How I Saved For Dinner at Eleven Madison Park (Hint: Ramen)
by Jesse David Fox
It starts with a reminder from my roommate by way of a confirmation email he received: “Yo, we have Eleven Madison Park next Saturday.” I didn’t forget about the reservation as much as I didn’t pay any mind to it. Reservations can be made without consequence or any exchange of money; they’re meaningless in of themselves. But the confirmation is like the scheduling of an execution after all the appeals have failed. In seven days, you’ll be given your last rights (the menu), eat your last meal (the meal, obvs), and then it’s death (the check). The confirmation might as well have said, “You know the monthly pay check you’ll be receiving on the 15th? Well, four days later, ten percent will be gone.” Ten percent is a lot of percent. I need to do something.
It should be noted that this meal isn’t a celebration of any kind. I didn’t graduate or get a new job or do something for a year that would necessitate an anniversary. The meal is a celebration of itself. My friends and I agreed we were childless grown-ups and we should be able to spend money on things we want to do. And eating at Eleven Madison Park is something I want to do and have wanted to do for years. More specifically, three years, ever since Frank Bruni’s New York Times 4-star review that touted the restaurant’s rare level of quality, precision, and, maybe most importantly, of-the-momentness. We felt this was a place worthy of our hard earned money. It wasn’t until the confirmation, however, that I realized the meal would demand a larger portion of my hard earned money than my friends’. They each make at least three times more than I do, which is not their fault or problem — it’s a fact. Some friends just make more money than others, but I didn’t want to be Joey or Phoebe or, god forbid, Rachel not going to the Hootie & the Blowfish concert with Chandler, Ross, and Monica. So I start to plan.
I was not going to rearrange my monthly budget because I don’t keep one. Money bores me and caring about it gives me the creeps, so all I do is look at my checking account every three weeks or so. As long as there isn’t some seismic shift, I assume I’m okay — I always have been. When you’re fundamentally cheap, like I am, money gets saved accidentally. As a result, my care for this dinner is less that I won’t be able to afford it and more that I don’t want to feel weird or insecure about spending the money. I just want to be able to drop my credit card with my eyes closed. I decide to go with the simplest plan (which thankfully doesn’t involve the band Simple Plan): Just spend as little money as possible — TO THE EXTREME. Here is my diary from that time.
Day 1: Sunday — May 13th
It’s Mother’s Day and you know what that means: say it with me, “Family brunch!” (Did you say it with me? No? Fair enough. Next time.) I know once I get to Westchester to meet my family, it will be smooth financial sailing but getting there and back does cost a mighty $15.75. To counter that dent, my parents swiftly take me to Trader Joe’s. I leave with three bags jam-packed with dried mangos, roasted almonds, dry pasta, and dry-roasted seaweed — it was a very dry haul. I’m excited to eat only these things for the next six days. My parents also present me with a fruit-filled pie that will serve as many future breakfasts — yes, breakfasts.
Next, is the old “eat a lunch large enough to count for breakfast and dinner” trick. My nuclear family meets my extended family for carbohydrate gorging at Mario Batali’s Tarry Lounge. There is something with squid ink and something with soft-shelled crabs and a lot of asking for another round of bread.
I leave Westchester with leftovers and the majority of my week’s food. As planned, dinner was not necessary tonight. I do eat a little of the fruit-filled pie.
MONEY SPENT TODAY: Round-trip on Metro North to White Plains ($15.75) + 2 Subway rides ($4.50) = $20.25
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $20.25
Day 2: Monday — May 14th
I work from home and today I don’t intend on leaving my apartment at all, as outside is where things cost money. Breakfast is spent debating whether the fruit-filled pie or my roommate’s leftover carrot cake would be a healthier option. I eat a little of both. Lunch is yesterday’s leftovers. I snack on all my dried snacks until dinner. I luck out that my roommate who never cooks decides he wants to cook and share. He makes balsamic chicken and brown rice and a salad. It’s 12 zillion times healthier than what I usually eat, which is a good thing, as the week will undoubtedly be downhill from here.
I succeed at never leaving my apartment or spending any money.
MONEY SPENT TODAY: $0
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $20.25
Day 3: Tuesday — May 15th.
Breakfast = pie.
