Eleven Madison Park Explores the Plant Kingdom’s Uncanny Valley

The man with the hammer treats everything as a nail, the saying goes. Something like that seems to be afflicting Eleven Madison Park in its new vegan incarnation. The restaurant’s chef and owner, Daniel Humm, is using the skills he brought to meat and seafood to whack away at vegetables.

Almost none of the main ingredients taste quite like themselves in the 10-course, $335 menu the restaurant unwrapped this June after a 15-month pandemic hiatus. Some are so obviously standing in for meat or fish that you almost feel sorry for them.

We should have seen something like this coming when Mr. Humm announced the animal-free policy in May. Eleven Madison Park is one of the most closely watched restaurants on the planet, drawing press coverage even for its minor adjustments. This one, not minor, made headlines around the world. Many articles quoted a line from Mr. Humm that gave his decision a soft glow of social responsibility: “The current food system is simply not sustainable, in so many ways.”

Buried in his announcement was a less-noticed passage that foreshadowed things to come. “It’s crucial to us that no matter the ingredients, the dish must live up to some of my favorites of the past,” he wrote. “It’s a tremendous challenge to create something as satisfying as the lavender-honey glazed duck, or the butter poached lobster, recipes that we perfected.”

In tonight’s performance, the role of the duck will be played by a beet, doing things no root vegetable should be asked to do. Over the course of three days it is roasted and dehydrated before being wrapped in fermented greens and stuffed into a clay pot, as if it were being sent to the underworld with the pharaoh.

The pot is wheeled out to your table, where a server smashes the clay with a ball-peen hammer. The beet is cleaned of pottery shards and transferred to a plate with a red-wine and beet-juice reduction that is oddly pungent in a way that may remind you of Worcestershire sauce.

They used to do a similar beet act at Agern, a New Nordic restaurant in Grand Central Terminal, roasting it inside a crust of salt and vegetable ash. That beet tasted like a beet, but more so. The one at Eleven Madison Park tastes like Lemon Pledge and smells like a burning joint.

I suspect that the summer-squash dish that appears halfway through the menu somehow descends from the butter-poached lobster. I don’t know what else accounts for the viscous liquid that looks and sort of feels like browned butter, but clearly isn’t. It tastes of vadouvan and something else, something harsh and sharp that overpowers the nugget of sesame-seed tofu hidden inside a squash blossom.

Time and again, delicate flavors are hijacked by some harsh, unseen ingredient. Marinated wedges of heirloom tomatoes have a pumped-up, distorted flavor, like tomatoes run through a wah-wah pedal. Rice porridge under crisp, pale-green stems of celtuce has a tangy, sharp undertone that another restaurant might get from a grating of aged pecorino. A tartare of minced cucumbers, honeydew melon and smoked daikon is suffused with an acrid intensity.

The servers offer few explanations for the doctored flavors, and no warnings, either. The ingredients look normal until you take a bite and realize you’ve entered the plant kingdom’s uncanny valley.

Mr. Humm used to get purer, deeper results out of vegetables before the restaurant went vegan. Maybe he should bring back the celery root steamed in a pig bladder.

His cooking has always been process-intensive, but there seems to be something new at play, most likely an effort to add umami with fermented liquids rich in glutamates. Eleven Madison Park now employs a “fermentation sous-chef,” Brock Middleton, following the lead of other yeast-loving restaurants, including Noma, in Copenhagen, which keeps home-brewed garums and other magic juices around to provide an invisible lift.

At Noma, these sauces are administered so subtly that you don’t notice anything weird going on; you just think you’ve never tasted anything so extraordinary in your life. At Eleven Madison Park, certain dishes are as subtle as a dirty martini. It’s possible that some of the special sauce is so concentrated that an extra drop or two can push things over the top. This would explain why a half-eggplant in which glazed slices of pickled eggplant ride like passengers in a canoe had an intoxicating richness the first time I ate it and a cloying heaviness the next.

A couple of the kitchen’s efforts to get plants to mimic something else succeed. When it happens, all doubts evaporate for a few minutes.

