A few weeks ago, I spontaneously bought reservations to Eleven Madison Park.
If you're unfamiliar with Eleven Madison Park, here's a quick summary from Eater. TL/DR: it's one of the few restaurants in the United States that has three Michelin stars, and, was recently determined to be the best restaurant in the whole entire world (well — according to this list). It's also the sort of restaurant that makes you pay to eat there beforehand, because at $300 a head (that's without alcohol — wine pairings are another $200 a pop!), it's not exactly what you would call an impulse buy. In fact, I'm probably the only idiot in their entire history who was idly browsing through their reservations system (which sell out fairly quickly for prime dinner slots), saw a random Sunday afternoon opening, and pulled out her credit card to purchase two tickets on the fly. I don't know really know what overcame me. Despite what my mom says, I'm not really much of of a spendthrift. I agonize over purchases that cost more than $100, dragging my feet for months in an effort to will the product to go on sale. I have never shelled out for an Economy+ seat, even for international or overnight flights. I don't believe in spending money for an "exercise top", instead going to the gym in unflattering and shapeless t-shirts left over from tech conferences.
But maybe it's because the restaurant is located at the bottom of my office building, and walking by it everyday had me wondering about its hallowed walls on a daily basis. How strange it was, that while I hunched over at my desk puzzling over our plans to transition to a new marketing automation tool, people several floors below me were dining on a sumptuous meal of truffles, foie gras, and lobster. There was also the fact that Dan, one of my good friends from college who is discerning about the same things as I am, had taken his wife there for her birthday years ago. They were both still raving about the experience. "They figured out we were celebrating her birthday without us telling them!" he exclaimed, impressed by what could only be their sleuth Facebook stalking skills. Plus the restaurant had recently announced that they were closing this summer — right when my 30th birthday happened to be, the only event that could potentially justify a $1000 meal for two people — for an indefinite amount of time for renovations. "Don't worry!" they cheerily said. "We'll have a pop-up in the Hamptons!" It was clear who they were trying to placate, and that definitely did not include folks like me.
All of those things combined to me pulling out my credit card on some random Friday afternoon, and us walking through Eleven Madison Park's brass revolving door a few weeks later. And while we weren't greeted by name, we certainly did find ourselves dining on luxuries like caviar benedict with smoked sturgeon and pickled egg yolk, butternut squash roasted in bone marrow, and honey lavender glazed duck. The food itself was exemplary; I found myself enjoying vegetables I usually avoided. To wit — I've never once cared for rutabagas, finding their flavor sharply bitter and one-dimensional. But at Eleven Madison Park, when served with celery and walnuts, the root took on a new texture and flavor akin to an oyster: the hors d'oeuvre was sweet, subtle, and all too fleeting.
The service itself was exceptional and attentive, to the point of being almost clairvoyant. At one point, I was low-level convinced that they were actually bugging all the tables. Because shortly after I wondered about the ingredients in my cocktail, a server appeared out of nowhere, handing me the cocktail menu without comment (presumably so I could double-check its contents). A few courses later, I whispered to Erlend about how, although I was enjoying the food, I personally wasn't sure if all the pomp and circumstance was for me, our next course was served in a more minimalist style. The server casually remarked that although it was one of their less decorative courses, it was one of his favorites regardless; he then subtly nodded in my direction. It was probably coincidence, but honestly — I'M NOT SURE. Just like how I'm still not sure if it was coincidence that, when they took us into the kitchen for a quick tour, it was their pastry chef who came up to greet us for a demo.
Overall, it was a once in a lifetime experience that I would do again (if I'm ever hit by that bout of temporary insanity that drove me to buy reservations in the first place). But it also taught me something I'd long suspected about myself, but never had the chance to really confirm until our time at Eleven Madison Park: fine dining isn't my style. While the rest of the people our age who had also splurged for a reservation arrived in ties and heels, I walked in wearing jeans and a leather jacket. And the meticulous service, instead of making me feel pampered and important, left me feeling slightly embarrassed and fraudulent more than anything else.
