Passing into the spacious, now-hallowed halls of Eleven Madison Park can be an intimidating experience for a mere mortal. There are the soaring ceilings; the look-better-than-you staff in their crisp livery; the almost oppressive hospitality, with immediate greetings, inquiries about reservations and offers to check your coat, hat, bags, whatever. All of these things combined can make you feel as if you’re going through customs in a ritzy principality.
In the past, the bar had always been a safe refuge for the more humble among us. It was a place where you could go without a reservation and get a taste of the Eleven Madison Park—known more colloquially as “EMP”—good life without breaking into flop sweat, parting with several hours of your life or dipping into your 401k. That you could also get good drinks was icing on the cake.
It was with a sense of excitement and trepidation, then, that some of us greeted the news last year that a temporary EMP shutdown and overhaul would include a complete reimagining of the bar.
EMP holds a unique place in New York’s cocktail continuum as one of the first serious restaurants to catch the cocktail wave and insist its drinks be as good as its food. Management, aiming to compete with bars like Milk & Honey and Pegu Club, gave the bartenders access to the kitchen. The liquor inventory was boosted and a Kold-Draft ice machine acquired. Though the program is now largely associated with Leo Robitschek, the very creative and able bar director, other noted talents passed through EMP, including Eben Freeman, Eamon Rockey and Cory Hill. (Matthew Hunter is head bartender of the new iteration.)
Gradually, their good work came to be recognized. In 2012, the same team behind EMP—chef Daniel Humm, restaurateur Will Guidara and Robitschek—opened The NoMad, just a few blocks north. The concept now includes three bars of global acclaim whose towering achievements would not have been possible without the groundwork laid at EMP.
The downside of The NoMad’s success is that it cast EMP’s bar in shadow. With the reimagining, however, there was a good chance that the restaurant might finally get its full due as a drinking destination.
Based on three recent visits, those hopes appear to have been misplaced. Oh, the cocktails are excellent and the bartenders are crackerjack and attentive, as you might expect. But just try and get to them. There are only six barstools open to walk-ins. The rest of the space—which has traded in its former amber warmth for a color scheme of muted grays and browns—is given over to a small number of tables, seating an additional 22. These can only be reserved for parties of two or more, and those who reserve must commit to an abbreviated version of the EMP tasting menu, at $155 to $175 per person. One gets the feeling that EMP hasn’t so much renovated the bar as monetized it.
To be fair, this seems to have been the intent. “Over the past few years, we have seen more and more demand from people wanting to experience the EMP dining experience in a shorter format,” said Robitschek. “We wanted the bar to be a place that gave people a comfortable place to have the EMP dining experience while also getting to taste our cocktails.”
If you do, however, intend to treat it like a bar, get there at or a bit after 5 p.m.; the bar opens a half hour before the first dining room seating. Pull up one of those coveted chairs and you’ll get a friendly greeting and a menu on which the cocktails are named after single ingredients found within each drink (Cranberry, Kombu, Apple, etc.). The ingredient names “mimic those found on our dining room menu,” said Robitschek.
This trope, previously seen at ZZ’s Clam Bar and Mace, once seemed fresh and different, but is perhaps a bit played out now. It never really computed anyway. The names were meant to make the drinks more immediately understandable to the customer, but they often succeeded in adding confusion, since the cocktails almost never tasted primarily of the specified component. EMP complicates the device further by listing two drinks under each ingredient name.
Once I deciphered the concept and asked the bartender a number of questions, I reeled in a few of high-quality drinks, most of them priced at a not-unreasonable $18 to $20 (this is EMP, after all). One of the “Cranberry” drinks is a deeply flavored highball made with rum, Barolo Chinato, orange-flavored amaro Bigallet China-China, lemon juice, allspice dram, rich cranberry syrup and mineral water. Deep red in color and satisfyingly layered, it alternatively offers notes of fruit, bitter and wine. Another drink, called “Mushroom,” is an enhanced Bamboo variation. In addition to the expected sherry and vermouth (in this case, blanc) is verjus and the Italian walnut liqueur, Nocino. The titular funghi is introduced by way of a shiitake-honey syrup, which lurks politely in the background, content to allow a pickled mushroom garnish, tasting almost of candy, to signify its presence.
