If you follow restaurant news and reviews, you’re probably aware that since Daniel Humm took the helm at Eleven Madison Park, it has become regarded as one of New York (and the world’s) top restaurants. And I am certainly not here to dispute that. So in my mind, the only question that remains to be answered is this: “Is Eleven Madison Park better than Per Se?” The NY Times says No. NY Magazine says says yes. Here’s what I say:
Ambiance: These are probably the two most impressive restaurant spaces in New York. EMP offers soaring ceilings and beautiful flower arrangements that evoke back a gilded era dining hall. Per Se on the other hand gives you the sense that you’ve entrered the grand living room of a Park Avenue Apartment, complete with fireplace and couch-like seating. While choosing between those two settings is really a matter of personal preference, I think most will admit portrait windows overlooking Central Park give Per Se the edge.
Winner: Per Se
Service: At neither restaurant will your glass sit empty or your server fail to answer a question to your satisfaction. These are again probably the two best waitstaffs I’ve had in New York and both were attentive and knowledgeable while managing to avoid the air of pretension found at many other top restaurants. While it may be unfair to judge based on a single trip, our server at Per Se was just a little more playful and at ease.
Winner: Per Se
Menu Format: Per Se offers only a chef’s tasting menu, with a handful of decisions for the diner. EMP offers that as well as a “four-course” menu where you choose among four core ingredients per course. The dishes are then prepared around that ingredient according to your preferences. You also receive about 8 amuse bouches and bonus desserts in case you were worried about leaving hungry. It’s hard to argue with having more choices and customization.
Price: Per Se’s Chef’s Tasting Menu will run you $295, inclusive of service. EMPs tasting menu is $195 ($235 with a 20% tip) and the four course will set you back a paltry $125 ($150 with tip).
Food: Each meal consists of over a dozen dishes and while not every one is equal, both had their share of very good, great and amazing. Additionally, everything was creative and excellently prepared. I’m not going to pretend I can pick an overall winner here.
Final Verdict: If you’re talking about the overall dining experience and ignoring cost, I give Per Se the slight edge for telepathic service and cozier space. However, it also feels like more of an extravagance, and charges you accordingly. EMP serves a more reasonable amount of food in their “four” course menu which makes it a place I feel you can return to more frequently. And if you’re a foodie basing your decision primarily on the food aspect, I think you’ll find spending the same amount for two meals at EMP as one at Per Se is the way to go. Of course, I highly recommend you try both of them at least once.
Now onto the food! Below is a brief recap of what came out of the kitchen at Eleven Madison and my ratings. Since we were never given a full menu, the dish descriptions are based on my memory and photos and may be incomplete.
Gougeres *** Fluffy and cheesy. This is also a specialty at Per Se, and while these are outstanding, Keller’s were a little airier.
The first two amuses were a pair of seafood ceviches: scallops*** and fluke***. Both were incredibly fresh flavorful.
Next came a quail egg ** and bacon with apple tea***. Apple and tea is a great combo, I think I’ll be drinking it more, although I doubt it will be nearly this good. The quail egg & bacon was rich and delightful, if not the restaurants most original dish.
The final amuses were a chickpea fritter** and greek yogurt popsicle*. I found the last one a little strange and bitter but Katherine loved it.
After all that we finally started with the actual “four courses.” We each ordered different things, so there are a total of 7 (the duck is for 2):
Foie Gras Creamy foie gras with black truffles ****. It’s exactly as decadent and amazing as it sounds.
Octopus w/ chorizo & lemon ***. Without mentioning it, it’s almost as if they knew about Katherine’s chorizo obsession. The octopus was also perfectly cooked and worked nicely with the smokey chorizo.
Sunchokes 3 ways (pickled, tempura and I forget the third )** An interesting mix of flavors and textures. Enjoyable but not mind blowing.
Lobster w/ Burnt Leeks *** The tanginess of the leek really comes through and I really enjoyed it. However, some may find it a little overpowering.
Duck w/ honey lavender **** The standout in a lineup of all-stars. This dish really blew us away. It’s an EMP signature dish for 2 and is carver tableside. The skin is sweet, tangy, salty, crispy and downright awesome. The meat inside is incredibly juicy and tender. I almost wanted to quit after this it was so amazing. But fortunatley I didn’t.
“Egg Cream” ** Ironically this contains no egg or cream, but orange syrup, milk, and seltzer water. You’d never guess it from drinking it though. It tastes like a light egg cream and I could probably drink these for dessert every night.
Strawberry Short Cake ** Another delicious and playful EMP take on a New York classic.
White and chocolate mignardise enhanced with white truffle oil **** and dark chocolate mignardise enhanced with black truffle shavings ** As if we needed more, this final offering was presented to us with a bottle of cognac to sip on. The white chocolate and white truffles was the perfect mix of sweet and salty. The dark was also very good, but couldn’t compare.