With cocktails and this seafood gift from the house, we’re already seduced at NoMad.
What a lark we had that Friday evening early in the fireworks of NoMad, the new escapade of the four-star team at Eleven Madison Park. It seemed as if the entire waxed-and-polished floor entourage from Eleven Mad had been shanghaied to launch this new dining scheme for the group that owns the Ace Hotel, a block north. And here, in Parisian designer Jacques Garcia’s faux Victoriana VIP dining room — velvet swathings, pressed herbs, slipper chairs, crushed velvet banquettes too low for the bare table — smiling minions flit, float and dance attendance, delivering survival information, arcane poop, occasionally interruptive cheers and gifts from the kitchen.
It takes time to study the pamphlet of curated drinking and choose — 34 cocktails in assorted categories — and more time to deliver them. “Here’s a drink with three kinds of alcohol. It has to be awful,” I grouse. Something about the exaggerated cheerfulness here has turned me off.
“I’ll order it and we’ll see,” cries my friend Barry and his “Start Me Up,” mixing bourbon, rum and Strega sloshed onto a glacier of an ice cube in an oversize glass, turns out to be better than “Paris Is Burning (gin and mezcal)” or my “Classic” apple brandy potion with gomme arabic. I should have remembered my mother’s admonition, “Nice girls don’t chew gomme.”
“What is that music?” I ask my hipper pals. “Am I hearing rap?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be a happening place,” Barry reminds me.
Of course, even though the music is deliberately lowish, it’s hard to stay hostile with occasional snatches of Motown and the Rolling Stones. After all, that’s my era.
But now, what pomp approaches? A triumphant parade of servitors and lieutenants, bearing footed silver platters, presented with great flourish — Le Grand Plateau ($24 a person, the menu advises). My congenital critics’ snarl of suspicion flickers away. It’s not easy to resist the royal ass kiss. But I’m also impressed by the tangy frozen mignonette on Beausoleil oysters and the citric blast of yuzu in scallop ceviche with pistachios and jalapeño. Small cubes of raw hamachi are smartly tucked into a thatch of grated and gentle horseradish. A devilish idea. And for each of us, there is a dollop of king crab salad with avocado and lime on a shard of crab shell, and a pastiche of lobster also with avocado in a spicy mayonnaise. I save the sea urchin gelee with caviar to linger on my tongue and savor last, of course.
(“They’re calling this casual,” an editor friend marvels, her voiced arched for emphasis when we bump into each other in the ladies room, located inconveniently one flight below.)
With great snap, our captain and an aide deliver two bread boards with shiny flatbread, each with its own slicing knife, one for either end of the table – the bread layered with fingerling potatoes and onion is soft and warm and sticky.
If I didn’t know that Eleven Mad partners, Daniel Humm and Will Guidara, were the defining spirits here, I would still sense something special in the fawning style and kitchen daring. There’s not much on the tailored menu you’re already bored with from copycat menus elsewhere. Well, maybe the egg seems familiar. Poached with asparagus, the white barely set, with dark sprinkles of toasted quinoa, it spoons up in a cosmic foam. Gratineed bone marrow sprinkled with parsley and shallots gets salted with anchovy. Smoked trout sprawls in fragile slices with noodle-cut cucumber and toasted rye.
“Interesting,” I hear my companions say. “Interesting.” I notice gourmand hopefuls always resort to “interesting” when we admire the idea but don’t exactly love the dish. Scattered nasturtium flowers and leaves on the foie gras plate? Yes, but even with pig’s head and radish, more interesting than delicious.
Humm’s penchant for citrus, in this case a dose of Meyer lemon and black pepper, jazzes up the tagliatelle king crab. One of our friends can always be counted on to order lobster. NoMad’s is exquisitely cooked with homemade potato chips and a hint of tarragon. Am I getting bored with suckling pigs? Tonight’s is confit’d, but stringy and blah.
I prefer the excellent duck, roasted rare and meaty with apples and huge, intense dandelion leaves, scented with vadouvan, a French version of curry. And put out $78 for two (or even 3) to share the whole roasted chicken (finished in a special small kitchen we can see from our post). It comes tastily wrapped in tawny brioche with a small bowl alongside of dark meat pieces steeped in a buttery, truffled sauce.
Our assigned major domo, his glee by now contagious, brings out a growler of Le Poulet beer created by The Brooklyn Brewery specifically to go with the bird. “We want to know what you think of the match.” Alas, as I am one of the two non-beer drinkers in this caucus, I can’t vote. I’d like a nice Chianti about now.
