Eleven Madison Park vs Alinea: The Ultimate Restaurant Grudge Match
On the comparative merits of Eleven Madison Park versus Alinea, on the occasion of Eleven Madison Park being named the best restaurant in the world.
Chef: Daniel Humm
Restaurant: Eleven Madison Park
This time last year, Brett Martin did an excellent feature for GQ on the stupidity of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, in which he catalogues the perilous elitism and anonymity in the food field’s most powerful annual round-up. Bearing Martin’s substantive criticisms in mind, for the first time since The French Laundry in 2003 and also 2004, the United States is home to the World’s Best restaurant. Congratulations, Eleven Madison Park.
I ate there recently. It was the second notch on my belt from this dumb list, after Alinea, whose glories I have previously extolled at length. Alinea and Eleven Madison Park are often mentioned in the same breath together, for several reasons. The most obvious point of comparison is their innovative food. They both have three Michelin stars and are pioneers of restaurant ticketing. Then to literalize their connection, chefs Daniel Humm of Eleven Madison Park and Grant Achatz of Alinea once swapped restaurants for a week. Achatz has a partner in Nick Kokonas and Humm has one in Will Giadara. The four of them are friends, and despite their restaurants being in constant conversation, seldom do food journalists engage in explicit analysis of their similarities and differences.
I never miss Brett Martin’s food features, and last autumn he wrote an article putting Alinea side by side with Eleven Madison Park, yet it somehow left me cold. The interviews ran on parallel tracks, never quite intersecting. Humm and Achatz seem so different, produce such different plates and experiences, yet no one wants to lay out these contrasts -- perhaps for fear of less than tactfully declaring one better than the other? Well, I suppose the World’s 50 Best list has taken care of the utterly arbitrary part of quantifying the contrast.
How can we meaningfully distinguish between the experiences at Alinea and Eleven Madison Park? Let’s begin by accurately assessing the foodie equivalent of my golfing handicap in this case: I’ve eaten the full 20-ish course tasting menu at Alinea on three occasions in the past half dozen years and I’ve eaten the bar’s five-course tasting menu at Eleven Madison Park once, just last month. I never drink more than one glass of wine at Alinea, and I tried several cocktails at Eleven Madison Park. Their smaller tasting menu appealed for two reasons: one, it’s half the price of the full tasting menu and I was engaging in an entire week of fancy NYC dinners, and two, Alinea taught me that the more intimate the space, the more engaged the service. Eleven Madison Park’s dining room is comparatively vast and I knew I would prefer the cozier environs of the few small tables by the bar.
At Alinea, the plates simply arrive. Barring serious dietary restrictions, Chef Achatz makes all the choices for you. You can be assured that everyone in the room is eating basically an identical meal, give or take a blue cheese allergy. At Eleven Madison Park, the bar tasting allows one choice for almost every course. With my wife along, we therefore got to indulge in twice the number of dishes -- my scallop to her kohlrabi, my duck to her halibut, my apple to her chocolate, et cetera -- taking a few bites and then swapping plates. We saw a very clean dialogue between the dishes on her menu and on mine, almost like the fashion equivalent of a modular wardrobe where a few basic themes on different shirts and pants can be paired up fairly indiscriminately while still broadly holding up the right overall sense of style.
Humm's obsession with the "whiteness" of food has been well documented, and it was immediately on display in both tasting menus. Lots of edibles are white: egg, leek, potato, marrow, apple, pear, fish, wine. We studied many shades and textures of plated white things, lovely to behold in their minimalism, that only become discernible a moment later in the mouth as scallop versus leek, as pear versus halibut. As at Alinea, the menu tends to highlight one keyword for the dish, but unlike Alinea, Eleven Madison Park’s menu often uses verbs: pickled, smoked, marinated, roasted, glazed, poached, et cetera. I suppose Achatz is more of a magic act in that he prefers to keep techniques to himself, perhaps in part because the science of his kitchen’s cookery is not as commonly understood to be appetizing like the classic Eleven Madison Park vocabulary of smoking or roasting.
