The story of my life is one epic infinite feast. I count myself lucky that my tastebuds work. Food is very important to me. Every distinct memory I have is punctuated by a good meal, a home cooked dish or a thoughtful cake. So last year, with an encroaching 30th birthday, I plunged into a commitment to treat myself to a trip of culinary pleasures in a city I have dreamt of going for so long – New York. The next important decision – where am I going to splurge on a top meal. A meal that a 30-year old me so deserves, after well, living on this bloody earth for 30 damn years! My first point of reference was obviously The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It was meant to be a toss between Per Se and Le Bernardin. Then I met a lady who found out I was going to New York and started to rave about Eleven Madison Park. She had just dined there and insisted I go. In 2014, it was the 4th best restaurant in the world.
My mind was set, my bags were packed. And on that day – 31 July (they were closed on my actual birthday so this would have to do), I walked through those doors. Those heavy doors with thick but very intricate handles.
I am seated. The performance starts with a small white envelope with a letter opener. I open it and there’s a card with 4 symbols.
I am told to pick one and punch it out. I picked coffee. I feel like a culinary Sherlock Holmes. I am eager to uncover whatever whimsical edible mystery comes next for I won’t know the menu until the end.
My server is Kevin. I learn that he is of Swedish-Irish decent because a couple next to me were nosy enough to question him through-out lunch.
The 14 course meal is very well orchestrated. Each wait staff has memorised their individual spiels and their delivery is so natural. Through the meal, I keep thinking of Cirque Du Soleil. It is as though this musical is directed and produced by the chef and his sous chefs executing the
multi-notes are the acrobats dishing out the delights I get to enjoy on this special day.
And for the sake of sharing this experience with you, I will go through it dish by dish.
CHEDDAR – Savory black and white cookie with apple.
It came in a tiny pastry box no bigger than a delicate ring box.
The mind-meddling begins here. Instead of sweet, it’s salty and then the apple sneaks up on me like it wants to be more than just platonic friends.
CORN – Custard with tuna and caviar
First thing that stood out were the glistening black beads. I can’t remember the last time I had caviar. But the black quenelle was accompanied by two other quenelles; one white and one a pastel yellow. They were mousse-like. There was a mother-of-pearl spoon for me to gently consume my luxurious gems. Immediately, I felt like royalty.
I tried it with the tuna and then with the custard. If mermaids existed I’m sure they’d eat this everyday.
In front of me was a tiny cylinder of rock melon wrapped with something that looks like parma ham. I looked closer and there were flakes of sea salt.
This tiny morsel was held together by what looked like a bone. I am not sure if it’s a real bone. But at this point, I stopped wondering, and just immersed myself and let my tongue do the judging.
CUCUMBER – Marinated with lemon and melon
Everything looks like it belongs to an art gallery and this dish was no different. There were about 6 to 8 tiny green balls that I am assuming are cucumbers. They looked more like goose-berries cut in half. They were covered by a sheet of something slightly translucent and they were topped with tiny buds of some kind. Refreshing is what I remember this bite to be.
TOMATO – Tea with lemon thyme
Lemon thyme bunch tied and once infused with the tomato tea, transformed into a fragrant elixir. Packed with umami.
Tomato salad with strawberries and basil, Pennsylvania tomatoes and strawberries.
My favourite combi – savoury sweet. It tied perfectly with the slightly jelly broth. There was a vinegar note that elevated this dish. At this point, i’m invited to the kitchen.
I am greeted by the whole brigade. I am the guest of honour!
Using an antique ice shaver, I am served an ice cone that’s drizzled with blackberries, and lemon verbana.
This private experience was very memorable. Being treated to a behind-the-scenes peek. How’s that for a birthday lunch! I was very mesmerised by how orderly everything was. I did feel like an intruder though. And they were nice enough to take a photo of me with my ice-cone
When I am back at my table, heady with excitement at what I got to witness, I feel hot and I start scribbling more. I never want to forget this moment.
As I scribbled, a plate arrives.
Oh yay. It’s bread this time, wholemeal, with 2 neat pats of butter.
One is made from a duck reduction and the other is pure butter. The bread is warm and I slather an exorbitant amount of butter so I can taste every note, every layer of flavour.
