I wouldn’t believe you if you told me I would be eating Filipino congee for my Christmas meal. Every year I have a holiday dinner date at an often random restaurant a few days before December 25th because I don’t do the going home with the boyfriend for Christmas thing (no, not even after nine Christmases). This year was Elettaria, primarily because I never paid a visit when it was new–and why not now?
I got the impression somewhere that the bar scene overshadows the dining. That wasn’t really the case. In fact, I still have no idea what kind of scene it is other than an all-encompassing one. Maybe the Monday before Christmas isn’t representative because the room really cleared out after 9pm (as opposed to Wilfie & Nell–where I showed restraint by only drinking and not ordering pork sliders–packed solid earlier this same evening. Maybe that’s the New York magazine review effect). All of the larger corner tables were taken by canoodlers, gay and straight. There was a primo banquette between the bar and dining room that seemed reserved for seniors only. Children were present, as well as twenty-something lawyers flirting with each other. Oh, and even a little person (who was not Peter Dinklage). Something for everyone.
Including me. The cuisine is Asian-inflected, I knew that. But I was still surprised when our waiter described the only appetizer special, “Lugaw, a Filipino rice porridge with beef torchon, quail egg and tripe.” Really? I had him repeat it later because his accent was thick and all I caught initially was Filipino and tripe. That’s all I needed to hear, though, and more than enough to sway me from my original choice of smoked duck.
I should’ve been eating congee my entire time in Hong Kong because it’s good sick person food. Now, I could make up for lost time. I don’t know that porridge makes for a compelling Manhattan starter though really it’s not any stranger than ordering soup as a first course. And it endeared me to the restaurant. The menu was otherwise winsome and filled with lots of ingredients that appealed to me but it was the lugaw that won me over.
I’m still not certain what a beef torchon is or if I even heard that correctly (you usually see that term in relation to foie gras). No matter, the flavors and textures worked. The meat, a bit chewy and gelatinous, melded well with the creaminess of the egg and ricey broth. Fried garlic and minced scallions added punch.
Normally, I would’ve been drawn to the fried quail. This looked like a decent-sized portion. Maybe I’ve lost my tolerance because the food even though mildly fussy, was very filling. Fussy isn’t the right word, what I mean is there were many components to each dish.
Being overporked in 2008, I went for the guinea hen. I’d forgotten how wonderful a simple skin-crisped-to-perfection bird can be (though not simple in price—this was the most expensive thing on the menu at $30. It was early Christmas dinner, though, so no nickel-and-diming). The legs were surrounded by gnocchi, sliced chestnuts and a soft cabbagey squash relish. Maybe I’m just imaging the cabbage.
Sea bass, potatoes, fennel prosciutto and octopus? A little complex without being incongruous, and hearty for a fish-based course.
That would’ve been plenty but you need dessert for a celebration so it was an unnecessary pineapple upside down cake and served with coconut gelato. At least it wasn’t molten despite its pucky looks.
Thumbs up on lugaw and hen skin. And here's to venturing beyond pork products in 2009.
Elettaria * 33 W. Eighth St., New York, NY