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