Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 156

The weekly roundup of awesome internet finds:

  1. Love her (and can’t wait to read her new book): Mindy Kaling’s Guide to Killer Confidence.
  2. Perfect: Things I Believe with Perfect Trust and Perfect Faith Drake Did Over the Last Three Years to Become Worthy of Serena Williams.
  3. An interesting look at fine dining, from the perception of a server: Dinner and Deception.
  4. Life-affirming: 14 Times Queen Elizabeth Was Basically Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada.
  5. Oh, hello: Rafael Nadal’s New Tommy Hilfiger Ads Will Give You Serious Ab Envy.
  6. Well, this is everything: Amy Schumer and Jennifer Lawrence Dance to “Uptown Girl” on Billy Joel’s Piano.
  7. And in more awesome guest performances at concerts news: Taylor Swift Just Out Taylor Swift’d Herself By Performing “Smelly Cat” Onstage with Lisa Kudrow.
  8. Soooo good: Donald Trump, Through the Ages.
  9. Astronaut Wives Club was kind of a terrible show, but I remain oddly fascinated by the food, including this awesome chronicle of it on Mid-Century Menu.
  10. Looooooove: Oh Never Mind, This Target Ad Is the Best Star Wars Trailer of the Day. Maybe Ever.

(Image via)

A Sun-Soaked Morning in Positano

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Our driver’s name was Marcello.

If you happen to be a romantic comedy aficionado – and why wouldn’t you be? – you are probably smiling right now. Driving up and down the Amalfi Coast and stopping in the idyllic town of Positano under the care of a man named Marcello? Too good to be true.

If you are not a lover of cheesy films, a word of explanation: in Under the Tuscan Sun, Diane Lane’s character takes a trip to Rome and meets a very charming and handsome man on the streets. He convinces her to take a ride with him to his hometown of Positano, and they begin a brief but lovely affair. The man’s name? Marcello, of course.

As soon as I learned our driver’s name, it seemed the day was destined for greatness. Because the Amalfi Coast can be tricky to navigate via public transportation, I had signed up for a guided day trip with Mondo Guide. From our starting point in Sorrento, Marcello would shuttle us to all the region’s biggest highlights: Positano, Ravello, Amalfi, and a few tiny towns in between.

From the start, the drive was breathtaking. As we left Sorrento, winding up and up, we paused at an overlook with particularly lovely views back toward Sorrento:

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Continuing on toward Positano, we stopped at yet another breathtaking viewpoint, this time overlooking the Mermaid Islands, which our guide told us were the last residence of Rudolph Nureyev. The pure blue of the water and the sky here was gorgeous:

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Drive to Positano

Shortly before rolling into Positano, we stopped yet again to take photographs of the picture-perfect town. It was truly gorgeous (can you tell that I’m running out of adjectives to describe this region?):

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We had about an hour and a half free to explore Positano. I started by popping into the cathedral for a brief visit, and then I continued down to the beach. I say “down” because literally everything is up or down stairs (and lots of them) in Positano. You earn your daily gelato here, that is for sure.

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The waterside area was just as pretty – if not more so – than the rest of Positano: colorful canoes, sparkling blue waters, and, of course, still more beautiful views back up into town.

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I loved the small glimpse of Positano that I got on this day, but I long to return for more. It’s not that there are particular sights or restaurants I didn’t have a chance to visit, but it’s more that Positano seems like the ultimate place to stay and soak up some beauty. A long, relaxing vacation there sounds like perfection.

Florence: Ten More Moments to Remember

Florence is an interesting city for me because, at times, it gives me serious shades of Venice: that is, it’s much more overrun with tourists than I would like it to be. At the same time, though, I get it – it’s a lovely city, and why wouldn’t you want to visit? And for me, Florence is one of those spots that’s just plain worth it, tourists and all. I’ll gladly bump elbows with a pack of tourists if I happen to be bumping elbows with Michelangelo, too. 

I’ve written a bit about Florence already – about the art and the food – but the truth is I have much more to say about my time there (and, as is evident from this photo-laden post, plenty of pictorial evidence, too). Here, then, a few (okay, more than a few) moments I want to remember. 

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One: Surviving an Unexpected Hailstorm

I arrived in Florence via train, and as I exited Santa Maria Novella, I noticed that the skies were starting to look ominous. I had considered just walking to my hotel, but I decided to grab a cab instead, given how dark the skies were – and thank God I did. 

By the time I made it through the taxi line, it had started to rain. By the time my cab pulled out of the train station parking lot and into the city, it had started to outright downpour. And, by the time we drove a block or two, it had started hailing like crazy. 

