Friday, August 29, 2014

NYC Day #1 - Katsu-Hama/Eleven Madison Park

Mrs. Hackknife recently had some work obligations in New York City (not unusual when your employer has the words "New York" in its name) and invited me to spend the weekend with her up there. As most of you probably know, whether you're talking haute or lowbrow, NYC is essentially the epicenter of gastronomy in our fair country, so I jumped at the chance to design a multi-day feasting itinerary for our visit (sure, we did some touristy stuff like visit the Empire State Building and see a play, but that's not what you're here to read about, is it?). Grandma was kind enough to travel from Chicago to Florida so that we could explore the city sans progeny; as a result, I left Tampa solo on a Friday morning Newark-bound (cheaper flight) with an empty belly and a restaurant cheat sheet in my pocket.

I stumbled across a shuttle bus that was able to drop me at the Port Authority bus terminal in midtown Manhattan, mere walking distance to our hotel on 38th Street. From there, Mrs. Hackknife and I met up for lunch with a NYC-based high school friend who writes for a major newspaper. The venue I chose for our first in-town meal was Katsu-Hama (11 E. 47th Street), a casual Japanese joint specializing in the fried pork cutlets known as tonkatsu (Eater included Katsu-Hama among its 38 essential NYC restaurants - if you're interested, you can see a video that former Eater food critic Robert Sietsma made there last year). Mrs. H and I had tonkatsu a couple of times when we visited Japan; however, it's a little hard to find in the States (this version bears only a vague resemblance to the giant fried pork tenderloins of Indiana and Iowa). After about a 20-minute wait for a table, we settled in and all ordered the $12 lunch special, consisting of miso soup, a bowl of pickled veggies, ample mound of shredded cabbage, steamed rice, and the fried cutlet perched atop a little metal grate (presumably to drain off any drippings). Condiments included a carafe of housemade tonkatsu sauce (like gravy, only sweeter), spicy mustard, and what appeared to be sesame seeds, with a wooden mortar for grinding (we never really figured it out for sure, but it seems the ground-up sesame seeds were supposed to go with the tonkatsu sauce). Although not quite the equal of the kind we enjoyed in Tokyo, Katsu-Hama's pork was crunchy, flavorful, and not the least bit greasy, with all other meal components harmoniously blending together around the cutlet.

It wasn't easy, but I managed to avoid all afternoon snacking (I don't count the Dogfish Head Festina Peche I drank at Eataly around 5 o'clock) in anticipation of dinner at Eleven Madison Park (11 Madison Avenue), arguably the best restaurant in the country at the moment and not an easy reservation (fortunately, our good friends Adam and Ellen agreed to join us - I discovered that getting a 4-top at EMP is less challenging than accommodating a party of 2, and there were happy to be used as pawns in securing our table). Falling somewhere between the all-encompassing whimsy experience of Alinea and the austere modern dining of Per Se, Chef Daniel Humm and his crack crew at EMP apply cutting-edge technique to top-notch ingredients, crafting a spectacular tasting menu out of many intricate components.

Massive windows overlooking Madison Square Park let daylight into the art-deco dining room, which is Gatsbyesque in its scale and grandeur.  A leaf motif (signifying the old trees in the park) can be found throughout the premises and extends to the menu, as we were each asked to punch out the paper leaf cutting associated with our preferred selection of 4 flavor options at the beginning of the meal.

Overall, the evening's menu consisted of 14 courses and we opted to invoke the "Go Big or Go Home" rule, choosing the premium wine pairing to accompany the dishes (a decision that, when reviewing the final bill later, nearly made my eyes bleed). We began with a crisp flute of Krug Grande Cuvee Champagne to go with our amuse bouche, a play on the traditional sweet NYC black and white cookie (more on that in the NYC Day #4 posting), in this case made savory with cheddar cheese and apple.

The mother-of-pearl spoon on the side went with the second course, a vivid yellow corn custard presented two ways: encircled by rare tuna loin at the business end of a bone "lollipop" (sadly, the bone wasn't edible) and artfully dolloped with black caviar, creme fraiche, and chives.

One last bite with the champagne followed, a shaved strip of fresh cucumber marinated with lemon juice and placed atop a bed of delicate melon pearls (if I didn't know any better, I'd say this was intended to resemble a single piece of ravioli).

In keeping with the summer theme of light, vegetable-based cuisine, the next course was a study in tomato, specifically a clear (almost consomme) warm tea of lemon thyme and tomato essence, plus a wonderfully bright heirloom tomato salad with strawberries, basil, and olive oil dressing. These were paired with an amazingly crisp Sancerre (2013 Les Monts Damnes) from Claude et Florence Thomas-Labaille in the French Loire Valley.

One of three "picnic"-themed courses then arrived at the table, an upscale take on the ubiquitous pastrami on rye bread sandwich. EMP prepares relatively thick slices of unctuous, fatty pastrami (seared rare) and requests diners to place them atop a small round of rye that's been adorned with red, green, and yellow mustard droplets (similar in appearance to the tomato salad) and garnished with curly pickled pepper/cucumber. This delightful creation was washed down with homemade cherry soda (the first manifestation of my flavor choice at the start of the meal) and a funky artisanal cider (a 2013 Appinette made from Traminette grapes and New York apples) from Aaron Burr Cider in upstate New York.

