One aspect of travel important to me, regardless of destination or the reason for the trip, is to find something that is utterly local to try. In particular, I like finding food that is completely of a given place. In France, we live in a relatively rural area that prides itself on local production, in particular of dairy products and poultry, and what’s on the plate carries with it a deep sense of place and home. Across France during a week in October, an annual Semaine du Gout highlights and promotes the history, value and context of food and dining, with a focus on teaching the value of good food to children in primary school. The mayor of our small town, a professional chef himself, used to invite the entire local school to the local community center for a day of cooking good, locally produced food and eating together as a part of their primary education.
Visiting friends in New York this weekend, a place where you can get pretty much anything, from anywhere, at almost any time of the day, I was happy to see the same devotion to local food and traditions. From the market on Union Square selling produce from the immediate surrounding region – all winter crops, a rainbow of potatoes, parsnips, carrots and a couple of stands with apples – to the restaurant I was fortunate to experience, Eleven Madison Square.
The meal at Eleven Madison Square took the words ‘local’ and ‘historical’ to new heights. Most of the produce and food was from within two hours of the city, and each one of the 15 (!) courses celebrated some aspect of the city itself. There were miniature egg creams, a variation on the American milkshake made of syrup, milk and soda water that is a hallmark of Brooklyn. There was smoked sturgeon served on a crumble of an Everything Bagel (a bagel with “everything”, something as ubiquitous in NYC as the croissant is in France, and also serves as a self-congratulatory superlative).
Sure, it was over-the-top, an extreme menu that left us gasping, but a sense of being overwhelmed is as much a part of the city as the egg creams and bagels.
If dinner as theater is not your egg cup of creamed fish foam, this is not the place for you. But from the duck-fat enriched butter to the little chocolates hidden in a secret compartment beneath our final dessert course, we thought it was such a treat!
So thanks, Corwin, who was our waiter, for walking us through each course, thanks to my friends who were kind enough to take me with along with them through an extreme dining Tunnel of Love, and thanks to the restaurant for creating a real altar to the Local.
Note on the photos: The restaurant permits photography, but only without a flash. The place is not dimly lit, and the food is not universally tinged with amber shadows.