It made me realize that, yes, while a $300 meal has its merits and is worth occasionally splurging on, it does not actually bring me 100 times more joy than the $3 hot dogs I used to get at the German butcher near my college campus. Although I chronicled the whole experience through Instagram stories, I realized that none of the food served would fit in with the rest of my Instagram feed. All of it was beautiful and complex, but each plate looked more like works of modern art than something that looked tasty. Because at the end of the day, to me, there is nothing more delicious and appealing than a simple baked good like this rustic banana bread: rich with rum flavor and studded with caramel chunks for extra goodness.
Some baker's notes:
- For the best banana bread, use bananas that are so spotty and ripened that they almost look more black than yellow. In a pinch, you can ripen bananas faster by pulling them apart from their original bundle and placing them all together in a brown paper bag. Roll the bag to a tight close, put it in a warm place, and wait a few days — the banana skins emit a kind of gas that speeds up the ripening process, and you're basically taking all that gas and sealing it in to create a hyper-ripening environment. Congratulations! You just scienced the shit out of your bananas.
- This recipe instructs you to throw chunks of soft caramel candy into the banana bread batter; the caramel melts, infusing the banana bread with caramel flavor. Don't use the hard caramel candies that you suck on — you need one that's soft and chewable, like these varieties. I personally chopped up pieces from this giant caramel block from King Arthur Flour. It's important to toss the pieces in a little bit of flour before throwing them into the batter to help prevent them from sinking to the bottom of the loaf; don't skip this step!
Caramel Rum Banana Bread
(adapted from Food52)
For the Caramel Rum Banana Bread:
(makes two 9 x 5-inch loaves, or one larger 12 x 5-inch loaf)
- 1 cup (4 ounces) roughly chopped walnuts
- 1 cup (7 ounces) chopped soft caramel candies (see baker's notes)
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 1/2 cups (13 ounces) all-purpose flour, divided into 1 tablespoon and 2 1/2 cup portions
- 1 cup (7 ounces) granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
- 1 large egg, at room temperature
- 1 1/2 cups (12 ounces) very ripe, mashed bananas (see baker's notes)
- 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons (5 fluid ounces) whole milk, at room temperature
- 1/4 cup (4 fluid ounces) vegetable oil
- 3 tablespoons rum
For the Caramel Rum Banana Bread:
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare two 9 x 5-inch loaf pans by spraying the sides with cooking spray and lining the bottoms and sides with parchment paper; spray the parchment paper as well. Set aside.
- While the oven preheats, spread 1 cup walnuts on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until they smell nutty and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Set aside on a wire rack to cool.
- Place 1 cup chopped soft caramel candies in a small bowl. Sprinkle 1 heaping tablespoon of flour over the caramel candies and toss with your hands until the caramels are coated in the flour. Set aside.
- In a large bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, 1 cup granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon baking powder, and 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt. Whisk until combined.
- In a medium bowl, whisk 1 large egg until foamy and a homogenous yellow color. Add 1 1/2 cups mashed bananas, 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons whole milk, 1/4 cup vegetable oil, and 3 tablespoons rum. Whisk until combined.
- Use a tall cup or the bottom of a large measuring cup to create a well in the center of the dry ingredients (from the 4th step). Pour in the wet ingredients (from the 5th step) in the center of the well, and use a rubber spatula to stir the ingredients together until combined. Be careful not to overmix — at this point, it's okay to have one or two flour streaks left in the batter! Stir in the toasted walnuts (from the 2nd step) and the flour-covered caramel candies (from the 3rd step) just until combined.
- Divide the batter evenly between the two prepared pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 40 to 45 minutes (longer, if using one large pan like I did — mine took 60 minutes), or until a tester inserted in the very center of the loaf comes out with just a few moist crumbs clinging to it. Transfer to a wire rack to cool, and immediately run a butter knife around the edges to loosen any melted caramel. Let cool in the pans for 15 to 20 minutes before turning out to cool completely. Enjoy!