For several years, 30-year-old Will Guidara and 33-year-old Daniel Humm, the manager and chef, respectively, of New York City's Eleven Madison Park, could watch a steady stream of diners enjoying a formal menu in a soaring, classically metropolitan dining room and rest assured that their stewardship had maintained, if not improved, the establishment's vaunted reputation. In 2009, in fact, the venerable Eleven Madison Park became one of just seven restaurants in the city to be awarded four stars by the New York Times.
And then Guidara and Humm changed almost everything. An annex dining space was closed to make way for an expanded kitchen, and the signs of "transaction," as Guidara calls them the computer screens, the lectern where reservation books often sit, the staging areas where plates and silverware were sorted were hidden behind closed doors. Servers were reclad in stylish charcoal-colored uniforms.
The biggest overhaul, though, was the menu, which was refashioned into four- and five-course tasting options (at $125 and $155 for dinner, respectively). They are represented on a single page by four rows with four words in each. Every word is an ingredient and diners choose one per row say, tomato, potato, pork, plum. My meal was beet, endive, beef and hazelnut. That translated into a beet salad with chèvre and dill; braised endive with ham, Gruyère and truffle; roasted strip loin with Swiss chard and chanterelles; and hazelnut vacherin with chestnut, pistachio and grapes.
The radical revamp was designed to give both Humm and his customers flexibility. Waitstaff ask questions Do you like beans? How do you feel about truffles? Do you have any allergies? and gather answers that Humm factors into the dishes he sends out. Guidara says they are "trying to give people one of the best meals of their lives," and part of that is allowing them to make fairly precise determinations about what they want and don't want. He adds that he and Humm never saw the overhaul as a risk. To them, it's a precisely calibrated updating of a New York City institution, which Guidara confidently asserts is working. After my four-word meal, I have a four-word thought: The man is right.
For details, see elevenmadisonpark.com.