Tag Archives: Foie Gras

Elm

It’s been a while since I’ve been impressed enough by a restaurant that I felt compelled to write again, but after several trips up to Connecticut to dine at Elm I have been sufficiently wowed. Located on a quaint downtown street in New Canaan, Elm has a modern but elegantly casual feel to it. My favorite spot to dine is at the counter seats in the back from which you get this view into the open kitchen:
Elm kitchen

It’s a real pleasure to watch the team at Elm work. The kitchen is led by chef/owner Brian Lewis (not in the picture above), who’s food I first encountered way back in 2009 when he was doing a pasta demo at a tasting event. Back then, he was representing Richard Gere’s restaurant, the Farmhouse at Bedford Post (another one of my absolute favorites) where he was the original chef. I was impressed by him then and even more so now. At Elm, he’s assembled a kitchen staff that really cares about what they do. And I know this because I have been there on multiple occasions when Chef Lewis had the night off and I still witnessed the highest level of care and attention to detail under the direction of sous chef Devin Broo. Every plate was wiped of fingerprints with tiny squares of napkin they keep at the ready just for that purpose, almost as meticulous as the way Momofuku Ko wipes down plates using drops of vodka. Seeing the Elm team work reminds me of Paul Newman’s line from The Hustler when he’s describing how any activity can be elevated to greatness, “if a guy knows. If he knows what he’s doing and why and if he can make it come off.” Everyone in that kitchen, including the dishwasher, seems to work with that sense of pride and purpose. The kitchen space itself is spacious and bright, and the team moves about it with a calm efficiency reminiscent of how Charlie Trotters’ kitchen used to hum.

From a kitchen that polished you’d expect the food to be world class, and it certainly is. The ever changing menu is of the farm to table variety but not in an obnoxious crunchier-than-thou sort of way. The printed menu won’t list the provenance of every ingredient on the plate like some restaurants do these days. The descriptions are straightforward, clean and elegant, just like the kitchen. Consider them confidently understated, because without fail when the dishes arrive before you, they are artfully plated masterpieces to behold, and they are even more pleasurable to eat. Take for example this dish of “Glazed Spring Vegetables”:
Elm Glazed Spring Vegetables

It is perhaps the quintessential Elm dish. It treats the incredible ingredients with greatest of care and respect, elevating and accenting them with a rich buttery nage and laced with a drizzle of honey. Every element on that plate was spectacular, especially those baby radishes which were ridiculously juicy. The richness of the dish speaks to Elm’s approach of making things delicious first and foremost. Yes it’s a farm to table restaurant, but they are cooking to satisfy a foodie’s palate, not a hippie’s consciousness. That’s my kind of sensibility.

With this approach there are no cultural boundaries to constrain them. So you may have Japanese flavors of yuzu and ginger mignonette over raw oysters for one app and follow that up with the Thai curry broth in these mussels:
Elm Thai Curry Mussels

And then jump over to France with this, possibly the most brilliantly conceived and executed presentation of foie gras I’ve ever tasted:
Elm Foie Gras

It’s a dish of seared foie with sherry lentil jus, spiced rhubarb, and the kicker- crushed bits of smoked macadamia nuts. Lentils are the perfect element to add substance to each bite of foie because they give you just enough of something to chew while being subtle enough in flavor not to interfere with the star of the show. The rhubarb of course brings the sweetness and acidity you need in any good foie dish. But the eye opener for me was the smoked macadamias. I never knew that foie gras could be elevated by the addition of smoke, but now I do and I will never be the same. It provides you with a hit of smoky pleasure and interest right up front as you take your bite, just before the wave of richness from the foie washes over you as it melts on your tongue. Just an awesome dish. Just an awesome restaurant.

New and Noteworthy: SakaMai

sakamai_eggs_cropped

The anticipation began when I learned that George Kao, who some of you may know from his workshops at the Japanese Culinary Center, was part of a team opening SakaMai, a new sake lounge in the Lower East Side. George is a guy whose palate I really respect, and in fact he was the one who first turned me onto Kajitsu which went on to become one of my favorite restaurants in NYC (until the chef departed for greener pastures earlier this year, but I digress). So as soon as I heard he was involved with SakaMai my expectations were elevated by several notches. And now, after having visited it for the first time I’m pleased to report it lives up to everything I was hoping it would be.

Apparently they’ve had about a week of a soft opening with the official grand opening scheduled for tonight, but since I had been checking OpenTable daily, I lucked into seeing that a bunch of seatings opened up for last night so I grabbed the reservation and called up my skinny friend who can eat a lot to be the perfect partner for properly attacking the menu. Now the downside of most soft openings is that the menu is usually limited and the service is uneven, but at SakaMai, perhaps since this was the final night of a week-long soft opening, I found that the menu had ample selections and the service was actually excellent by any standards.

