There are a few semi-universal factors to dining that may help you gauge the level of satisfaction you'll receive at a restaurant. For instance, does your waiter come by at reasonable time intervals to take your order and give you your food, or does he slink away as soon as you squeak, "I would like—" and only tends to your needs at the start of a new lunar phase? Is your menu contained within a leather-bound, gold tassled booklet or is it viewable under the clear vinyl covering of your table? Does your butter come in the form of a large block resting in its own specially made butter tray or are you given a bowl of plastic, hermetically sealed single-serve butter buckets that each contain just enough butter to inefficiently spread upon one small piece of bread, resulting in a mass grave of empty butter buckets strewn upon your table?
Aureole is serious about their butter and they know their customers are too. Why else would they present you with a block of ultra-sweet butter in its own gleaming silver tray? Tina, Helen, Giulia and I excitedly stabbed the butter like a bunch of butter-hungry young females...since that's what we are.
But we don't like to eat chunks of butter straight; we like to smear the chunks into the holey crevices of a good bread roll so that the souls of carbohydrates and fat can wriggle together and become ooonnnee. Unfortunately, the cold butter resisted the not so mighty power of the butter knife and didn't lend itself well to smushing. I'd say the souls of my bread and butter were combined by about 50%.
The buttering failure was forgotten when I tasted my chilled sweet pea soup (accompanied by a blop of lemon & pepper cream and some radish shavings). It tasted like...sweet peas! Say wut? Alright, not much of a surprise there, but peas in silky, liquid form is a nice change from normal, spherical form. The flavor spreads over every part of your mouth and no green stuff gets stuck in your teeth. Sweet. Unfortunately, the crab crisp, which looked like a very tall, possibly anorexic version of a fat stuffy spring roll (a supermodel to the common spring roll folk?) was kind of dry and didn't add much to my pea soup eating experience. I would've gladly traded the crab crisp for...moooore souuup...
Tina and Giulia ordered the hot smoked salmon with raw tomato tart and avocado...
...And Helen got a salad of shaved country ham, grilled figs & bitter greens dressed with preserved lemon bits and aged balsamic vinaigrette. The bitter greens were too bitter for her tastes (and mine), but the grilled figs oozed with the tasty goodness of grilled sugar. Or just...sugar in general. If the salad were only composed of grilled figs (a MOUNTAIN of them!), then Helen probably would've had sparkles of glee in her eyes instead of faint disgust from tainting her mouth with the evil green leaves. But that probably wouldn't count as a salad.
My seared hake (with summer bean salad and mildly spicy salsa verde) tasted somewhere between "very good" and "perfect." My favorite form of fish is when the flesh is soft and tender on the inside with just the slightest crispy crust on the outside. And I mean very slight. Like a micronanomillimeter, if such a thing exists (pretend it does). The only times I've ever had fish like that was at upscale restaurants like Aureole because for some reason those are the only places with the magical ability to make it super tasty. I wonder how hard it would be to reach the same level of perfection in my own home, or if it would even be possible. Considering that I once completely mangled a cod fillet in my cooking class while trying to pan sear it (although my overly nice professor didn't balk at my disfigured fillet, she was probably restraining herself from wringing my throat or something), I'm gonna say, "not that possible."
Helen ordered the "Garganelli Pasta with Wild Mushrooms & Caramelized Onions" with tomato confit, wilted arugula and goat cheese. My assumption is that it was good. Yeah. Um.
Giulia ordered the roasted Amish chicken with scallion risotto. I don't remember much about this dish, but Giulia loved it.
We all ordered the triple chocolate terrine with banana ice cream and caramelized plantains because WE LIKEY DA CHOCOLATE (and none of us was in the mood for the other dessert, lemon ricotta cheesecake). Although I really liked the chocolate mousse-y terrine, which was borderline too sweet (but only borderline, meaning that I could still comfortable eat it all), my favorite part was the creamy banana ice cream, held in place by a little mat of what tasted like pulverized cookie dust. If only they made a banana ice cream sundae...damn, that would've been good. Are sundaes beneath the ostentatious atmosphere of an upscale restaurant?
The caramelized plantains were disappointing, for they weren't really caramelized. Dumping caramel sauce on top of something does not qualify as caramelization. Sauce was tasty, stuff underneath was not. The plantains were so starchy that they reminded me of potato...potato covered with caramel sauce. Such a combination does not compute. If the chef had tasted the plantains, I hope he would've though, "Damn, this ain't right." Or something with a comparable meaning.
Overall I'd say Aureole was very good and a place I'd like to return to once I make a gajillion dollars. Sure, it's not dip-into-your-trust-fund expensive, but when one entree (outside of Restaurant Week) exceeds my normal expenditure for an entire meal, a red flag goes up. ...Says the girl who will spend a gajillion dollars on a trip to Italy and has her eye on a new Mac Book Pro...well. That's different.
Eleven Madison Park
Thank goodness for Tina; without her I wouldn't have even though of going to one restaurant for Restaurant Week. And because she likes to plan ahead (aka make reservations to lots of restaurants with the hopes that none of her friends' plans will change, except they inevitably do, which is where I come in and fill the void) I got to go to two places.