At this point, we reached the short interlude between courses when our servers brought over some flaky brioches with not one, but two, types of butter: the locally-made, small creamery variety and the same, just amped up with beef fat.  Yes, you heard that correctly, beef fat (no word on if this is where the grease from cooking the pastrami ended up).  If you thought that there was no possible way to improve on the flavor of butter, you'd actually be wrong.

While still basking in the warm glow of beef-and-butter-fatty-goodness, our next wine appeared in the form of a lovely Sauternes (2008 Chateau Rieussec Premier Cru Classe).  I initially panicked since sweet wines usually indicate the conclusion of a meal; however, I needn't have worried - it only prefaced the arrival of a decadent foie gras torchon marinated with peaches, ginger, and bitter almond (cardiologists, please avert your eyes).

Apparently, the chefs are aware that fish is generally healthier for you than beef, dairy, and engorged goose liver, so the second picnic course featured EMP's version of a classic Long Island seafood boil to help cleanse the body of the prior excesses (of course, I believe the Sauternes might also have some antiseptic qualities). Although modest in size, the boil included a few chunks of lobster, head-on shrimp, clams, and assorted vegetables such as potatoes and fennel. Just in case we were suffering from a bit of animal fat withdrawal, a garnish puree of white bean and bacon bits was also provided. The wine for this course was a pink 2013 Domaine de la Tour Du Bon Rose from the Bandol appellation of Provence.

The subsequent dish was unusual and inventive, a disk of braised sunflower (which somehow tasted almost meaty) with sunchokes and sunflower seeds. It might not have been recognizable as the sunflowers that you'd normally see in an August meadow (other than a couple of petals, which were edible), but the prepared incarnation was certainly delicious and paired very well with a 1999 Domaine aux Moines (their Roche aux Moines) wine made entirely from Chenin Blanc grapes grown in Savennieres (Loire Valley).

We had now reached the point in the meal where our servers brought over our final protein course, a preparation of beef that had been dry aged for 140 (!) days. I was vaguely aware that some fine dining establishments these days are offering steaks that had been slowly rotting in a meat locker for a month or even two, but this sounded like some kind of junior high science project gone horribly awry. Still, other than a slightly discolored exterior (no doubt filled with all kinds of interesting microflora), the side of beef shown to us as a visual aid appeared relatively normal, if not somewhat appetizing.

The aged meat was prepared for us two different ways: single bite small marinated cubes on a puffy (rice?) cracker and grilled with eggplant, amaranth grains, and caramelized shallot. It's said that extreme-aged beef takes on tangy, mineraly, blue cheese-like flavors and I picked up all of those as I slowly chewed and swallowed (and, dare say, even enjoyed), trying not to contemplate the potential bacteria timebomb being unleashed in my gut. I'm pretty sure the 2002 Lopez de Heredia Vina Tondonia Reserve red wine from Rioja (Spain) helped keep the nasty guys in check down there.

Our last picnic course arrived at the table in an actual picnic basket, warm homemade pretzel sticks with a raspberry mustard, piquant green tomato, and a soft farmer's cheese (which I found to be a little bland, truth be told), paired with a Picnic Basket Pale Ale brewed exclusively for EMP by Ithaca Brewing Company.

The whey from the cheesemaking process was incorporated into the first dessert we received; that is, a slightly-sweet whey sorbet with crunchy cherry crisps (there's that flavor again), some cherry syrup, and dollops of caramelized milk. The wine selection here was a fantastic and rare dessert wine made from the red Zweigelt grape, a 2012 Weinlaubenhof Kracher Beerenauslese from the Burgenland in Austria.

The next dessert course featured a dose of whimsy in the form of a tiny kettle grill brought to the table in order to roast 4 lobes of fresh apricot.

Generally not my favorite of the stone fruits, the lightly-charred apricot really shined when accompanied by lemon thyme ice cream, honey, and some thin (gingerbread?) cookies. We received yet another sweet wine here, a 2007 Kiralyudvar Cuvee Ilona from the Tokaji region of Hungary, an area very well known for its dessert wines.

At this point, we were relieved to be getting the last bites of the evening (I was quickly approaching my consumption limits on both food and drink), a mini-metal coat rack on which were hanging pretzels dipped in dark chocolate and sea salt, along with a small white box containing a more-traditional sweet black and white cookie (although with caramel) and, oh yes, a clear green apple brandy made especially for EMP (they seem to have a lot of friends) by St. George Spirits in California. I'm glad we only received a small pour of the brandy as it was, um, quite potent (any surviving bad beef bugs were clearly gone now).

If by some chance we sobered up later and found ourselves seeking a midnight snack, the restaurant staff sent us home with two Mason jars filled with tasty housemade granola, the perfect nosh for when you're lounging around a NYC hotel room the next morning, skipping the $16 room service breakfast because you're afraid you'll never be able to afford another meal out again.

As of this writing, some of the granola is still hanging out in the Canteen, gradually being savored from time to time...

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