Figuring out how to tackle the dish before me was tricky. It was stacked gingerly, at least half a foot tall, delicate layers of toasted challah hugging paper-thin slices of sopressata, speck and prosciutto, while slightly thicker chunks of smoked duck breast jutted out here and there. The creamy manchego-béchamel sauce seemed to hold the whole thing together, to an extent, but then there was the fried duck egg, perched tremulously on top. One false move, and the yolk would break. I wasn't ready for that yet.
I carefully cut off one corner of the construction, scooping up all seven layers of bread, meat, sauce and frothy egg white on my fork, then quickly funneled it into my mouth. The individual flavors remained intact, proving the whole to be much greater than the sum of the already-enticing cured meats, warm bread and melted cheese. It was funky in the way that aged sheep's-milk cheese tastes slightly of dank earth, but with the bright piquancy of prosciutto. The toasted challah was reminiscent of the simple, buttered grilled-cheese sandwiches of my youth, while the duck breast and fried egg added luxurious richness not often associated with melted ham and cheese.
After a few moments, the server came by to ask how my dining companion and I were doing. We were fine, we told him, but at the same time we weren't, for now that we'd tasted this inspired version of a croque-madame, the XI Madame, it was unlikely that any other croque-madame — any sandwich, for that matter — would ever satisfy quite like this one.
And then we remembered there was a hamburger on the table, too. We'd been so enamored of the cream-sauce-soaked tower that we'd forgotten all about the burger. The cast-iron-seared patty was cradled between two Belgian waffles (in place of the bun), and where there might usually be tomatoes and wilted romaine, there were little nuggets of seared foie gras atop a bed of glistening yellow Cheddar. My friend took a bite. I took a bite. And the chorus of satisfied sighs started anew.
But what else would one expect at a restaurant named for an auspicious hour occurring twice daily? The time 11:11 is related to chance, coincidence, mystical powers and possibly the presence of spirits. People make wishes to some unseen force when the clock strikes 11:11, but at Eleven XI, the upscale Montrose restaurant with a slightly country-club vibe, there's no need to wish. The food will delight no matter the time of day.
Want a behind the scenes look at Eleven XI? Check out our slideshow._____________________
Eleven XI opened in May 2013 in a spacious 1940s-era home on West Gray that had previously housed Biba's Greek restaurant. It's the brainchild of Kevin Bryant, who worked as a private chef for George Strait before opening The Capitol at St. Germain as executive chef in 2012, and manager Joe Welborn, who refers to his job title as "house manager, beverage director, handyman, plumber..."
Six days a week, Bryant can be seen in the kitchen through a long window at the rear of the main dining room, cool as a cucumber, cooking up fanciful dishes like whole Cornish game hen brined in apricot tea and then fried so the fruity flavors of the stone fruit settle beneath a layer of brittle crumb crust. While Bryant is in the kitchen, Welborn is on the floor, gleefully chatting with the crowd — mostly retirement-age diners — answering questions about the food, checking on drinks and even, at times, entertaining with a witty anecdote or one-liner.
They're a dynamic duo, Bryant and Welborn, and their lively attitude has a lot to do with the restaurant's success. The style of the cuisine (reimagined comfort food with an emphasis on Southern seafood) and the crowd (older, preppy, accustomed to fine dining) are antithetical to Eleven XI's location: on the edge of Montrose inching toward Midtown, where hip, younger diners tend to congregate. With its warm earth tones and brick and leather accents, the restaurant could easily fit in at West Ave or River Oaks, were it not for the fun, almost mischievous vibe set by Bryant and Welborn and their friendly staff.
When Eleven XI opened, many people were perplexed by the contrast of the location, atmosphere and menu. Descriptions of the soon-to-open restaurant included mentions of the raw bar that would offer oysters from 33 different areas available seasonally. Then there was the tagline — "Southern Coastal Cuisine" — and the tasting menu and the seafood towers. The dinner menu features wild game such as elk and buffalo, coupled with an innovative cocktail program that includes absinthe service. And festival-style desserts like fried pies. And build-your-own burgers, ordered by middle-aged men wearing ties and served by waiters and waitresses in blue jeans. I understand why, in theory, Eleven XI shouldn't have worked.