Friday, September 6, 2013


I never would've thought to put Paul Liebrandt in a hotel kitchen, but this man seems to be able to make anything glamorous.  A striking change from his recently departed Corton, The Elm is comparatively dark and industrial, located in the King & Grove Hotel on the periphery of Williamsburg.  So far, he seems content there, but perhaps this is due to his predicted brevity of stay.  Always forward thinking, he may be contemplating his next project just as The Elm is beginning to take root.  So get here while you can.   The Elm provides a welcome relaxation from the formality of Corton, but the latter is where Liebrandt shines.  That said, most of his glowing talent translates very, very well at this latest venture.

The room is interesting to observe, with long, craning light fixtures arching from the walls, and cleverly constructed tables, made up of wooden slats labeled for the trees from which the wood was derived.  We were welcomed with a tiny, savory olive financier: moist and rich to provoke the appetite, but sized of a button mushroom so as not to kill it.
And then  a small crock of crudites:  shaved, sliced or whole-leafed,  some pickled and some fresh, coiled atop an olive aspic and creamy tuna belly puree that was a little fishy for my tastes, but cool and redolent of deep ocean.  Menus are as simplistic as they could possibly be, divided into sections of provenance:  Raw, Sea,  Land and Share.  I have to say, the share dishes appear to be some of the more interesting looking ones, but they also limit the amount one is able to sample.  And $48 dollars for what we consumed as a two-person appetizer is on the way pricey side- and this one is just vegetables.  Although to say "just vegetables" is erroneously dismissive: these are blatantly not just any vegetables.    I inquired whether they were Farmer Lee's; the quality was at least commensurate.  But no, his are "too expensive"- these are sourced locally and discerningly, and the most rapturous, pristine dirt candy I've
met.  A heavy iron casserole arrives, dwarfing the Lilliputian varietals within.  They say there are roundabout fifty different vegetables in this melange, raw, roasted, steamed, sauteed.  I thought I might try to see how many I could identify, but I lost my count quickly among this delicious cornucopia.  A plate is presented with a funny face made up of condiments: a superb house-made ketchup, a intensely herby puree, a winking eye of crisp Asian pear, and a
pursed mouth made of bitter, candied lemon peel.  It was fun to destroy the face to anoint different bites, although frankly the bites didn't really need improvements.  Furls of stripey chioggia beets, buttery nuggets of marble-sized potatoes, a rainbow of carrots, tender baby lettuces, bubble-sized poppino mushrooms, juicy Ur-tomatoes, lustrous heads of grilled
 baby romaine, tiny immaculate turnips, ruffled matsutake, thick ribbons of zucchini, cross-sections of buttery roasted cauliflorettes, miniature trumpets of golden chanterelles, all scattered with delicate edible flowers.  Savory rice cracker wafers, light as air, floated above, then broken, dissolved to incorporate into the melange below.  It is astounding how delicious such a simple preparation could be, the novelty of each precious, unique bite resulting in a magical sensation of discovery--  child-on-Christmas-morning caliber magic.

A sauce to finish the duck.
Progressing to more substantial fare, we tried the slow roasted duck from Land, with pickled plum and toasted honey... how you toast honey I know not, but it doesn't much matter... because Paul does.   They like the tableside finishings, so it was bequeathed with a fragrant reduction, pooling around the duck.   Its nutty, sweetness tamed the puckery-tart plums, which cut the
 richness of the dense, spiced meat.    From Sea we chose a skate in brown butter with capers, but the classic preparation is here divided and conquered: the tender, ropey flesh of the fish cooked so gently the fibers melt with the pressure of your fork.  A brown butter vinaigrette (also presented a table)  is dispersed in disparate daubs.  It flashed of bright acidity above a bronzed, nutty depth, studded with plump golden raisins and deviantly zesty capers.  A scattering of Marcona almonds lent a textured crunch, and tiny orbs
 of warmed, vibrant yellow miniature lemon cucumbers burst like plump, taut water balloons.  Daubs of mustardy pureed cauliflower and more roasted florets (gleefully, as these were some of my favorite tidbits from the Summer Garden). It was a tough choice between that and  a swiss chard agnolotti with lobster, corn and shishitos, but I've zero regret.  In fact, as is so rare with me, there are many dishes that would lure me back to The Elm:  the Chicken "Kiev style" or the Turbot with summer beans from Share, and scallop gnudi or the "Flavors of Bouillabaisse" from Sea, but I'm sure with the ardent seasonality of The Elm those dishes will have morphed into something more autumnal by the time I might return.
The only dish that I was not flat-out thrilled by was the summer beets with tomato aioli and XO sauce.... unfortunately, the xo didn't translate so much into a kiss as into a wallop of dried fish flavor, trouncing the tomato aioli and the perfectly marvelous baby beets, even when scraped judiciously from their surfaces.  I suppose if you like mackerely-type things, though, you might find this appealing?  But as summer is coming to a close, it may not be even a question worth pondering, seasonally labeled as they are.

Onto sweets, the Eton Mess was anything but messy.  Perhaps less so than at Corton, but the plating at The Elm is still precise and meticulous.  This dainty cupola of brown butter meringue held a delicate violet creme, slathered in syrupy, idyllic tristar strawberries crowned with a diaphanous berry foam.

Peaches & Cream was a stellar combination of voluptuously peachy gelato refreshed by ginger infused basil grantita: this could cool your soul in even the hottest, muggiest New York summer afternoon.  Juicy slices of orchard peaches added structure, with a cinnamony swizzle stick of buttery pastry aside.

  But the show-stealer came again in a shareable portion: an unassumingly named Red Summer Fruit Tart arrived with white-gloved pomp, on its own little cake stand and glass cloche.  It lived up to every morsel of its hype: a buttery layer of shortbread cookie was sprinkled with shards of intense white chocolate underneath a dense layer of custard and ample forest fruits.  Perhaps not all red, but all scrumptious- the Platonic ideals of blueberries and blackberries, strawberries and raspberries.  Lemon confit meringue crowned the masterpiece along with mystifyingly soft cubes of subtly citric lemongrass marshmallow.  The check was accompanied by two housemade chocolate, thinly shelled in profound dark chocolate encompassing a creamy peach center, as well as two fruit gelees.  After the abundant meal, all this may have been gilding the lily a touch, but when a guy's got the Midas touch, he might as well roll with it.


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