After being closed for three months for a major renovation, Eleven Madison Park, which holds Wine Spectator's Grand Award, reopened its doors to diners on Oct. 8. The restaurant unveiled a revamped space with a new design and furnishings, as well as a new menu. Wine Spectator took a peek at the wine cellar and spoke with wine director Cedric Nicaise about how the program is moving forward.
"I spent a good part of the summer in my downtime really thinking about the list critically," said Nicaise, who had been working in Long Island at the restaurant's Hamptons pop-up, EMP Summer House, with a big part of the service team. While running the show there, Nicaise was also developing wine pairings for the new menu, helping design new wine storage and service stations, and freshening up the wine list.
The most immediate change is in the by-the-glass program. Staples that Eleven Madison Park had poured for years have been switched out. The Domaine Eden Cabernet Sauvignon from the Santa Cruz Mountains has been replaced by a Scholar & Mason Cabernet from Napa Valley. The by-the-glass Pinot Noir, formerly from Tyler in Santa Barbara, is now a Pinot from Walter Scott, a relatively new producer in Oregon. Champagne's Bérêche & Fils, once considered an up-and-comer, has now been switched out for "what Bérêche was five years ago," said Nicaise: a boutique grower-producer called Pascal Panson. He hopes the changes will encourage diners who tended to reorder the original staples to try something new.
The 40 wines by the glass used to be kept in Eurocaves behind the bar with not as much control over temperature as Nicaise would have liked; he thought they had been serving white wines a little too warm. They are now stored in reach-in wine fridges with four different temperature zones, located right next to the cellar for more expedient service. Riedel is still the stemware of choice; the restaurant provides 15 different glasses to cover the wide range of wine types offered during the dining experience.
The by-the-bottle wine list, which fluctuates between 3,000 and 4,000 selections, has always evolved throughout the year, Nicaise said; the number of choices from particular regions grow and shrink depending on the season, what's on the menu, and when certain wines are released. This will still be the case going forward, but Nicaise shared that he wants to focus more on wines from different islands for his future purchasing. Eleven Madison Park has done a good job of representing Corsica in France, but Nicaise plans to further build up the list with wines from Spain's Canary Islands, Sardinia and Sicily in Italy, and the Greek islands. "There's some interesting stuff going on there," he said.
Another change will surely grab diners' attention: The addition of an orange wine to the pairings, the first time Nicaise has chosen one to go alongside the food. "I'm not a huge fan of orange wine as a style, but there's a dish that's going on the menu that I think fits really well," he said. The wine in question is from Austrian producer Christian Tschida.
Nicaise is happy to get back to Eleven Madison Park again. But he feels that working in a more casual restaurant for a few months was beneficial to the work he and the team do. Almost overnight, the staff went from serving 100 guests a night to 1,000, and working off a 250-selection wine list as opposed to 4,000. "It was really interesting and challenging," he said. "The wine team and I got better at our jobs by doing something totally different for three months and then coming back here." He looks forward to seeing the impact of the summer on the restaurant's already exceptional hospitality experience.