing patiently with a plate on the sidewalk below.
An interesting interlude was the egg cream soda, served as a palate cleanser. Again a nod to old New York, this was a fountain drink invented on the Lower East Side in the late 1800s. Our server used antique soda fountains to prepare the malty flavoured concoction.
The meal came full circle with the arrival of another black and white cookie, which was this time chocolate and vanilla flavoured.
As I paid the bill and stepped out into the lengthening shadows of Madison Park, I remembered sitting on a park bench outside the restaurant eating a Pastrami Russ. Both experiences were culinary treats in their own particular way. But which was more enjoyable?
When dining at a three Michelin starred restaurant we expect theatre. In a room of twinkling candles, delicately scented blossoms, origamied napkins, we wait with eager anticipation as the curtain is hoisted and a dedicated team of chefs and servers lead us through a series of skillfully crafted acts.
Chef Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park is as much about performance as it is about food. Each dish is an intriguing theatrical flourish which demands a certain degree of culinary exegesis.
And then there is the simple salmon bialy eaten in the sunshine. When I cast my mind back over the great things that I have eaten, I know that I will not crave any of the spectacular dishes that I ate at Eleven Madison Park. They will be remembered, but never desired.
I will remember pizza al taglio bought from a hole in the wall takeaway called Zi Fenizia in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto. I will always remember the tacos sold by a specific stand in the seamy backstreets of Tijuana. And yes, I will always remember and crave that salmon bialy.
It is an odd phenomenon, but the food that we dream about is more often than not the cheapest and the simplest. Three Michelin star dining is a wonderful experience, but it is not something which most of us hanker for everyday. When we are overcoming illness and recovering our appetite we long for our mother’s vegetable broth, or a simple pasta dish. I defy anyone to yearn for lobster with deep fried leek roots, delicious as they are.
So, when I hear the aspiring Masterchef contestants obsessing over Michelin stars, I wince. A desire to cook good food should come first. Always. Accolades, presentation, formality and theatre? They can all come later.
For me, good food makes a diner smile, remember, and sometime later, crave its taste. And with a little exploration, good food can be found across the spectrum: in the grandest restaurant on Madison Park but also out there on the street.