It was September 2010, and Manhattan's Eleven Madison Park had rocketed up the buzz chart among the dining cognoscenti. Its Swiss-born wunderkind chef, Daniel Humm, was plating dishes that could display at the Museum of Modern Art. It already had been bestowed four stars by Frank Bruni, then-restaurant critic for the New York Times.
Humm and General Manager Will Guidara were riding high and operating on forward momentum, and like in the movie "Speed," the assumption was something bad happens if the bus didn't keep moving.
So what did they do? Eleven Madison Park slammed on the brakes. They closed for two weeks and questioned everything they had done heretofore.
To become an even better restaurant, they realized, the answer wasn't to employ more advanced techniques to higher-priced ingredients. It was antithetical to how restaurants operated -- loosening collars was the new buttoning-up.
"We wanted to make the experience feel more like going to someone's home," Humm said.
They remodeled the kitchen and redesigned its menu, but many changes were more subtle. Now the food was served by the very chefs who cooked the dishes, and they were encouraged to lean on the table while describing to customers. On menus, they boiled down high-brow descriptions to a single word.
Guidara explained their rationale: You tell dinner guests "we're having duck," not "we're having lavender-glazed duck with fennel and peaches." (Which is why the multi-ingredient dish appears on the menu, simply, as "Duck.")
The Eleven Madison Park team swung by the Tribune test kitchen recently, in the middle of a nationwide tour to promote their lavish, 6-pound coffee-table cookbook "Eleven Madison Park: The Cookbook" (Little, Brown and Co.; $50).
They shared ideas that home cooks can use when entertaining dinner guests, many of which they've applied to their four-star restaurant. As Humm demonstrated a braised beef short rib dish with celery root puree (adapted for home cooks from a similar veal cheek recipe), Guidara spoke on the notion of balance -- how they want the restaurant to feel like going out and coming home.
"It's one of the major themes in the book: the balance between classic and modern, simple and complicated, rustic and refined," Guidara said. "Always maintain balance."
As a hallmark at Eleven Madison Park, every diner is sent home with a jar of granola. With home dinner parties, most guests bring a gift, so how about turning it around on the guests and giving them a present on their way out?
Humm suggested jam as a gift that's easy to make and stores well. "People are going to have breakfast for the next month and be reminded of that experience," Humm said.
Guidara said another great parting gift is a CD of the dinner party playlist they just heard.
"People spend so much time cooking or cleaning their house, but hosts don't ever pay attention to music," he said. "It's important to spend a little time and put together a great playlist. It completes the whole entertaining experience."
It's the tiny details that elevate dinner parties from great to memorable. Something as simple as serving food on warm plates (a few minutes in the microwave) is a nice touch.
Guidara talked about one of his favorite host tricks: Learn to make one cocktail really well and become regarded as the expert.
"You want to become known for it. Mine's a Manhattan."
In those two weeks off for re-evaluation, the crew at Eleven Madison Park took one step forward then two steps back. The move was risky, but critics responded in kind. In May, it won Outstanding Restaurant from the James Beard Foundation, tantamount to winning best picture at the Oscars. This October, the influential Michelin Guide elevated the restaurant from one to three stars, its highest rating. "A dream come true," Humm said.
Note: In "Eleven Madison Park," Humm includes a recipe for black truffle braised veal cheeks with parsnip. He adapted the dish for home cooks, substituting short ribs for the veal cheeks, and eliminating some of the accompaniments. Along with the ribs and celery root puree here, you can serve braised carrot, celery root and celery.
Braised Short Ribs with Celery Root
8 boneless beef short ribs
1 each, diced: carrot, rib celery, white onion
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1 bottle (750 milliliters) red wine
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 1/2 teaspoons tomato paste
1-2 cups beef stock
Celery root puree, see recipe below
Place the short ribs, carrot, celery, onion, thyme and bay leaf in a large nonreactive container. Cover with the wine; marinate in the refrigerator, 48 hours. Remove the ribs from the marinade; pat dry. Strain the marinade, reserving the liquid and the vegetables separately. Heat the liquid to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat, skimming any impurities. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve.
Heat the oven to 275 degrees. Season the ribs with the salt. Heat the oil in a large, straight-sided oven-safe pan over high heat. Sear the short ribs on all sides, 30 to 45 seconds per side. Remove from the pan. Drain any excess oil from the pan; lower the heat to medium. Add the strained vegetables. Cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Add the tomato paste; cook 3 minutes.
Pour in the strained red wine, scrapping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon; reduce by half. Add 1 cup stock; heat to a simmer. Return the ribs to the pan; add more stock if needed to come halfway up the ribs. Cover, transfer to the oven and cook until the ribs are tender and can be easily pulled apart with a fork, about 2 hours.
Gently remove the ribs from the braising liquid; set aside. Strain the liquid; discard the vegetables. Reduce the liquid over medium heat to the consistency of a glaze, 30-40 minutes. To glaze the ribs, add them to the glaze, basting until heated through.
To serve, spoon 2 tablespoons celery root puree in pools on each of eight plates. Place ribs and some of the glaze at edge of puree.
Makes 8 servings.
Celery Root Puree
1 pound celery root, peeled, diced, about 3 1/2 cups
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons salt
Combine the celery root with the half-and-half in a medium saucepan; place over medium heat. Wrap the thyme and garlic in a piece of cheesecloth, tie with butcher's twine, and add to the saucepan. Heat to just under a boil; reduce heat to low. Simmer until the celery root is tender, 20-25 minutes.
Discard the thyme and garlic. Strain, reserving celery root and liquid separately. Transfer the celery root to a blender; blend, gradually adding liquid as necessary until smooth but not too loose. With the blender still running, add the butter. Season with the salt.
Makes 8 servings.