I had never seen anything like it: the rain was pounding down fast and furious, the wind was gusting, and the hail was slamming our windows. Within minutes, the streets had flooded and branches and other debris had fallen everywhere. My cab driver kept exclaiming, “Mamma mia, un disastro!” And it was, truly it was. 

After struggling through the streets of Florence – several roads my driver tried were closed – I finally made it to my hotel. After unpacking and settling in, I headed out into Florence to find that several of the streets were covered with huge piles of hail. It was truly bizarre!  

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Two: Strolling Along the Arno

One of my favorite travel pictures ever is from 2005, me standing with a group of my friends on the Ponte Vecchio as the sun went down over the Arno, setting everything spectacularly aglow. Thinking back on that night has always given me nostalgic, rosy-colored memories of Florence, the kind that make you think you might just be over-romanticizing the place in your mind. This trip, I realized that, nope, I was not. The Arno is actually that glorious.

At any time of day – and I walked along the river at pretty much at all of ’em – the Arno, and more specifically, the buildings and bridges lining it, is gorgeous. But at sundown it is particularly magical, with the already warm-colored buildings becoming even warmer in the evening light. Strolling along (often with a gelato in hand) was one of my favorite ways to pass the time.

Three: Admiring the Duomo

I don’t have anything new to say about the Duomo, Florence’s oft-photographed and iconic central landmark, other than to add my voice to the millions of tourists expressing their awe. The thing that always gets me about the Duomo is its sheer size: tucked among the city streets, it’s almost impossible to snag a camera shot with the entire building in the frame. And catching a glimpse of its famous dome in the distance as you turn onto a street will always be one of my favorite things about Florence. 

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Four: Exploring Santa Croce

In a sense, every other church in Florence doesn’t even have a chance, given how magnificent the Duomo is. But while it may be less impressive, Santa Croce is worth a visit nonetheless. I love the church’s exterior, with its hint of pink, and inside there are treasures too – namely, the tombs of some pretty notable Renaissance VIPs, like Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and Machiavelli. You may have heard of them. 

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Five: Finding Sandwich Nirvana at All’Antico Vinnaio

One thing I became a huge fan of while in Florence was popping into a deli and getting a sandwich. While I’m notoriously picky about deli meat back home – i.e., I don’t eat it – deli meat in Italy is a whole different beast. It is top notch.

Of all the sandwich spots I tried in Florence, All’Antico Vinnaio was by far my favorite. And, clearly, it was everyone else’s favorite, too, as there’s almost always a big crowd of people queued up there. Once inside, I ordered a sandwich with prosciutto, pecorino, truffle cream, rucola, and olive oil on focaccia. The gentleman who made my sandwich gave me a little smile and nod of approval after I had rattled off my selections, which I took as a good sign – and it was. The sandwich was insanely good, not to mention huge and, at five euros, an enormous bargain. I loved it so much I went back the next day, too.

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Six: Admiring the View from Piazzale Michelangelo

Florence is a postcard perfect town, and one of the best ways to realize this fact is to take a look at the city from above. I grabbed a cab and headed first to San Miniato al Monte, a church perched atop a hill, to poke around. Then, I walked downhill a bit to Piazzale Michelangelo, home to one of the city’s most iconic viewpoints. It sure is gorgeous up there!

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Seven: Perusing Mercato Centrale 

I love a good market, and Florence’s Mercato Centrale is definitely that. While I had visited the market during my food tour, I knew we only scratched the surface and so I was eager to get back. I browsed through the stalls, piled high with colorful, fresh produce and amazing-looking cheeses, and grabbed a cheap but fantastic pasta lunch from one of the vendors. 

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Eight: Stopping by the Medici Chapel

The Medici Chapel does not, in my opinion, photograph that well – it’s just a bit too dark – but it is spectacular in person. The sheer scope of the building, with its high ceilings and gilded surfaces, is incredibly impressive. 

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Nine: People Watching in the Piazzas

One thing Florence, and all Italian cities, really, has in abundance is piazzas. Piazza della Signoria just may be the epicenter of everything in Florence, a spot where everyone seems to converge. Though it’s a little too crowded, if you can nab a seat under the shade of the Loggia, this is a fantastic spot to sit and people watch. 

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Nearby, at Piazza Repubblica, there’s more people watching to be done. I also love the old fashioned carousel that sits in the middle of this square – a colorful addition to a stately piazza. 

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Piazza Repubblica

And at Piazza dei Pitti, I couldn’t help but admire the buildings lining the square – I thought they were all so gorgeous, in their cream-colored hues with hints of blue. 