For lunch I eat ramen. Before you get all up in my grillz about this, let me explain a few things. 1) Shut up, ramen is delicious and cheap. 2) I love it. 3) I gussy it up.
I have two ways of making ramen fancier. Today is number one:
Blue Ramen with Asian Sauces
1 pack of blue “Oriental Flavored” ramen
Hoisin Sauce to taste
Sriracha to taste
Sesame oil to taste
Pinch of rice wine vinegar
1 egg (optional)
Instructions: 1) Make ramen as package instructs. 2) Add sauces.
I should warn you: This might taste too good.
Since I had them on hand, I add some of the dry-roasted seaweed sheets that I’ve been snacking on.
For dinner I make my special Middle Of The Week Pasta
Middle of the Week Pasta
1 pound dried pasta (usually Trader’s Joe’s penne rigate)
A bunch of red pepper flakes
A bunch of olive oil
A bunch of Parmesan Reggiano or Pecorino Romano
Dash of white wine vinegar
Whatever else you got around the house
Instructions: 1) Boil and salt water. 2) Cook pasta al dente. 3) Drain pasta. 4) Add other stuff. 5) Stir.
I have all of this on hand so the meal cost me nothing.
I spend the night at some Tumblr event at the Tribeca Grand Hotel. Depending on how fancy you think that sounds, the event is about ten-to-twenty times less fancy. Good news: It’s open bar. Bad news: They only have drinks using new Stolichnaya honey and spicy flavored vodkas. (I’m aware “spicy” isn’t a flavor; I just don’t care enough to register what the official flavor is. Jalepeño, maybe.) The honey is super gross and the spicy is just fairly gross — Roger Sterling would’ve hated both — I drink three or five of them.
Again, I had to spend money on subway fare but on the way home, I see a dime on the G-train. I realize that an older gentleman also spotted my new fortune. We stare each other down and inch our feet closer and closer to the dime. We don’t want to seem like we’re fighting over a dime but we’re totally fighting over a dime. The train reaches my stop so I snatch the coin and make a break for it. Eleven Madison Park, here I come, even if I have to get there via a march of dimes.
MONEY SPENT TODAY: Ramen ($0.35) + 2 subway rides ($4.50) + Tips ($3.00) — dime ($0.10) = $7.75
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $28.00
Day 4: Wednesday — May 16th
Breakfast = Pie
Snacks = Dried
I’m able to stretch my mid-week pasta out for another two meals. If I have a talent, and it’s debatable, it’s that I can eat the same thing multiple meals in a row.
Today’s real challenge: I have a date (I’m not going to discuss who she is or any of those deets because this isn’t that type of diary and you should mind your own beeswax). I don’t want to spend money but I also don’t want to seem like I can’t spend money. I suggest we go to Big Terrific at Cameo because it’s very good and very free and somewhat within walking distance. I did drop a few shekels on drinks and a bus ride back home to Greenpoint but, all in all, the expenditures were minor when considering the potential of date spending.
MONEY SEPNT TODAY: Drinks ($22.00) + 1 bus ride ($2.25) = $24.25
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $52.25
Day 5: Thursday — May 17th
Breakfast = Nothing. I woke up to the discovery that my fruit-filled pie is now also mold-filled.
Snacks = I’ve grown a bit bored of my dried fare. Luckily, I received a package today from Wheat Thins filled with three boxes of thins and a onesie with a bunch of ducks on it. I’m aware that they sent me this box so I would write about it so they got super lucky that I am doing so this very sentence. Verdict: I really love Wheat Thins original — their flavors not so much.
Lunch = It’s time for ramen recipe number two!
Chicken Ramen with Curry and Sweet Potato
1 pack of orange “Chicken Flavored” ramen
1 sweet potato cubed
Tablespoon of curry powder (I use this curry soup powder I have as well as regular curry powder)
Dash of rice wine vinegar
Instructions: 1) Place sweet potato and curry powder in a pot with a little more than 2 cups of water. 2) Turn on the heat. 3) Once the water is boiling add the ramen noodles and make ramen as instructed.
Seriously, try this one.
