the birthday meal

April 27, 2010 |  Category:   dining out life nyc

Once upon a time…before kids, a mortgage, a business, life insurance and college savings, Mark and Jenna lived in NYC and enjoyed dining out at restaurants. Some were quite fancy, while others were so popular that they waited on a line that snaked down the block to get seated even before the doors opened. And then there were the neighborhood haunts. Good standbys for a meal, but nothing to get yourself worked over. You could have argued that it was part of Mark’s job as a Pastry Chef. Something like research and development, or maybe like keeping tabs on the competitive landscape. And so he found that eating out was encouraged by his job. Mandatory, even.

Being in the business, it was preferable to have someone who knew someone make the reservation for you. That way you would ensure that you would get special treatment, whether that was whole meals comped, an extra course or two, or, because you were a Pastry Chef, every dessert off the dessert menu, even though there were only 2 of you.

Ok, ok, I won’t continue with this 3rd person business, but the point is, our regular dining excursions feel like a different lifetime. Sometimes Mark and I look at each other with real, quizzical looks and wonder what we ever did with our free time before we had kids and a business. We try hard to remember, but it feels like the kids have been around forever, and we just can’t recall. The most noticeable thing that changed when we started a family, however, was that nice dinners out became a rarity.

Can I tell you that in the 6 years that we’ve been parents, we can count on 1 hand the number of times we’ve gone out to dinner together without the kids? When you factor in the cost of babysitting (and that mostly involves paying someone to sit around the apartment while the kids are asleep), it’s an expensive night out. BUT…you only turn 40 once. Mark and I weren’t sure which restaurant to go to for my birthday since it had been such a long time we went anywhere fancy. We asked around. We got all sorts of varied answers. Caught in the busyness of life, we neglected to make our decision with enough time to ensure a reservation to those restaurants notorious for long waits. But in the end we decided on Eleven Madison Park (and yes, we had someone with a connection make the reservation for us with less than a week to the date).

There has been a lot of talk and chatter about Eleven Madison since it received a 4 star rating last summer. This wouldn’t be our first time there. We had eaten there maybe a year after it had opened in the late 90s, but it wasn’t a 4 star, or even a 3 star restaurant back then. As I recall, the dining room was cavernous, loud and bustling, housed in a landmarked Art Deco building with ceilings that were ridiculously tall. I remember seeing huge, spectacular flower arrangements in the dining room. I didn’t remember it being too formal.

Which brings us to that other question – what do we wear to dinner? Mark poked around on the internet to see if there was a dress code because we didn’t want to get caught in another situation like his birthday dinner to Le Bernardin one year. I made the reservation, but never realized that there might be a dress code because really, you don’t think about these things when you are 27 or whatever. So in a last minute panic after reading on the restaurant website that it was jacket required (WHAT!? Mark doesn’t even own a jacket!), we ran to a Banana Republic ON THE WAY to dinner and bought a jacket. Talk about feeling like stupid young kids, especially in that particular restaurant which might be one of the stuffiest, most formal dining rooms in NYC.

I ended up changing dresses about 5 times. Mark didn’t have to wear a jacket, but he did iron his own pants and dress shirt. I know this may sound ridiculous considering how old we are, but in situations like this, we both still feel like we’re playing dress-up when we have to dress up. We still feel like kids. I got to at least wear my vintage Ferragamo t-strap navy heels, pulling them out for their usual, once a year appearance.

So this post is already getting long, so I’ll just skip over the part where the subway is late and we are late to our 8pm reservation and I end up getting really stressed and Mark ends up rolling his eyes at my stressed out state. Let’s just move on from that, ok? When we get to the restaurant, the hostess knows who Mark is and greets him by name and asks how the Boathouse Restaurant (where he previously was Pastry Chef and where he still consults) is doing this time of year. “Do you know her?” I whisper as we are led to our table. “No, I don’t think so”, Mark whispers back.

I can’t recall the last time I was in a 4 star restaurant, but it’s most definitely well before I got puffy and pregnant, which is to say, at this point, a really long time ago. I had forgotten about the level of service that comes with a 4 star restaurant. The way the wait staff is suddenly there, even though they were nowhere in sight mere seconds ago, as soon as you shuffle your chair to pull your seat out for you when you excuse yourself to go to the restroom. The way the restroom has single use crisp white towels to dry your hands off. The way they refold your napkin while you are gone, regardless of whether you absently tossed it on the seat next to you (me), or carefully tried to fold it yourself (Mark) to see if they would bother refolding it anyway (they did). The way it takes 2 people for bread service. 2 rolls, 2 servers.

And then there is the food. I won’t really describe it in detail here because I really can’t, but you can see photos on their site and read the menus here. Just watch the slide show on the homepage and get mesmerized (and no, I didn’t bring a camera and even if I did, I would never dare take a photo). We ordered the 3 course menu, but that is a little deceiving because you get so many little extras and we got a few more extras on top of that (we had someone else make the reservation, remember?) so it ended up being closer to an 8 or 9 course meal. This included 2 waiters carrying a tuft of fake grass in a bowl, upon which was perched 2 frozen pea and mint lollipops (uh huh). And in addition to our dessert, we received another complimentary dessert course before that, as well as the standard macaron course where a waiter brings along a tray of assorted macarons to choose from to finish the meal (after your dessert, mind you. hello, sugar).

And just when we were thinking that our meal was over, the waiter appeared with this gorgeous box of pate de fruits (jellies, if you’re not fancy) to take home and a complimentary glass of cognac. Now, I’ve never had cognac before and I probably wouldn’t choose to have it again (seriously, people choose to drink this stuff? Voluntarily?). He even left the bottle on the table. Needless to say, we drank our one glass and called it a night.