When you first enter, even before you get to the hostess station there is a rather spacious area with a couple of tables and high stools which are every bit as comfortable as the seats in the main room. The decor is what you’d expect of a higher end sake lounge; think dim lighting and walls of stone/exposed brick with a modern feel. On this night, the hostess station was presided over by two uber-attractive people, I think their names were Yasu and Jess, who were dressed like classy fashionistas while greeting you with a respectful friendliness and sincerity I consider to be very Japanese. It was the first of what would be consistently excellent service across the board, right down to the guy bussing the tables. Beyond the hostess station is the main room which is basically a long single row of tables with comfortable bench seating along the wall side and chairs on the aisle side. But enough about the decor, I know you want to know about the food and bev.

We had a mild-mannered Maboroshi sake by the glass to begin the night. From there we moved on to two tasting flights of three sakes each. The first was three different daiginjo offerings from Dassai, the 23, 39, and 50. The numbers represent the percentage of the rice grain that is left after polishing before they use it to make sake. Typically the lower the number, the cleaner and more subtle the flavor. With these however, I found the 39 to be even fuller in flavor with a bigger finish than even the 50. It was my favorite of the trio. Of the major sake producers, I’ve always found Dassai to be one of the best. Whenever I open a sake menu and am confounded by the number of choices, Dassai is almost always my go-to because I enjoy everything I’ve tasted from them. But this was the first time I’ve ever been able to sample the 23, 39 and 50 all side by side. It’s a solid flight which should suit most everyone’s palates so I hope they keep it on the menu forever. Our second flight was of my favorite style of sake, “nama” or unpasteurized. These were nama-genshu, so they were higher in alcohol. I should point out that our waiter did a fine job of explaining details like that. Of that flight, two of my faves were on there- the Born and an offering from Kikusui (who those that know me well should recognize as the brand that produces the sake-in-a-can which I love so much). I love nama sakes and I hope in the future SakaMai will rotate in flights of seasonal ones so I can continue to explore them, just like I do at one of my other regular haunts, Wasan.

So what to eat with these amazing sakes? We had a wide assortment of small plates and was pleased by all of them. The skate wing chips were like a more elegant version of the spicy dried cuttlefish that I grew up loving. If you opt to drink beer instead of sake, I would say these chips should be your default choice. The trio of oysters were kumamotos and my favorite of the three was of course the one topped with creme fraiche and caviar, but the one with yuzu foam was quite nice as well. The dish of bone marrow with steak tartare gets a thumbs up too, but more so for the bone marrow than the tartare. The bone was split lengthwise, which in my opinion is the only right way to do it because of easier access to the fatty morsels of delight inside. The tartare while well-seasoned, just didn’t seem to have anything that would make you go wow, unlike most of the other things on the menu. One other dish, the pork buns, I thought were just ok too; decent fatty pork, but generally unspectacular especially in a city where you can find a lot of great baos. But what was spectacular was the charwan mushi (savory japanese egg custard). I’ve had a lot of great charwan mushi in my day, with probably my favorites being from Lan which no longer exists, and Dieci, which was opened by the Lan folks. But oftentimes the charwan mushi experience is augmented by things like truffle or mushroom slices adorning the top. That’s kind of like cheating with bacon or butter. Well at SakaMai, there’s no cheating, well not with garnishes anyway. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak. What you get is a little teacup sized serving of nothing other than the custard topped with its dashi gelee. But oh what a custard! Why? Because it is permeated by the unctuous flavor of foie gras. The chef has done it with a very balanced hand such that if you didn’t read the menu, you might not even realize that’s what’s in it. You would only realize it was mysteriously satisfying and over-the-top delicious. It’s the best dish on the menu in my opinion. Visually, though, the stunner was the dish called “Egg on Egg on Egg”, featuring uni and caviar over scrambled eggs, served in an uni shell. Super decadent and it tasted every bit as amazing as it looks. I wonder if they will possibly get the larger and slightly sweeter uni from Santa Barbara for this dish in the future. If they did, I would probably have to change my rankings and give this dish the nod over the charwan mushi, but it would be close.

We rounded out the night lingering over a bottle of the Dassai 39 and ordering a couple more dishes- the kampachi sashimi and the octopus, both nice offerings, but paled in the afterglow of my charwan mushi/uni/caviar eggstacy. I will definitely return and can see this becoming one of my regular weekend destinations. SakaMai officially opens tonight and I think they’re off to a terrific start. I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit and can’t wait to see what pleasures the full menu will have in store for us.