As I peered out of the window of a cab circling Madison Park, it was hard to imagine that Stanford White used to push Evelyn Nesbit on her red velvet swing nearby. On the spot where the M5 bus now idles briefly before turning down Fifth Avenue, the Statue of Liberty’s torch once sat, collecting funds for the construction of the pedestal from sightseers who climbed to the top for a view of the city. It was hard not only because it was night, but the rain was so heavy we couldn’t see anything at all. After taking us once around the park, our cabdriver began swearing at us in Arabic and it was time to get out.
The last thing you expect to find as you walk through the heavy, forbidding doors of 11 Madison Avenue is a restaurant. It is on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, an immense stone Art Deco skyscraper with a tower like the one Ray Milland hung from in The Big Clock . The assembly hall, with its marble floors and high ceilings, is a landmark space and has been transformed into a vast, beautiful and friendly cafe by Danny Meyer, the owner of Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern. (In an adjoining space at 11 Madison, he also has opened Tabla, serving Indian-fusion cooking.)
Over the dining room hangs a misty painting of the park from a turn-of-the-century photograph that looks like a work by Eugène Atget. Leather banquettes divide the room, which has jazzy Art Deco sconces on the walls and is hung with giant wire chandeliers that are pretty to look at but cast an unflattering light on the faces of the people below. (Every restaurant lighting designer should check out La Grenouille before starting work.) The lighting is better in the more intimate area in the back, where the ceiling is lower. The hallways are hung with old photographs of the neighborhood in its heyday (from the mid-1800′s to early 1900′s); one is of a policeman in an old-fashioned bobby’s helmet, arms akimbo, in front of the Flatiron building, flanked by trolley cars and the same clock that is there today.
The food at 11 Madison Park reflects a similar nostalgia for a more gilded age. Chef Kerry Heffernan’s cooking is basically French in concept (the wine list is entirely French), and he brings back many dishes you don’t often see on menus these days. “Cuisses de nymphes à l’aurore” (nymphs’ thighs at dawn) was what they used to call a dish of frogs’ legs in French restaurants at the turn of the century, in somewhat overheated prose. Here they were served in a delicious velvety sauce flavored with Meursault and licorice root (and so plump and juicy were they you could imagine Stanford White himself tucking into a platter of them with delight). Also a throwback were the excellent sweetbreads, crisp and light in a nicely sharp sauce made with grapes, verjus and thyme. The terrine of beef shank, foie gras and veal feet, with grilled leeks and banyuls, was extraordinary, too, the nesting chunks of jellied meats a perfect foil for the creamy foie gras. I also loved the fricassee of mushrooms, made with different species arranged in sections (like slices of pie) in an intense, woodsy broth flavored with cèpes essence. Roast sea scallops with black truffles were also terrific, as was the lobster salad à la grecque with fennel, carrots and black mushrooms.
Several of the main dishes could have used more salt, though. The exception was the perfectly seasoned roast chicken with sage, which was excellent, with a crispy skin and accompanied by a potato-speck tart and salsify. Skate served on the bone (or more specifically, cartilage) was also first-rate, with wilted spinach and potatoes. It was a better choice than the cod, which was dry and flavorless, although it came with a lovely “cassoulet” of lobster and shell beans under a layer of crunchy bread crumbs. Lobster pot au feu with caviar and sea urchin toast was good, too, but the magret of duck, despite the glazed turnips and lentils that came with it, was unexceptional.
Desserts from pastry chef Nicole Plue were unerringly delicious, especially the plate of bittersweet chocolate cake with a feathery pistachio mille-feuille, and the chocolate terrine with kumquats, which was amazing. So were the tiny (almost too tiny, it was so good) butterscotch pot de crème with warm fruits in brioche, and the coeur à la crème with fruit sorbets.
The nondescript house across the street from the magnificent building where we were eating was the scene for a rather different kind of dinner around a hundred years ago. Evelyn Nesbit, then a 16-year-old chorus girl, was treated to a champagne supper for two by Stanford White in a room that had a green velvet chaise lounge instead of leather banquettes, and instead of a metal chandelier shaped like a hoop, the infamous red velvet swing.
11 Madison Park
11 Madison Avenue, at 24th Street
Dress: Casual but elegant
Noise level: Can be quite high
Wine list: French, interesting choices
Credit cards: All major
Price range: Lunch main courses $17 to $24, dinner $19 to $29
Lunch: Monday to Friday 11:30 A.M. to 2 P.M.
Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to 11 P.M.
* * Very Good
* * *Excellent
* * * * Outstanding
No Star: Poor