The simplest things always astound me the most because if done well, it has the potential to explode my tastebuds beyond belief. At this moment, I am so taken by the reality of me being here, experiencing the fourth best restaurant in the world, I pause. I try to take in my surroundings. Looked around me, above me, to the left and right of me.
One word keeps popping into my mind – juxtaposition. Of old and new. It is a very old building with extremely high ceilings. Revitalising modern cuisine served in such a setting certainly draws one to appreciate both sides of the coin.
BEEF – Pastrami with peppers, rye, mustard, and coffee
An ode to the New York staple – the beef pastrami sandwich. This had basil mayo. It was paired with a coffee cola.
I had to assemble the sandwich myself and the first bite blew me away. The beef in my mouth, felt like suede (not that I’ve ever tasted actual suede) once it made contact with my tongue. Tender to the palate!
FOIE GRAS – seared with chanterelles and plums
Ahhh… one of my favourites. There is a smidgeon of brown that is both sweet and savoury. I can’t get enough of it. I have to use the bread to lap it all up. Waste not such a thing of beauty. Perhaps there is a little burnt sugar in there.
LOBSTER – Boil with clams, shrimp, and beans
A young man brings out a copper pot. Starts pouring a whole load of scrumptious things onto a wooden ‘plank’ that has been laid with brown paper. I get really really excited as I suspect it is seafood boil. It is! And the gravy. I’m so glad I still had my bread to soak up the goodness.
On a separate white plate, I am given a kind of mash with tiny potatoes, beans and bacon perched on top.
SUNFLOWER – Braised with sun chokes and sunflower seeds
This was a thing of beauty. There were three sauces. I tried to guess what they were but could only figure that one was miso, another was fish and the green… something herby. I told you this was like a culinary Sherlock Holmes case!
BEEF – Grilled with eggplant, amaranth, and shallot
Dry aged for 140 days, the beef was very well marbled. The young man comes out with the huge hunk of beef and I wished I could have it all.
FRESH CHEESE – Pretzel, raspberry mustard, and green tomatoes
By far my best part of the meal. I almost yelped when I saw the waitress coming over with a picnic basket. Yes this was what it came in! It was covered with a cloth so I had to open it and discover everything for myself.
Goodness gracious. I felt like a kid. I was grinning from ear to ear. There was a wooden case with home made goat’s cheese, and a pretzel made with pale ale (made especially for the restaurant).
I gobbled everything. The plates were something. Made out of ceramic, they are modelled after actual paper plates. So much attention to detail!
The raspberry mustard was really refreshing. I’ve never had it before.
WHEY – Sorbet with caramelised milk and coffee
A candle is on this plate because it was my birthday. Isn’t that sweet! Made from the milk solids left over from the cheese they made, they created this sorbet. It’s amazing. Amazing is cliche but don’t you dare think this dish to be cliche. At this point my mind has run out of words to describe the awesomeness of this meal!
Kevin places a grill on my table.
Yes a grill. With charcoal. I’m like… erm am I to grill meats now? Then he comes back and places a slice of apricot on the grill, sprinkles some sugar, covers it and says he will be back.
Moments later, he returns, opens the cover and there’s this smell. Have you smelt grilled apricot? By golly. It’s theatre for the senses. You taste, touch, smell, see and hear. Now I am brought a plate of sorbet and the apricot joins the rest of the plate. Warm, cold, soft, firm. The thyme flowers add depth and a herby final note.
APRICOT – Grill with lemon thyme ice cream and honey
PRETZEL – Chocolate covered with sea salt
When this comes out I know it’s almost curtain call. This is pulverised pretzel coated with chocolate. I firmly believe that anyone who adds sea salt to dark chocolate knows what he is doing. It elevated the sweetness of the chocolate and I nibble the pretzel slowly, hoping it never ends.
An entire bottle of apple brandy suddenly appears. “Have it with your pretzel. You can have as much as you want,” says a server. I took a sip and that was it. I have a low alcohol tolerance level. Don’t judge me.
CHOCOLATE – Sweet black and white cookie with caramel
And so it is. My 30th birthday meal. My best meal ever. It ends on a sweet note. How lyrical can this meal get? It starts with a savoury cookie and ends with a sweet one. Both packed in the same white boxes and similar looking cookies. What’s different is the inside. Again, another juxtaposition. I feel almost philosophical at this point. I compare myself. The before and after. How I felt before the meal and after.
