Since I had some issues counting back my days when I made reservations at Sushi Nakazawa, I practiced for a few days in anticipation of making this reservation. What I discovered was that I was having no luck getting a dinner reservation no matter how early or late I was willing to eat, but lunch didn’t seem to be a problem. When the actual day I was shooting for arrived, I still had no luck for dinner; so a lunch reservation it was. The menu offered is the same for either meal – as is the price – and I figured lunch might be a little more casual to allay any lingering fears about formality.
EMP is owned by Chef Daniel Humm and business partner Will Guidara. They purchased the restaurant in 2011 from New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer. They made some changes after the purchase, including going to a tasting menu-only format. The following year they went from one to three Michelin stars, and have maintained that rating ever since.
The day before our reservation, we received a call to confirm we’d be there and were told to expect to spend between three and three-and-a-half hours for lunch. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an afternoon than eating for several hours at one of the best restaurants in the world!
Despite everything I read, my fears of stuffiness and formality started up again as soon as we entered. The dining room is grand and formal and felt a bit dated. Maybe it was the bright daylight, but it lacked atmosphere and a certain moodiness that I associate with all my best meals. The staff was attentive and professional throughout the meal, but it felt formal and mostly impersonal with just a few exceptions. Not a lot of smiles, not a lot of conversation, and no real sense of being truly welcomed. Even when we were being told some history or funny story behind a particular course, it didn’t feel relaxed. This was surprising to me because everything I read said how fun and playful the atmosphere was and in The World’s 50 Best description it says, “there is not a hint of stuffiness here. Dishes are playful and often interactive…” Maybe we were there on a wrong day.
Despite my disappointment with the atmosphere, I can’t fault the food. It was gorgeous, delicious, and surprisingly plentiful, and after fifteen courses we left absolutely stuffed. Many of the dishes are plays on New York classics and many featured locally-sourced ingredients with shout-outs to the farms and small purveyors they came from.
The meal began as we unwrapped a box left on our table which revealed savory cheddar cookies. This was followed by one of my favorite dishes of the meal – smoked sturgeon sabayon – it was decadently creamy yet light as air. An oyster tart with oyster soup was followed by marinated scallops with black truffles and leeks. Another meal favorite was EMP’s version of eggs benedict with ham: a quail egg, caviar, and a beautiful hollandaise sauce. That’s what it’s supposed to taste like, I thought to myself. A bread course followed served with butter infused with venison drippings, but the gamey essence was hard to detect. Kohlrabi, hazelnuts, and Tarentaise – a handmade, organic cheese from Vermont – was next, followed by a play on the classic Waldorf salad created in New York City in the late 1800s that was made tableside and served in a bowl that cleverly concealed a light and creamy celery root soup below. Poached Maine lobster with butternut squash was a welcome East Coast treat, followed by roasted hen-of-the-woods mushrooms.
We had a choice of duck or venison for our main course and we both chose the venison, served with a beet jus that was another favorite of the meal. A cheese course came next, with cheese baked into a squash, served with a bitter green salad and pretzel bread with spicy mustard and quince jam. This was good, but felt too heavy this late in the meal, and seemed something I would like to have with a beer on a cold winter’s day after snowshoeing. A lighter cheese course without the bread would have made a better transition from savory to sweet.
The first dessert course was almond ice cream served with a glass spoonful of Riesling. This was the palette cleanser we desperately needed after the heavy baked cheese. Next was a milk custard with bee pollen ice cream. Cracking open a hard center in the ice cream, honey gushes forth. A delightful and delicious surprise. The meal was winding down and now we had a game to play called “Name that Milk.” Four chocolate bars were laid out in front of us made from different types of milk: buffalo, goat, sheep, and cow. We were given cards and pencils to take notes and make our guesses. It was fun despite getting them all wrong, but we could only manage a small bite of each chocolate as we were ready to explode; besides the fact that some of the chocolate was not as appetizing as others. The final course was a chocolate-dipped pretzel and apple brandy. We forced the pretzels down and drank a few sips of brandy. Unfortunately, while they left the bottle on the table for us to enjoy, we were spent at that point.
I can’t complain about the generous portions, but some of them felt too heavy, especially towards the end. And while the pacing of the courses was generally good – that is why the meal takes so long – at the end we suddenly felt rushed. While we were playing the chocolate game, they brought out the pretzels and brandy without much said in the way of closure. Presumably, they were ready to finish lunch service so they could get ready for dinner; but, at that point, we had not exceeded the expected length of the meal, and it felt like they were trying to get rid of us.
So my feelings about EMP are mixed, and I’ve been having a hard time admitting that because of all its accolades, not to mention the hefty price tag. Despite what I read, I found the atmosphere to be formal and stuffy – not fun, personable, or even really friendly – and I have to admit it, I was disappointed. I love fancy; I don’t like overt formality. The food overall was excellent, and there were a few dishes that were absolute magic, but some just felt like filler or were too much. This was our first three-star Michelin experience, and I have to say it wasn’t any better than some one-star or even no-star restaurants we’ve been to. I wonder if it was the lunch time reservation that caused the different experience, or maybe it was an off day for staff. I would certainly go to EMP again, but with so many options in NYC I’d be more inclined to try somewhere different next time.