As if the fuss isn’t exciting enough, I’m exhilarated by my escorted tour: Past the kitchen annex and the barista station with the big black coffee machine (“Made to match our décor”), through the atrium with its glass ceiling (“We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner here”), into a small dining alcove with a majestic marble fireplace from a French manor house (“It arrived in pieces”), and past the riotous bar with its treasures of booze (“De rigueur, it seems, these days”).
Thatcher Wine’s curated library is a jewel: A place for breakfast (from a rolling pastry cart), business meetings, a drink, or even a read (books arranged by subjects for men, women, but not children — a pointed omission). Secret booze books with flasks of bourbon hidden inside were quickly discovered by rogues ransacking the shelves. Now management debates the wisdom of hiding more flasks.
It feels like we’ve been eating and drinking and submitting to the fuss for hours. Is it really necessary to ask each one of us if we are pleased with our dishes while we are chewing? I would settle for one dessert or none and go back to being the poor little match girl. But we have serious dessert lovers among us. I’m not moved by the chocolate tart with fleur de sel or the “Peanut Butter Palate” with popcorn. But “Milk and Honey” shortbread with brittle and the intense lemony caramel under baked apple, with apple sorbet and little brioche puffs are almost worth how long we’re waiting.
I’m flying in the cab home. Of course that could be sugar tremens. But all week I raved about NoMad, sending everyone. Fortunately — or unfortunately — I sent myself back again and discovered the place on a bad day. Three hours of indulgence on a Friday night might be amusing, but not on Tuesday. I asked to eat quickly. Chef Humm’s arrival interrupted our order. By the time he left (night out maybe) the captain had vanished.
Later, as I tasted listless salmon rillettes and too salty steak tartare, as we pleaded with our captain to bring the main courses, I was sure Humm had come from Eleven Mad itself and not the kitchen below. In the dim of very ordinary service — the dozens of savvy retainers had disappeared — I puzzled over my sweetbread snacks: Mini spring rolls. I had three to be sure I hated them as much as I did on first bite. A companion’s drink did not arrive. Our server seemed not to remember taking her order.
“It doesn’t have much bourbon in it,” she remarked.
“Why don’t you ask for more?” I urged, waving my arm wildly to get attention from…anyone.
She was polite. “Would it be possible to get a little more bourbon in this drink?”
The captain seemed personally wounded. “You are saying the ratio is not to your liking?”
“Maybe they forgot to put in the bourbon,” I chimed in.
Suddenly nothing tasted right. At the next table, the Time Out New York critic and his baroness seemed to be equally neglected.
We had to stop a busboy and ask him to clear the table. We drank our wine and waited and waited and waited. My guy wanted to go home. “It won’t be long, darling,” I promised. But it was. We began begging for food. The staff raced and turned and swirled, but nothing appeared at our table.
“Where is the food?” I finally screamed. Did I scream? Maybe I did. I know I raised my voice.
“It’s definitely on the way,” our waiter said. But it wasn’t. As I got up to go, a team of waiters surged toward us. We sat down again. Amazingly, the critical half of my brain could appreciate stalks of perfectly cooked asparagus with bread salad and crushed smoked potatoes. The duck proved a very good choice as before and The Road Food Warrior forgot his determination to leave as he tucked into exquisitely lemony seared scallops with sorrel and maitake mushrooms.
I left my friends to order coffee, reminded again how one great meal may not quite tell the story. As New York restaurant critic for 32 years, I fudged some of the great Craig Claiborne’s reviewing rules. He always waited three months to chime in, and I determined to beat him and the motley crew of Times critics that followed. But faithfully, three meals or more, always anonymous. Of course, he got the royal rush too once he became recognized. But reviewing was not the rat’s nest it has become.
Will you want to go to NoMad? Yes, of course. How long can you resist the madding crowd? It’s still the buzz after all. I’ll give them time to perfect their rhythm.
1170 Broadway between 27th and 28th Streets. 212 796 1500 212 796 1500 . Daily. Breakfast 7 to 10 am. Lunch Noon to 2 pm. Dinner Sunday 5:30 to 10 pm. Monday through Thursday till 10:30. Friday and Saturday till 11 pm. Pastries and coffee in the library from 10 am to 2 pm. Bar noon to close. Snack menu in Bar and Library from 2 to 5 pm.