Dinner = A girl I once dated is apparently now a hipster matchmaker and she sent me a direct message on Twitter, inviting me to a charcuterie and whiskey tasting/speed-dating event. (Trust me, that sentence felt as silly for me to write as it probably was for you to read.) I want to go as it will be free and hilarious and would take care of my dinner situation; however, when I learn that the demographic will be over ten years older than me, I decide to pass on what would’ve been a decidedly awkward evening.
I settle for my Thursday night ritual of going to my local wine store, Dandelion Wine, at 6:30 for their free wine-tasting with FREE cheese and then watching NBC sitcoms. The cheese isn’t enough for dinner so I convince my roommate to buy us Chinese food. He owes me $10 and it’s also something he always says yes to. I deem this fair game, since owed money doesn’t count as me spending money.
MONEY SPENT TODAY: Ramen ($0.35)
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $52.60
Day 6: Friday — May 18th
Breakfast and snacking blend together into a tornado of dried mango and almonds. I’m six days in and I’m basically running on fumes. After a leftover Chinese lunch, I realize I have no idea what I’ll eat until dinner tomorrow night. I eat more dried things and try to make plans for the evening, which will distract me from food and won’t cost me an arm or a leg.
Luckily, I’m working on a story about the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre so I’m able to get on the list for three shows. It’s a lot of hours of comedy but the shows are amazing and hilarious and amazingly hilarious and the times are dire.
I eat dried mango and go to sleep only somewhat hungry.
MONEY SPENT TODAY: 2 subway rides ($4.50)
MONEY SPENT THUS FAR: $57.10
FINAL DAY: Saturday — May 19th
My intention was just to eat some dried things until dinner. My reasoning was simple: If I’m going to be eating 15 courses this evening, I should be super hungry. A wrench wrenches my plans, however, when my roommate informs me that the reservation is actually at 9:45, not 8:00. I explain that these are two very different times and he agrees. Knowing that there were no other alternatives, I eat ramen recipe one again. Doing so, I grow even more determined not to spend any more money before dinner.
“You know we’re wearing suits, right?” “Ugh,” I respond to my roommate. I recently deemed my one suit to be so ill-fitting that it’s no longer wearable. Consequently, I can now say that nothing makes me feel less adult and more like a post-growth spurt 14-year-old than trying on my shorter roommate’s khakis. I cobble together an ensemble out of a blazer that I almost donated to charity because it was too stained, a tie, and a shirt not meant to house a tie.
I wasn’t going to be the fanciest belle at the ball but I was going to ball.
MONEY SPENT TODAY (PRE-DINNER): Ramen ($0.35)
FINAL TOTAL: $57.45
I don’t know if $57.45 is a little amount of money or a large amount of money to spend on food for a week, since I don’t ever keep a budget, but: It sure looks like a little and sure felt like a little. So much so that when I arrive at Eleven Madison Park with my sleeker dressed friends, I don’t feel inappropriate or uncomfortable at all. Also, the good thing about restaurants at this level is that their job is to make sure you’re never uncomfortable. From the savory black & white cookie (half parmesan/half truffle, of course) that starts the meal through the sweet black & white cookie that ends it, I am content. I didn’t think twice while eating the black sesame cured foie gras with the perfectly acidically dressed leaves of gem lettuce or the unlike-anything-I’ve-ever-eaten-before variations of almond served with mangalista ham, cucumber, and white balsamic vinaigrette.
At about 1:30 a.m., our server presents us with a bottle of aged cognac. As is custom at Eleven Madison Park, we are free to drink as little or as much as we want (in our case, it’s definitely as much). Delicately placed in front of the bottle is a bill-sized silver tray with a piece of paper in the middle. I know it’s there but I ignore it and I drink, or, more accurately, drink and then shake my head and cringe like a toddler taking DayQuil (more like Cogn-yuck). Eventually, I toss my credit card across the table and continue talking to my friends. The waitress returns with five receipt-sized silver trays, which she proceed to arrange into a pleasant trapezoid shape. I look at my total, $290.00, after tax and tip, and it seems reasonable, if not cheap. It’s a fair price for the hours of eating and service that I’d describe as being somewhere between a ballet and the inner workings of an expertly engineered watch.
I stand from the table and shove the receipt in my pants pocket. The maître d’ shakes my hand and thanks me for coming. I thank him in return, for everything, and ask for a toothpick.