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Ten: Learning to Make Pizza and Gelato from Scratch 

As far as I’m concerned, any trip to Italy has to involve liberal amounts of the country’s five major food groups: pizza, pasta, gelato, wine, and cheese. Bonus points if, in addition to eating them, you learn how to make them. Which is exactly what I did when I partook in Florencetown’s Pizza & Gelato Making Class.

Over the course of the evening, we created our own pizzas from scratch: making our own dough, letting it raise, topping our pizzas, and then using the pizza paddle to transfer them to the oven (which is tougher than one might think!).

While there wasn’t time to make gelato from start to finish (since it takes hours in an ice cream maker to achieve that), our instructors let us see part of the process in action and explained the rest. They explained that gelato is one part cream to two parts milk, the opposite ratio of ice cream, which makes it taste differently (and makes it less fattening, too). They also explained how to spot a good gelateria: look for colors that are not overly bright, smaller bins of gelato (as opposed to enormous vats), and no more than twenty flavors – these factors will give you a good idea whether the gelato is homemade, right there on the premises.

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Florence was, for me, a tricky destination to return to: after spending the summer of 2005 there, and then subsequently romanticizing it in my mind for the next nine years, I was curious to see if it lived up to my own hype. Luckily, yes, it still does.

Things That Are Awesome, Vol. 155

The weekly roundup of everything worthwhile on the internet:

  1. Yes: This Birthday Cake Came with a Blind Girl on Top Thanks to Autocorrect.
  2. On point: Things That Will Happen If I Don’t Take out My Phone Right Now.
  3. “The next thing he said I wrote on a slip of paper in his office and have carried it around with me since. It’s our choice, whether to hate something in our lives or to love every moment of them, even the parts that bring us pain. ‘At every moment, we are volunteers.'”: The Late, Great Stephen Colbert.
  4. Hah: Kelly Clarkson Sings Tinder Profiles on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
  5. Jimmy Kimmel’s singing bits have really been on point of late: Josh Groban Sings Donald Trump Tweets.
  6. Dear Hollywood, please give Judy Greer more work: Here’s Every Line Judy Greer Had in a Movie This Summer.
  7. Random but kind of wonderful: Cage of Thrones.
  8. I love this: Queen Elizabeth’s Corgi’s: A Love Story.
  9. Beautiful: 26-Year-Old Frida Kahlo’s Compassionate Letter to 46-Year-Old Georgia O’Keeffe.
  10. One of the definitive debates of our modern world: Some People Pronounce Nutella as “Newtella” and People Can’t Take It.

(Image via)

Quirky Queens: A Visit to the Museum of the Moving Image

One of my New York City goals – and one I haven’t exactly been meeting lately – is to visit more off-the-beaten-path museums. Everyone knows about the Met, the MoMA, the Museum of Natural History, and the like, but there are so many more quirky gems to discover in this city, and I want to see all of them (or at least a lot of them). First up, The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens.

I first heard about the museum because it is currently home to a display that’s near and dear to my heart: a Mad Men retrospective. The exhibit is smaller than I would have liked – there are so many great costumes and period details on the show; it seems like they could have filled rooms – but great. The display houses iconic costumes, a few sets (including Don’s office and the Draper kitchen), and various props. I loved it all, but my favorites were, predictably, the costumes, and of those, especially the ladies’ outfits: Megan’s “Zou Bisou Bisou” dress, Betty’s pink robe, Joan’s sultry office wear.

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After wandering through Mad Men, I decided to check out what else was on offer at the museum. The first thing I ran into was the wonderfully random How Cats Took Over the Internet exhibit, which was basically a collection of cat videos – not exactly your typical museum display!

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Then it was on to the Behind the Screen exhibit, which housed a collection of the props and tools used to make movies. Naturally, I thought the costume and makeup displays were the most interesting, though I also loved the collections of movie merchandise and memorabilia.

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Finally, I came to Tut’s Fever Movie Palace, a movie theater and art installation intended to be an homage to the glitzy movie theaters of the 1920s. This was kitschy but worth a quick look:

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As a pop culture aficionado, there was a lot to enjoy at the Museum of the Moving Image. The eclectic mix of exhibits was offbeat and engaging, and any chance to look at gorgeous costumes is a win for me. It was worth the trek to Queens!

Florence: A Walk Through Tuscan Cuisine

Bright and early (for me, at least) on a Monday morning, I left my hotel and headed toward the Duomo, detouring down a side street to meet up with my group from Florence Food Tours. Over the next three and a half hours, our guide, Antonio, led us on a walking tour through the heart of the city. Along the way, we sampled some of Florence’s best treats.