The final bill is not cheap, people. You can book a round trip plane ticket with the cost of that dinner, but as I’ve said before, you only have a milestone birthday every once in a while. Besides, it felt like old times when we used to eat out at fancy restaurants and felt like kids playing dress up. We kept trying not to crack up during dinner because of the whole novelty of it all – so different from our usual evening of thrown together meals and trying to coax Claudine into eating anything off the dinner table.

And lastly? We were one of the youngest people in the room. When was the last time I was able to say that?

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  • mau April 27, 2010 at 3:37 am

    sounds lovely. and you cracked me up with your way of writing (on a day i hadn’t even managed to smile yet). ๐Ÿ™‚

  • theresa DeMyers April 27, 2010 at 4:05 am

    hi jenna,

    i gotta say i love your blog so much. you are such a wonderful and descriptive writer and your pictures are really great… as i’ve mentioned before. i don’t really have the energy to write so much on my blog, at the moment. i wish i did because it’s a really great release, as well as document of our life. but alas, Quincy is 10 months and suddenly decided to start waking during the night, after a 3 month period of STN. oh well. i may not have the energy to write but i have the energy to read and your blog is at the top of my list. at times i feel like i am reading about my own life. your post the other day about NYC in the late 80’s and early 90’s WAS my life! i turn 40 in august. i can’t believe it. i moved to NYC in 89 from L.A. oh to be 19 and in NYC again. what a crazy time. i went to The New School and then worked as a fashion editor for many years, whilst still working 2 nights a week at Five Points (99-05). why? the money! Tony my partner is also a chef and the post today was again our life… crazy. you totally described our trip to Charlie Trotter in Chicago. No jacket, buying jacket last minute (at Marshalls) late arrival, the service, the bill, etc. now with a 2 year old and a 10 month old life is so so different. we had our first night out last year on Tony’s birthday when I was pregnant and our next night out will most likely be when I turn 40. who knows…

    anyway, this turned out to be a long “comment” sorry!

  • carolyn April 27, 2010 at 5:38 am

    When DOES that feeling that you’re playing dress-up go away?!? I never felt it much at restaurants (shows you how many fancy places I go!) but I always felt it in meetings when I worked before Pema was born. Big Important Meetings with Big Important People and I was always terrified they would call me out as a Big Faker. Never happened and I kept getting promoted. Ha, guess I fooled them all!

  • Cynthia April 27, 2010 at 8:49 am

    Wow, your special 40th birthday dinner was so special! Thanks for sharing the Eleven Madison link. The pictures of the food look like art in and of themselves. I like your travelogue of getting to the restaurant by train, I can’t imagine, but is sounds very urban. I hope you get out to your favorite restaurants more often, for the research and the love of getting dressed up, of course! Happy Birthday!

  • diamondkelt April 27, 2010 at 9:37 am

    Sounds like a good time and I would’ve been STUFFED with all that “extra” food. Nice to know you have connections to get you in the door ๐Ÿ™‚

  • monica of hola!design April 27, 2010 at 10:51 am

    I just checked the Eleven Madison Park website and yup, the food looks amazing! It’s like edible art! I really enjoyed this post.

  • Michele April 27, 2010 at 11:13 am

    What a lovely account of your adventure. There was so much of your story that echoed parts of my life……but you describe them a little more graciously – my version would be manic hysteria! I had the pleasure of having brunch at this restaurant pre-michelin and I was totally in love with the whole experience – the room, decor, food, service. It elevates an occasion to truly special (how dull it must be to be able to eat at these sorts of places regularly – how do they celebrate special?)
    Great writing! Thanks

  • joslyn April 27, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    i was just wondering the other night if I would ever feel like an actual grown up ๐Ÿ˜‰

    sounds like a fun, well-deserved, evening out!
    happy birthday!

  • Andrew Thornton April 27, 2010 at 7:42 pm

    I remember years ago going to Eleven Madison frequently. It feels like someone else’s life. Thanks for sharing your experience! It made me remember the nights out fondly.

  • derrick April 28, 2010 at 12:00 am

    that was one of the best blog posts i have ever read. the introduction was very cute, as you were telling a story to your 2 little girls.

  • raquel April 28, 2010 at 12:10 am

    a restaurant with party favors? i love it

  • Lecia April 28, 2010 at 1:36 am

    I think this is one of your best ever posts Jenna…thank you for taking the time to put all this down. Being of the same age and life point, I could relate to much of it.

  • Caddy April 28, 2010 at 2:12 am

    I love your description of the dinner and all the extras that came with it. It sounds lovely.

    Oh and I too feel kinda awkward dressing up. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Belated Happy 40th!

  • Megan April 28, 2010 at 6:59 am

    wow – you have two of the top 50 restaurants in the world under your belt .. … great birthday treat.

  • Fiona Hanley April 28, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Happy Birthday ๐Ÿ™‚
    Disposable income before the kids came, I remember it fondly too ๐Ÿ™

  • Renita April 28, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    Ahh … nothing like the sensual experience of food. Good for you guys!

  • Chuzai Living April 28, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Wow. I love your writing! How cute is that you stopped at Banana Republic and bought a jacket for Mark on your way to the restaurant! We are often times late for reservations and I know exactly how it feels! What a wonderful experience you had at the four star restaurant! I don’t think I have ever stepped my foot into a restaurant like that. We went to a fancy restaurant 7 years ago, our pre-kids time in D.C. for our anniversary, but it wasn’t as fancy as yours. I’m glad you had a great time!

  • Ashley at Hither and Thither May 6, 2010 at 3:03 pm

    Wow–I love this story! I can picture it all. We went to dinner there (it was a gift) and it had to have been one of the most amazing meals ever. What a wonderful blog you have.