The Elm: A Compelling Mix of Quirkiness

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To share: waxed beans, bacon, lemongrass nage.

Just inside the front door of The Elm, the new restaurant from Chef Paul Liebrandt, is a coat rack made from axes. Don't feel intimidated. The rustic manly vibe ends there. Once you're downstairs you'll be ensconced in a chic modern hotel, although a part of me wished for more manly vibe.

The seed was planted for my dinner at The Elm with an image I spotted on Instagram. The plate looked gorgeous. I wanted to eat there. I "liked" it, and then I made reservations. There were six of us, and a baby. Miraculously they had a private-ish room where we could stash the baby in the corner, and pray for a nice long nap. We chatted and made small talk. The big table made it seem more formal than I would have liked. I looked over the menu, which was broken up into four categories: raw, sea, land and share. I've seen words like these before, and, while I admire their brevity, I'm not sure they lend any more information than, say, 1-4.

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Heirloom tomatoes, jamon, herbs and crispy cheese discs.

The waiter explained the structure of the menu, suggesting how a table of six could share items, which to me sounded like crazy talk. I'll admit, it stressed me out a bit. Imagine going to Per Se and their servers suggesting you share. In a restaurant where plating is key, it felt a bit of an oxymoron. So I skirted the issue and ordered dishes that would solely be mine. I started with an heirloom tomato salad that also included jamon and delicate slivers of several different herbs. When the plate was set in front of me, as the inquisitive diner that I am, I asked what they were. The waiter appeared a bit flummoxed and walked away.

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Herbs and herbs

Irritated by my "Portlandia" worthy question, I thought he had split. But no, he was back with a small porcelain plate topped with fine sprigs of green shrubbery. He slowly walked me through the plate and then left it there so I could take a photo. My mind was changed.

While my starter was good, each ingredient had a clarity of flavor that made me feel like I was eating prized edibles, however each element seemed to circle in its own universe rather than enhancing and rocketing forward. But, it certainly was pretty to look at. Other dishes around the table were a beet salad, a vegetable I love but, like kale, it's been done (and done and done), steak tartare, and foie gras.

The group ordered several share plates, and I wondered again how it would all work out. Later, half a dozen waiters appeared carrying all types of kitchenware. They stopped at our table and, like a troupe of bull fighters, they lowered plates and bowls and heavy cast iron pans. The head waiter attempted to walk us through the more than half dozen dishes, but frankly after one explanation my mind was swimming. I was stressed just surveying the table. One single share item involved one main platter with the key protein, along with individual plates (per person) that held swirls and dollops of sauces and dips and perhaps even a third bowl with an additional side element. Now, multiply this by six. Phew. I couldn't remember anything. More importantly I had no idea how the chef wanted us to eat these things. When I dished a little of this and a little of that, well then, it all just looked messy, chaotic and disorganized. One can tell there is a weighted intention behind Liebrandt's food, but I didn't think this was it.

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Early autumn beets with tomato a├»oli, and XO sauce 

To calm my nerves I focused on what was in front of me: a lobster and pasta dish that was both visually stunning and hearty and rich (and a serving size just right: not too big, not too small). The seafood and pasta, not necessarily earth shattering in their newness, were topped with a brothy foam and managed to taste of both land and sea at the same time. I was happy not to share, even while I dipped my fork into other plates around the table.

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To share: Turbot (which went along with the top image in this post).

The share plates were beautiful, like the turbot above, and another called "garden" that was an incredible bounty of every vegetable under the sun. The vegetables were simply cooked with plenty of crunch, and a simple almost faint seasoning. I thought to myself that my vegetarian sister-in-law would have been blissed out. But, I still didn't know how to eat it with all the side notes on the table. The dinner made me think too hard, as if we were pouring over an IKEA manual trying to build one bookshelf between the six of us.

I have high hopes for The Elm as it navigates the waters of its first year of business, and possibly reconsiders how it serves those beautiful share dishes. Pete Wells, in his review on the NYT, wrote about hearing Joe Cocker singing in the background, and seemed to feel similarly. I don't recall any music, but I know this, the baby only cried once.