I don’t know about the importance of ranking and numbering these two venues, but unsurprisingly, I do place a premium on their word choice. Beyond the diction of the menu, the venue names are themselves carrying a lot of weight. Alinea is a noun, a proofreading symbol that means “new paragraph”. Achatz’s subsequent endeavors are Next and Aviary, all forward-moving, all emphasizing constraint. Eleven Madison Park is located at 11 Madison Avenue, across from Madison Square Park. Eleven Madison Park’s symbol is the four types of leaves that can be found in that local park. Humm’s other project is the restaurant in the NoMad Hotel, under the banner of the restaurant group Make It Nice, all rooted in local particularity, all emphasizing hospitality.
Alinea is interested mainly in futurism. Achatz dives deeply into each plate as an isolated volley of ideology. Usually there's some sort of table decor that later becomes involved in prepping the meal, but by and large, each dish operates independently. Humm is more concerned with the narrative arc of the plates in succession, even though many of these plates are interchangeable in their ability to point toward overarching themes, like whiteness. Eleven Madison Park digs equally deeply on the dinner’s ideas but cares more for standard techniques practiced upon perfect specimens of food, while Alinea pushes the limit of what science and palate can do.
The plate itself is, therefore, the main experience at Alinea. Their service is always thoroughly knowledgeable, quick to discern any needs, and often slightly humorous. That Chicagoan sarcasm is let to shine through if they like you enough to really engage. But at Alinea, I’ve generally found that guests are guilty until proven innocent, in the sense that there's a dissociative, formal quality in most of the staff I have met there. Eleven Madison Park, by contrast, loves everyone who comes in the door, whether they deserve it or not. Two cases in point: one, my attire and two, my wife’s drink order.
I knew it was a jackass move, but I walked in wearing a leather jacket over a t-shirt and hoodie. Nobody blinked; they happily checked my jacket and did not hide us at a table where more smartly (OK, appropriately) dressed patrons would be blind to my offense.
Then my wife, who grew up on Long Island and knows perfectly well that H-o-u-s-t-o-n is pronounced HOW-stun, ordered the HEW-sten and Ludlow cocktail. Nobody blinked. She corrected herself moments later when the drink arrived, and then our server treated us to fully ten pleasant minutes of conversation about similar faux pas he’s encountered and what best to do about them in such situations.
Eleven Madison Park is connective where Alinea is disconnective, in terms of service. At Alinea, they leave you alone with the food and with whatever tablemates you’ve thought to invite. At Eleven Madison Park, the service, the bartender, the busy boy, even the front of house people are all your tablemates. This is commonly the report from Eleven Madison Park diners. I said something funny to a busy young man who offered us more bread. He relayed my joke to the server, who relayed it to the bartender, who in turn produced a cocktail for us to take back to the hotel, including a special label that somebody printed up in the back office. It was intensely personal service. It lingered. Alinea’s servers are intense, but not intensely personal, nor do they linger.
At the top of my first Alinea menu (which I've saved), ts says “Happy Birthday”. At the top of my (first, and not the last) Eleven Madison Park menu, it says “Happy 11th Anniversary”. Our eleventh at Eleven Madison Park! Then they discussed with us how we ought to try to hit other restaurants with numbers in their names on the appropriate anniversaries. Had we done Trois for our third? Would we do the 21 Club for our 21st? We stretched our five courses into two and a half hours, which included delightful conversation with our server.
I’ve been to Alinea three times, and on the third visit, I asked what it takes to be considered a regular. My definition of a regular: somebody with a track record of giving as good a time to a place as they are getting from that same place. The server said, “how many times have you been here?” I said three. “That’s the most I’ve ever heard of, so as far as regulars, you’re pretty much it,” she deadpanned.
Next time I go back to Eleven Madison Park, I doubt I’ll feel like making a similar inquiry, as the answer already seems evident. I love both restaurants very much, not in spite of their differences, but because of them. They have the right things in common, and the rest is a matter of my mood. Sometimes all my energy and concentration is truly invested in the thoughtfulness radiating off the plate, and other times, I just want the warmth of belonging among people.