I've been interested in going to Eleven Madison Park ever since I heard that it was awesome times ten-thousand. Roughly. At least everyone who had dined there seemed to have the same positive experience. Don't I deserve such an experience? DON'T I?! Probably not, but the restaurant didn't know that.
Tina, Helen, Doug and I were seated around a large, roomy round table with one extra spot for Ariel, who was running a little late. I slipped out of my icy rain-soaked shoes, wishing that I had a fluffy towel to dry off my feet with but figured it'd be a little odd to ask, "May I have one of your pristine towels so that I may desecrate it with the soles of my feet?" (I only once went to a restaurant who was giving all their customers towels since it was raining sheets: Coral Sea Restaurant at EPCOT Center. Good times. Besides that we had to wring out our clothing.)
EMP had the "big slab of butter in a pretty dish" thing going on. The dish was even nicer than Aureole's; it was a dish within a dish. I think the lining of the inner dish was dotted with holes to allow the butter to...breathe. Does butter breathe? [shrugs]
There was also a tiny dish of salt and pepper on our table in case we weren't pleased with the way our food was seasoned. I figured that the food should be correctly seasoned before coming out of the kitchen. Was the choice to season our own food some kind of dare from the chef? Like, "Use this salt and pepper and I shall smite you with my sauté pan." None of us found out since we didn't need to use the salt or pepper.
I started with an olive bread roll, thickly crusted with soft innards speckled with olive bits. Over the meal the bread guy came back a few times to offer us more bread. Bread serf, come hither with carbohydrate replenishment!...is not what I said or thought. I didn't want to ruin my appetite too much with the bread because, you know, if given the temptation (such as, if a large basket of bread is placed in front of me) I will eat lots of bread.
I started with the "Big Eye Tuna with Cherry Lane Farm Asparagus and Montegottero Pistachio Oil" (all dish descriptions are being nicked from Tina, by the way), not so much because I love tuna but because I didn't want the other choices. Three little quenelles of chopped up tuna bits were topped with impossibly small quartered asparagus tips with amorphous blobs of pistachio oil drizzled around the plate. If I liked tuna more I suppose I would've...liked this dish more. Of course, it tasted good—I liked it enough to eat it all—but I don't remember much about it.
Doug got a very pretty "Salad of Green Vegetables with Marcona Almonds" that made us go, "Oooh, pretty salad."
Tina, Helen and Ariel got the "Green Market Strawberry Gazpacho with Poached Tiger Prawns and Guanciale." The response was mixed; it was good, but not awesome. Ariel complained that it was disarmingly sweet and strawberry flavored, this missing the gazpacho-ness that he was after, but that it was creative. ...A little too creative. I don't have an opinion since I didn't try it.
Tina and I ordered the "Roasted Chicken with Garden Peas and Morels" for our main course. Although I wouldn't say it blew my mind, I thought it was very good. I like moist, tender chicken with a layer of crispy skin, I like peas, I like potatoes the size of pebbles, and morels...well, morels are alright. I'm not sure I had ever eaten them before.
Everyone else ordered the "Slow Cooked Scottish Salmon with Mediterranean Vegetables" which unexpectedly appeared as a block of salmon sitting in a sea of white foam. Tomato flavored foam. Which tastes like tomato, but foamy. It was a bit of a surprise since tomato doesn't usually come in foam form. Like the chicken, the salmon tasted like it was perfectly cooked—just to the point of not being entirely raw, very moist and tender.
Doug and I went with the "Almond Panacotta with Summer Berries" for dessert. I heart panacotta. Or most of them. They're somewhat solid like gelatin, but with the creaminess of pudding or mousse. While I liked EMP's panacotta, I didn't really heart it. It had the jiggle and many glorious specks of vanilla bean, yet something was missing. More flavor, more creaminess? Where's the luuuv? Ah well. I think I liked the minty raspberry sauce and berries more than the panacotta.
Helen's "Apricots Clafouti with Almond Honey Ice Cream" looked pretty, but another dish I don't recall much about. I tasted it. It sent some kind of signal to my brain through the ol' taste buds. And that signal was... ....I'm blanking out...
Ariel bisected his "Moelleux of Bittersweet Chocolate with Passion fruit" and shared it with the rest of the table. I could smell the tangy passion fruit as the plate got closer to my side of the table. The small bite I tried tasted good enough (creamy, chocolatey), but again, not something I remember much about.
We ended our meal with the touristy thing to do, which is TAKE LOTS OF PHOTOS OF HAPPY SMILIN' PEOPLE. Top left is Ariel, then Doug in the right, and Tina, me and Helen in the bottom photo. These are some of the best people you could eat out with; every person has a difference sense of humor and approach to eating, but we all mesh together well in...warm, gooey harmony. LIKE CASSEROLE! A 60% Asian female casserole.
So we shall eat again. Maybe not at EMP, which I was surprised to find I didn't like as much as Aureole, but some other awesome place. Momofuku Ssam Bar is calling my name...