My life before this trip and my life that will be after. Before my thoughts drift, I am given a bag of goodies! In it is a bottle of granola (that I consumed only when I got back to Singapore. It was to be the most mind blowing granola I had ever tasted) and some chocolate that was a birthday gift. I also got the printed menu. They then asked me to approach the hot dog stand outside and tell him something (or give him a piece of paper, i forgot!).
I did that and got a lovely raspberry coated ice-cream!
The performance just goes on and on. Will I ever find another experience such as this? Will this have spoilt me for the rest of my life? I think so. Chef Daniel Humm, you’re amazing. Thank you for making my 30th birthday a culinary dream of a lifetime. I leave you with more photos of the sour cherry granola (which I have sworn to myself to replicate. the recipe is in the Eleven Madison Park cookbook by the way) and my chocolate birthday bar.
I present to you the world’s best granola. I’ve not savoured another better than this.
My precious chocolate birthday bar. I lugged it back home just so I could eat it slowly.
The insides are made of marzipan. Can someone please teleport me back to New York now. Oh what I would give to be able to spend every birthday henceforth in the delicious city that never ever sleeps.
In 10 days time, I will be 31. After a full year of revelling in my new-found ‘thirties’, I do not feel like a ‘thirty-something’. That is fine because being thirty is anything but typical (at least in my perspective). The past three decades of my life have been nothing short of terrific. The most beautiful thing too, is that one decade of my life is chronicled here, in pixels, alphabets and pure deliciousness. 2005 seems like a long time ago. A young 21-year old me, in the midst of carving my identity, decided that the combination of writing & food made sense. On hindsight, I believe it was a calling and not a mere coincidence. This website has opened many doors for me and brought me to new heights. I believe that I still have plenty to share with all of you. I still bake, and I still cook and my new-found obsession with nutrient dense foods has given me plenty of surprising pleasures!
One such pleasure involves modifying recipes to see if I can make them slightly healthier/more nutritious. Today, while making cauliflower rice (this warrants a separate post), I had an intense craving for chocolate. My usual reaction would be to arrange for an appointment with my all-time favourite chocolate cake – the PS. Cafe Blackout Chocolate Cake. Just at that moment, my mum called out to me from the living room, “the bananas you bought are turning black, please finish them soon!”.
That’s it! For the longest time, I’ve wanted to make Deb Perelman’s (of Smitten Kitchen, one of my favourite food blogs) Double Chocolate Banana Bread. The combination of chocolate and banana is perfection. It’s like how one should always always have cinnamon in apple pies. It’s one of those magical unions that never disappoint. What’s amazing is that on top of cocoa powder, Deb adds chocolate chips/chunks. This where my unopened 60% bittersweet Ghirardelli chocolate chips will weave its web of seduction.
I love a good challenge so I decided to make this bread gluten-free for the heck of it. Before you baulk, let me have you know that I adore my gluten. I’m not on the verge of giving it up. It just so happened that I had plenty of Bob’s Red Mill stone ground whole grainbrown rice flour and sorghum flour.
So instead of all-purpose flour, I used 1/2 cup stone ground brown rice flour & 1/2 cup sorghum flour. I also shook things up by adding 1/2 cup chopped pecans. Since gluten-free baking requires a binding agent, I added 1/2 tsp xanthan gum.
Silly me forgot to add the brown sugar to the wet-mix before dumping in the dry ingredients! So I took that as a sign that I should make this an even healthier banana bread by using maple syrup. I used 1/3 cup maple syrup.
The bananas I used were the super small baby ones from the market. I like them better than the large Cavendish ones as they are sweeter. Since I am a huge believer of getting handsy with my food, I mashed the bananas with my bare hands (washed of course!). Yes it is much more flavourful that way 😉
Of course I’m kidding!
The end result – delicious gluten-free double chocolate banana bread that’s a little good for you. The texture was not as dry as I would have preferred but that could be due to the bananas. Taste-wise, it was delicious. My sister is already onto her second slice!
Gluten-free baking is unknown territory to me. I am a little frightened by it because it just seems so ‘temperamental’. But I am determined to get over that fear and see where it takes me!