July 29, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

The Elm Grows in Brooklyn


And the chef said let there be foie with spicy strawberry gelée.


          Wood sorrel gives the rich avocado soup its citric taste, curry cashew its nuttiness. Bits of Ruby Red shrimp and radish lurk below. It’s the triumph in an evening of too much twee at The Elm. Twee as in tweezer. I expected simple. I longed for real food, delicious.  I’m not sure if I’m in the minority here with my impatience for the constipated plating of bits and blobs. You can disagree.


Ruby shrimp and radish, lurk in the marvelously tangy avocado soup.


          There have always been two schools of minnows differing on Paul Liebrandt and food as art. Being of two minds about his dazzling esoterica during a recent dinner at Corton, I was eager to see what the star-bedecked auteur chef considers simple and accessible food. That evening I was impressed by the evolution of his artistry: more to eat, more pleasure, less merely provocative or in your face.  He’d definitely grown up in his five years at Corton. In a 20 course tasting, each more prettily arranged than the last, I found myself savoring the brilliant layering of flavors more often than grumping.


Enjoy the whimsy of labeling each wood in the striped tabletop.


          In its inaugural year alone, Corton had collected two Michelin stars, three stars from The Times, and made Esquire’s “Best New Restaurant” list. Now, Liebrandt looked to open a restaurant all his own -- in Williamsburg, of all places. “Simple” was what he envisioned at The Elm in the King & Grove Hotel, he told reporters. A self-styled social outcast, had he ever been to Brooklyn before he got the call? I wondered. 


In The Elm’s open kitchen, the chef is surrounded by a crew he brought from Corton.


          It’s Wednesday, early in the flowering of The Elm. Four of us have arrived, two on the L train, two fighting rush hour on the Williamsburg Bridge. A boutique hotel across from McCarren Park definitely marks the new era. There’s an outdoor concert tonight. Hundreds of bicycles are chained to the fences, fans oblivious to the drama of the wandering prodigal across the street.

          I descend a stairway. The soaring double height space is remarkable luxury, definitely New Brooklyn. At the desk, short, earnest Arleene Oconitrillo introduces herself as the partner. I know from the documentary, “A Matter of Taste,” she is the girlfriend.  In the distance, Liebrandt’s  6’4 1/2'’ hulk is hunched over the table in the open kitchen, nose inches from a plate. Pygmy underlings scoot around him. 


The sweeping two-story high dining room advances the Brooklyn flowering.


          We’ve been settled into a banquette facing a wall of living greenery at a table of many woods -- striped like Joseph’s shirt, and labeled -- walnut, white oak, walnut, chestnut, walnut, ash, elm. The peach old fashioned is excellent, not too peachy, but nicely woodsy too. I’m primed for pleasure. Really.


A savory fnancier with minced olive, crème fraiche and a mint flower is the amuse.


          It’s a trim, sensibly limited menu, four choices each under the four headings: Raw, Sea, Land and Share (chicken, turbot, pork belly and summer garden). I’m not sure what arrives first, the crisp whole wheat baguette and roulades of butter, or the amuse on a big white dish with dozens of indentations. Small round financiers, the French almond cake. But they are savory now, topped with bits of chopped olive, crème fraiche and a tiny lavender mint flower.


Swiss chard agnolotti snuggle under lobster stoles, in a corn foam bubble bath.


          It seems a long wait. I imagine one determined fanatic arranging every item on every plate, squeezing out a nipple of sauce, dragging a knife through a dribble. The Swiss chard agnolotti is gorgeous, the pasta packages stylishly draped in lobster stoles, with corn foam and shishito peppers, just four small dumplings for $21. But luscious.


“Flavors of Bouillabaisse” give their all to grace a delicate roulade of halibut.


          I’m not much moved by the layered disc of foie gras with spiced strawberry gelée or the “flavors of bouillabaisse” or the Atlantic skate with cauliflower, tiny green tomato halves, marcona almonds and a scoop of raisins and capers in brown butter vinaigrette. But two of my companions are raving. I keep thinking of the emperor’s clothes. The friend on my right and I are silent. She too is missing the joy rays that have captured our companions.


A precis of skate, green tomatoes, almonds, cauliflower and brown butter vinaigrette.


          Summer beets with bacon XO sauce was probably not an ideal entrée choice. I’m not sure it had enough oomph to speed my pulse a bit, even as an appetizer. The man who ordered the Elysian field lamb neck with charred eggplant and Moroccan spices insists he’s content. “Interesting. Interesting,” he observes.


Elysian field lamb neck with charred eggplant was "Interesting, Interesting," insists the man who ordered.

          Liebrandt had promised “the perfect beef short rib.” These smoky chunks with heirloom carrot discs are not even close. (I vote for Justin Smillie’s crusty short rib at Il Buco Alimentari, and not just because a portion is enough for six.) Granted, these plates were never conceived for four food bloggers to taste.


Smoked short rib with heirloom carrots, onion and cous cous and brown sauce.


          We’ve had eight dishes, and extra bread, but we’re ravenous. It’s my idea to order the $56 chicken Kiev for two listed under “Share.” It might take a while at this point, since the house has filled up, but better than stopping for pizza on the way home. A server brings two plates and a busser brings the deconstructed bird in a dark casserole. There is one broccoli floret per person. And a puddle of green.  In a separate bowl, gossamer potato froth with crème fraiche and cantal cheese has to be the most refined (and delicious) aligot ever.


Roulades of chicken Kiev, crispy dark meat and garlic aioli: a portion meant to share.

          But there is more than enough satiny chicken roulade, oozing garlicky lemon-parsley butter. The dark meat, tricked into not-enough crispy fried chunks, is marvelous. As are garlic aioli croquettes shaped like tater tots. We divide two halves of roasted garlic bulb into quarters. What abundance!  It would be mean to say so much chicken goes back to the kitchen because it just isn’t that compelling. But then again, maybe we weren’t really as hungry as it seemed.


The waiter said “pommes aligot.” Hard to believe that rustic dish could emerge so light. 


          Dessert, yes, of course, we want dessert. Spirits revive. We’re not even put off by something called Eton Mess, since literally it’s not a mess at all, but rather, wonderfully ripe tristar strawberries with violet ice crème and petals on puddles of brown butter -- sweet agreeable blobs.


The chef remembers boarding school as a horror. Still this devotion to Eton Mess.


          And the deconstructed summer red fruit tart ($22 for two to share) delivered under a glass bell is a breathtaking finale: The perfect berries, the candied lemon peel, the pastry-fruit disc underneath, the explosion of sweet Styrofoam shards. My mouth is filled with sweet fruit tang.


The deconstructed summer fruit tart for two is a garden of eden for three or four.

          The farewell billets doux come in doll-size bowls: Raspberry and rose gels -- one for each of us -- and another bite of almondy sweet cream with bacon. The end quotation mark that closes the evening.  And the check, $500 with nine drinks and tip.

          Will you go? Are you a certified foodie or even just hoping to eat your way to nirvana? I guess you will. I might dare to go back myself to taste the next chapter.


Liebrandt reveals he is a Dickens orphan in Sally Rowe’s revealing documentary.

160 North 12th Street, Brooklyn between Bedford Avenue and Berry Street. 718 218 1088.  Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday 6 pm to 11 Friday and Saturday to midnight. Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Closed Monday and Tuesday. Breakfast seven days 7 am to 11 am.


Photographs may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. 

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