Tonburi, made from Japanese summer-cypress seeds, arrives on chipped ice inside an antique silver caviar bowl that looks as if it belonged to the Romanovs. The seeds, dark and round and shiny, are sometimes said to taste like broccoli. At Eleven Madison Park, they have been seasoned with kelp. A chef might say the kelp adds umami. I’d say it tastes delicious, and I might add that its flavor brings up deep, partly subconscious associations with the sea. It’s a sleight-of-hand trick, but your taste buds accept it in place of the fishy brininess of sturgeon roe.

There is a plant-based version of the restaurant’s wonderful bread, like a savory croissant rolled into a crisp golden swirl. Originally kneaded with cow butter, the laminated dough has been rejiggered with butter made from sunflower seeds, and it’s an unqualified success. So is the nonbutter that arrives with the bread, molded into the shape of a sunflower, bright yellow with a dark eye of tangy fermented sunflower seeds in the center.

If the pastry kitchen, under Laura Cronin, is straining under the challenge of working without butter and eggs, it doesn’t show. There’s a charming two-tone pretzel — dark chocolate on one side and toasted sesame paste on the other — that hits you like a much improved Reese’s peanut-butter cup. An even lovelier duet comes in the final course, a coconut semifreddo under frozen elderflower syrup swirled with blueberry compote.

There may be more bartending skill and talent at Eleven Madison Park than at any other restaurant in the city. The new mission has spurred the bar to fresh achievements, with a lineup of cocktails that make delicious and sometimes improbable use of plants. A distant relative of the old-fashioned incorporates red bell peppers; for a drink called simply Sesame they’ve even figured out how to make clarified milk punch with the “whey” from sesame tofu.

Eleven Madison Park has trained its audience to expect “endless reinvention,” one of 11 touchstone words and phrases on a sign that hangs in the restaurant’s vast and precise kitchen. Each time the restaurant has overhauled itself — the cryptic grid menu, the magic tricks at the table, the themed New York City menu — it has gone overboard, then pulled back to a less extreme place.

Its talent for overcoming its own missteps was one reason I gave it four stars in its last review in The New York Times, in 2015. (I’m not giving star ratings while restaurants are still being rattled by the pandemic.) With time, Mr. Humm may stop overcompensating for ditching the animal products, too. Beets aren’t very good at pretending to be meat, but their ability to taste like beets is unrivaled.

The anxiety, political upheavals, protests — even the boredom — of the pandemic period have conspired to produce an urgent sense that people with power, in the restaurant business as much as any other, need to work for change or get out of the way. Mr. Humm acknowledged this in his announcement in May, writing, “It was clear that after everything we all experienced this past year, we couldn’t open the same restaurant.”

So far Mr. Humm, who says he is a vegetarian, hasn’t told us his objections to serving animal products, if he has any. He seems to want us to think Eleven Madison Park is leading the restaurant business to a better place, but how are we supposed to believe that this isn’t just another card trick when he hasn’t expressed a real opinion?

Diners who don’t eat animals for religious or moral reasons will probably welcome the new menu. Those whose chief concern is the environmental damage done by livestock farming may have less reason to celebrate. People tend to think of factory farms and feedlots when they hear about meat and sustainability. But Eleven Madison Park didn’t buy industrial pork for its compressed brick of suckling pig. As the servers were always reminding you in the old days, the pork, eggs, cheese and other animal products came from small, independent regional farms. Now, many of its vegetables are grown to order on farmland it leases in Hoosick, N.Y.

If every restaurant that supports sustainable local agriculture followed Mr. Humm’s new path, those small farms would be in deep trouble. To name just one likely result, developers would be lining up at the barn door to make offers. Millions of acres of pasture and cultivated fields across the United States have been lost to suburbs, which produce half of the country’s household carbon emissions.

And while Mr. Humm rarely talks about the bottom line, it’s obvious what happens when you keep charging $335 for dinner while getting rid of some of the most expensive items on your shopping list, like caviar, lobster and foie gras. (It’s the same thing that happened in 2016, when the restaurant essentially halved the number of courses in the tasting without changing the base price.)

Eleven Madison Park still buys meat, though. Until the year ends, the menu offered to customers who book a private dining room includes an optional beef dish, roasted tenderloin with fermented peppers and black lime. It’s some kind of metaphor for Manhattan, where there’s always a higher level of luxury, a secret room where the rich eat roasted tenderloin while everybody else gets an eggplant canoe.

What the Stars Mean Because of the pandemic, restaurants are not being given star ratings.

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