Our first stop was ChiaroScuro to begin our morning as Italians do: with espresso! Antonio told us that espresso is typically made from a blend of two beans – arabica and robusta. However, we tried each kind separately, including eating the beans themselves. The arabica was lighter, smoother, and had less caffeine; the robusta more bitter, more caffeinated, and sharper. To be honest, though, both were strong to me. Per Antonio’s suggestion, I started by drinking my espressos plain to get a clearer idea of the flavors, but ultimately I had to dress them up with a bit of sugar to finish them off.

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Next, we headed to Antica Pasticceria Sieni to sample three sweet treats sweets. First, a panforte, a pastry made with dried fruit and honey, traditionally eaten at Christmastime. Second, a pralina, a chocolate candy with nuts and (really strong) rum inside, which was possibly my favorite of the three. Third, an edible chocolate cup with zabaione cream inside, which seemed to be the favorite of everyone else in my group.

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Then it was off to Florence’s bustling Mercato Centrale, where we made several stops. First up was Bottega Marconcini, my favorite visit of the day. There, we tried a variety of wonderful local products.

We started with an olive oil tasting, trying two varieties. I liked the laudemio, the lighter of the two:

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Then it was on to wine and cheese. We had a pecorino, made with sheeps’ milk, and a white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimigniano, which was dry but had a full, fruity taste. I loved this course; I could eat pecorino cheese forever.

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Next, we tried a parmigiano cheese, made with cows’ milk, and strawberries with balsamic vinegar. Strawberries with balsamic was a recurring theme of this trip to Italy, and I adored the combination.

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Then, we received a platter of Tuscan ham, which is known for its saltiness; I definitely could tell that it was saltier than the prosciutto I had enjoyed earlier in Bologna. We also ate some delicious truffle paste on bread, and washed it all down with a nice red wine, a Chianti Classico.

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We walked through the market to our next stop, I’Painaio, where we tried schiacciata, Tuscany’s version of focaccia. We had two pieces: one plain, and one with olives. Though I don’t usually care for olives, I actually thought both pieces were quite good.

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After our bread, it was on to Nerbone for heartier fare. We were given three options: ribollita, risotto, or spaghetti bolognese. I knew that ribollita was a classic Tuscan vegetable soup, so I opted for that. I did not regret it – it was was hearty and flavorful (though not very photogenic).

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Our last stop in Mercato Centrale was Alto Bio, a small shop where we sampled two kinds of cantucci biscotti (one plain and one chocolate) and a sweet wine. These biscotti were different than those I’ve had in the US, as you could bite into them without fear of breaking a tooth. They were softer and chewier and delicious.

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Our last stop of the day was a sweet finish at Antica Gelateria Fiorentina. I decided to go for the most unique flavors I could find and wound up with ambrosia (made with yogurt, cinnamon, and honey) and buon talenti, a Florentine special made with eggs and cream.

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I’ve struggled at times to connect with Florence’s culinary scene; the city is, of course, quite popular with tourists, and this means there are a lot of restaurants catering to tourists as well. The truth is, I’ve had much more luck finding amazing food in spots like Bologna and Rome. And that is exactly why I enjoyed this tour: I found new local specialities that I hadn’t heard about before, and I tried a higher quality of food than I might have found otherwise. Florence may be known more for its art, but its food can be damn good too, if only you know where to look.

Delightful and Decadent Dining at Eleven Madison Park

There are splurge meals, and then there are splurge meals, and Eleven Madison Park decidedly falls into the latter category: a 3.5 hour, 15-ish (depending how you count them) course culinary extravaganza. It’s possibly the longest meal I’ve ever been served at a restaurant, and certainly the most I’ve ever paid, but some occasions just call for such a splurge: my sister is moving from New York to LA at the end of this month, and so we decided it was time one last big meal before she goes.

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We snagged a reservation (OpenTable failed me repeatedly; I recommend just calling – I got one right away that way) and headed to dinner on Monday night. At Eleven Madison, there’s no menu to read and choose from – you just sit down, settle in, and wait for them to bring what they’re serving that evening. We ordered a bottle of Albariño and braced ourselves for a feast.

When we sat down at our table, we saw there was a present waiting for us: a little box, tied up with string. Once open, it revealed our first treat: black and white “cookies” with apples and cheddar. The base of the cookie tasted like a classed-up Ritz cracker. It was a fun opening bite:

Eleven Madison Park - Black & White Cookies

Next up, we had the tuna marinated with cucumber and a cucumber gelée. I really liked the tuna (though it was teeny tiny and I would have enjoyed a bigger piece), and the cucumber gelée was surprisingly good. I mean, is gelatinous cucumber something anyone expects to like?