Highlights From the New EMP
The seats around me were occupied by patrons with differing agendas. Some were enjoying a drink, like me; others ordered à la carte food items, an option at the bar; still others were waiting for their table. All were well-behaved, seemingly taking their cues from the subdued décor, which is the work of noted architect Brad Cloepfil. Cloepfil is better known for his work with museums, and has compared the EMP’s space to a “gallery” for Humm’s food. Cross a gallery mindset with a working bar and you end up with a kind of posh but anonymous hotel bar, which is exactly what the new EMP bar feels like.
Cloepfil’s deadening work pretty much leaves it to the drinks and food to furnish the space with any sort of life. And the drinks, at least, do. One of the “Apple” cocktails is a burly, spiced Whiskey Sour made with rye, Abano amaro, honey crisp apple cider and lemon juice. It’s similar to Mott and Mulberry, an earlier NoMad drink by Robitschek, but this one is defined by shavings of frozen foie gras torchon that sit atop the apple-fan garnish. The drink is good enough on its own, but you’ll want to stir some of that foie gras into the liquid; it adds luscious layers of texture and flavor.
I found two Martini variations that excelled, both understatedly ornate and elegant. One was on the fall menu, now passed; another is on the current winter menu. The first, labeled “Seaweed,” is the work of Robitschek, and contains Plymouth gin, kombu-infused blanc vermouth, Cocchi Americano and, instead of an olive or onion, a pickled piece of fennel. The fennel teams with the vermouth to lend a soothing, gentle sweetness to the drink. It is a mellowed Gibson of sorts.
The second, created by Pietro Collina, falls under the “Parsnip” heading. (“Find the Martini” is a fun drinking game to play at the current EMP.) This is just as winning, made of muddled celery, gin, sherry and, again, ever-versatile blanc vermouth, poured into a glass sprayed with carrot eau de vie. The elegant garnish is made of minute cubes of pickled parsnip, carrot and celery, joined together on a metal olive pick. The drink serves as a reminder of the hidden sweetness that lies inside root vegetables.
The oddest drink on the winter menu, labeled “Kombu,” is made of hot broth, miso and sherry. Served in a white bowl, and garnished with a star anise pod that spins slowly on the surface, it tastes exactly like miso soup, with the sherry barely detectable. It struck me as the sort of broth you’d want to begin a great meal with. But it also reminded me that EMP would probably prefer that I be eating and not just drinking.
That EMP’s bar would transition from what it was to what it is now was perhaps inevitable, given how cocktail service has evolved in the U.S. The drinks revival greatly improved what and how we drink in many bars and restaurants, including the original EMP bar. But it also brought about some less happy customs, like a certain self-importance among bartenders and inventiveness that frequently lapses into gimmickry. But perhaps the worst phenomenon is that of the exclusive bar: the bar that requires a reservation; the bar that has a waiting list; the bar where you are not permitted to just walk in and belly up.
Once upon a time, such strictures were set up in the name of decorum and creating the right atmosphere; such was the case with idiosyncratic Milk & Honey, which arguably spearheaded the practice. Lately, however, the motivation seems to be monetary. In some cases, I believe it’s warranted. Aviary, for instance, is too quixotic an experience to function as a walk-right-in bar. It shares something with EMP, in that it operates its bar body with a restaurant brain. But the former achieves something sui generis. EMP took away its great bar and replaced it with something that feels a bit like a bar and a bit like an offshoot of the restaurant, but not enough of either.
The drinks at the new EMP bar are lovingly considered and mostly delicious. If you are dining there, I recommend them. But, if you are not, why fight against the current when you can just walk a few blocks north to The NoMad?