Eleven Madison Park Before All the Michelin Stars
The Daily Meal's editorial director, Colman Andrews, has penned a memoir, My Usual Table: A Life in Restaurants, to be published on March 18. This passage recalls the days when the offices of Saveur magazine, which Andrews was editing, were located a short walk from Eleven Madison Park, today one of New York's most highly rated restaurants.
In 1998 Danny [Meyer] opened two…restaurants, sharing the ground floor of an art deco skyscraper across the street from Madison Square Park. The original plan had been to install just one large restaurant in the 22,000-square-foot space, but it was bisected by a load-bearing wall, so Danny would have ended up with two dining rooms connected by a door. That didn’t make sense to him, so instead he created two separate places: a stunningly beautiful modern American one in the larger portion of the space, and what was almost certainly the country’s first serious Indian fusion restaurant on the other side of the wall. The Indian restaurant, with the talented Indian-born Floyd Cardoz in the kitchen, was called Tabla. The showplace was Eleven Madison Park.
The designers, Bentel & Bentel, had a lot to work with: The ceilings were twenty-five feet high, the walls and floors were pristine marble, and one whole side of the dining room was inset with broad, twenty-foot-high paned windows looking out onto the park. Bentel & Bentel raised the bar area and half the dining room slightly to improve sight lines and transected the lower portion of the space with a long two-sided banquette. Handrails and trim were made of nickel bronze, commonly used for accents in the deco era but rare today (the metal was imported from Australia). Room dividers were lustrous blond English sycamore inset with geometric tracery and pale green images of leaves. In three places around the room, immense black-and-white oils by the artist Stephen Hannock depicted scenes of Madison Square Park, based on photographs from the early twentieth century. All this added up to a brilliant job of evoking the past without descending into caricatured nostalgia. It was also purely and unmistakably a New York restaurant, full of energy and majesty and a subtle conjuration of the glamour of an earlier era. I thought it was a vivid expression of the style and spirit of the city as much as, though in a different way than, the legendary Four Seasons was. There was a kind of Gothamite grandeur to both.…
The chef was a tall, soft-spoken, Pennsylvania-born Irish-American named Kerry Heffernan, who’d cooked under David Bouley and, at Mondrian, under Tom Colicchio. Kerry was a solid technician who seemed equally at home making grilled sandwiches of chicken, bacon, and Saint-André cheese or English pea flan with morels or lobster with lemongrass velouté. The service was vintage Danny Meyer, which is to say intelligent and efficient, and the interior settled a kind of calm on me, transporting me into a world far from my daily concerns.