Eleven Madison Park - Tuna & Cucumber Gelee

One of the dishes I enjoyed most – and one I wouldn’t necessarily have thought I would enjoy, as eggplant is not really my favorite – was the “fairytale” eggplant, slow-cooked with shelling beans and mint. So tasty:

Eleven Madison Park - Fairytale Eggplant

For me, the least memorable dish of the evening was the poached squid with peppers and artichokes. It’s not that this dish was bad – it wasn’t, at all – it’s just that it felt relatively standard compared to some of the evening’s more creative and adventurous plates:

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Case in point, the tomato “salad with basil and red onion. When this came out, I confess I wrinkled my nose a bit; one of the foods I truly cannot stomach is raw tomato, and this looked like a tomato on my plate. I needn’t have worried, however, as this was more like a tomato paste arranged to resemble a tomato. This was intensely flavorful:

Eleven Madison Park - Tomato Salad

One of my absolute favorite dishes was EMP’s spin on eggs benedict: a tiny tin filled with quail egg, sweet corn, and sturgeon caviar, with a side of mini English muffins. This dish was just plain fun – and damn delicious, too:

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Right around this time, they also brought us some bread, which was too-die-for. It came with two butters, one normal and one rendered in duck fat (intended as a link to and a preview of our main course, duck):

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Next came cherries with fennel and ricotta. The fennel and ricotta balanced the cherries nicely, as they were very…cherry-ish (er, strong? flavorful?):

Eleven Madison Park - Cherries with Fennel & Ricotta

The next course was another winner. Two components came out together; first up were some beans and bacon:

Eleven Madison Park - Beans & Bacon

And next, EMP’s take on a lobster boil. On a large wooden board, a waiter poured out a delightful mixture of lobster, clams, shrimp, and veggies. It was another way that EMP surprised me; I wouldn’t have expected to find a homey, New England classic at a fancy schmancy Manhattan restaurant, but there it was, and it was so good:

Eleven Madison Park - Lobster Boil

Another winner was the sunflower course. A server brought out a platter of huge sunflowers, and explained how the flowers before us could be made edible: they’re braised until they lose their bitterness, then plated with green tomato and sunflower sprouts. My sister especially loved this course (though I thought it was great too):

Eleven Madison Park - Braised Sunflower

For our main course, we chose duck – the one choice you are given at EMP is your main – and it was fantastic. This was a roasted duck with lavender, honey, apricots, and fennel, and it was cooked to perfection, with a crispy skin that was incredibly flavorful:

Eleven Madison Park - Duck

Then it was time for the dessert courses, and the first was another of the dishes we most adored: a farmer’s cheese sundae. We were served cheese with a wide variety of toppings to pair with it: a stroopwafel, honey, oats, tomatillos, cherries, and sorrel. We had fun trying a little bit of everything with our cheese. What a clever way to do a cheese course!

Eleven Madison Park - Stroopwafel & Farmer's Cheese

Eleven Madison Park - Farmer's Cheese Sundae

Perhaps my favorite part of the dessert course – though not very photogenic – was the whey sorbet with caramelized milk and yogurt. This reminded me of something, though I could never quite pinpoint what; I just know it was very sweet and very yummy:

Eleven Madison Park - Whey Sorbet

The next dessert course was also incredible, though it felt a bit more classic New York than some of the others – a berry cheesecake with white currant sorbet and raspberry vinegar:

Eleven Madison Park - Summer Berries Cheesecake

Next came the chocolate game: our waitress brought us four bars of mast brothers chocolate, and a little card with pictures of four animals – sheep, goat, buffalo, and cow. Our mission was to taste each and figure out what kind of milk it had been made with. The chocolate was great, but…we were not the best at the game. My sister was 0 for 4; I pulled in a comparatively respectable 2 for 4.

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Finally, we ended with a chocolate covered pretzel topped with sea salt and some very, very potent apple brandy (it reminded me of drinking Calvados in Normandy, except I’m pretty sure this was way stronger):

Eleven Madison Park - Chocolate Covered Pretzels

Eleven Madison Park - Apple Brandy

Before we left, we were given a parting gift: a mason jar full of EMP’s famous granola. It went perfectly with Greek yogurt and got me through almost a week’s worth of breakfasts at work – I joked to my sister that Eleven Madison Park was the meal that just kept on giving, and truly it was.

Eleven Madison Park - Homemade Granola

Eleven Madison Park was a restaurant I have long wanted to visit, for its Michelin stars and its hype, and most every course lived up to my lofty expectations. I loved the attention to detail, the creativity, and the high quality ingredients. This was a special meal.