Two or three times a year, Steve and I will celebrate a special occasion (an anniversary, a birthday) by going to a really nice restaurant for dinner. Few things make us happier than one of those perfect meals, the ones that transcend the act of eating and nourishment, that emotionally transport us. We have been known to get teary-eyed during such a meal, though admittedly after a couple of glasses of wine.
So, when we do splurge on an expensive dinner at a fine restaurant, we usually request the tasting menu with the wine accompaniment. We expect that the chef will take us on a journey , with each small dish and paired glass of wine providing us with a gustatory milestone along the way. Some such journeys have been extraordinary (our first times at Momofuku Ko and Aska come to mind). Others have been great, though with a few bumps in the road (Aquavit, post-Marcus Samuelsson).
And then there was Eleven Madison Park. I don’t remember what we were celebrating but we couldn’t have been more excited to get a reservation there. Widely considered one of the best restaurants in New York and the world, we counted the days to our dinner with breathless anticipation. We arrived there with big grins on our faces, hardly able to contain our excitement as the friendly Danny Meyer-trained staff sat us down and handed us the menu.
Keep in mind that this was a few years ago, two complete menu reinventions ago. Right there, tempting us, was the ultimate tasting menu: a 14-course behemoth that held more promises than a Christmas tree loaded with wrapped presents. We gleefully told our server we would choose that along with the wine pairings.
Things started out very promisingly. The long, rectangular plate with the tiny amuse bouches included pickled beet marshmallows. We still talk about them. And then we began the long journey into the evening. Trouble hit around course six or seven. I was full. Full! And I was only half way through this meal. From that point on, every plate or bowl that was placed in front of me became an increasingly more painful instrument of torture. I wanted so badly to want to eat the food, but my full stomach said otherwise. I took small bites, to at least taste it. But nothing seemed pleasurable to my satiated appetite. And the plates kept coming. And coming. I wished I could go to the bathroom and throw up, like a Roman at a vomitorium (which is a myth, by the way). But I couldn’t go that far.
It took us a long time before we ordered a tasting menu again. The experience scarred us. Eventually, we did forget about it and went back to leaving ourselves in the hands of the chef for a carefully chosen tasting journey. But we make sure it’s never more than six or seven courses. And we arrive at the restaurant hungry. Really hungry.
This strawberry gazpacho was not part of our torturous tasting menu. I first saw it on Food52’s Genius Recipes, a collection of recipes that are really smart and unexpected. It’s a pretty classic gazpacho recipe, except for the fact that it uses strawberries instead of tomatoes. It is crisp and full of sunshine, the perfect appetizer for a late spring or summer meal. Just don’t have an additional 13 courses after it.
Eleven Madison’s Strawberry Gazpacho – Adapted from Food52’s Genius Recipes
Serves 4 to 6
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed but kept whole
1 1/2 cup rustic-style bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 sprigs thyme
6 cups strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 1/4 cups English cucumbers, peeled, seeded, and diced
1 1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
3/4 cups diced green bell pepper
6 tablespoons tomato juice or tomato sauce
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed but kept whole
2 cups rustic-style bread, cut into 1/2-inch to 1-inch cubes
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 teaspoon salt
Make the soup:
Heat a small saute pan over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and add 1 clove of garlic. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the bread cubes and thyme. Toss occasionally until the bread turns golden brown, being careful not to burn it. Transfer the bread to a large bowl. Discard the garlic and thyme.
Add the strawberries, cucumber, peppers, remaining garlic clove, remaining 1/2 cup of olive oil, tomato juice or sauce, vinegar, and salt to the bowl with the bread cubes. Toss to combine and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Marinate at room temperature for 3 to 6 hours, stirring the mixture once or twice. Puree the ingredients and their juices in small batches in a blender on high speed until very smooth. If you want you can strain the soup through a fine mesh strainer, or you can keep it as is. Chill the soup in the refrigerator until very cold. Taste and season, if necessary, with salt and red wine vinegar.
Make the croutons:
Heat a small saute pan on medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with the olive oil and add the garlic. When the garlic begins to sizzle, add the bread and thyme. Toss occasionally until the bread turns golden brown, being careful not to burn it. Quickly transfer to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Discard the garlic and thyme and season with the salt. Once cool and dry, store in an airtight container line with paper towels for up to 1 day.
Serve the soup with a few croutons on top, several drops of hot sauce (such as Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce), and fresh mint leaves.