The Elm has generated nearly as much skepticism as it has praise, most of it unfounded. The location isn’t obscure or difficult to reach (one stop from Manhattan, if you even live in Manhattan, and a five-minute walk?), there’s nothing that odd about it being subterranean or in a hotel (though I’ll admit boutique hotels with pools are douchey by default) and I’m not fully convinced that the neighborhood can’t sustain a more ambitious culinary venture, despite Williamsburg’s fondness for meatballs, barbecue and fried chicken.
There’s a lot of money in Brooklyn, if you haven’t noticed, allowing the restaurant to function as either a neighborhood spot or a destination. I’ve treated it as both, once on a weekend date with a shared cocotte and a bottle of wine (a Willamette Valley pinot noir) and another on a weeknight at the bar with a friend, drinking cocktails, three plates among us. Either way, you get the full amuse, bread basket, mignardise treatment.
My main resistance to The Elm was my bizarro experience at Corton, the only restaurant where I’ve ever been asked to not take photos. And I’m quick and discreet to a fault (a better shot of the chicken kiev would’ve been from above, but I’m not about to stand up during a meal and maneuver). Three years makes quite a difference in the food world, though. On my bar visit, the servers were careful to position the plates just so, primping the food for a better shot. Not only could staff care less about food photos anymore, they actively participate (not Liebrandt, himself, obviously, though he does make the dining room rounds).
That amuse is a warm, hyper-savory, salty thing, with a quick bread texture. Black olive is in the verbal description, though the bite doesn’t taste
particularly olive-like. The friend who is a notorious over-salter (to the point where I’ll add extra salt when I cook for her and she’ll still add more every time) called this “salty,” a positive.
Foie gras and strawberry, hit with crystallized ginger and served with brioche, could almost be a starter or a dessert like the foie gras doughnut at Do or Dine. One of the only dishes I actually remember from Corton, also involved foie gras and a fat piece of brioche.
A tom yum scallop and gnudi, foamy and coconutty, felt more boutique hotel with a pool in Asia, despite the modern Western signifier: a nasturtium leaf like a lilly pad floating in sauce.
The scallop is fleeting while the “flavors of bouillabaisse” is jam-packed like a tardis of seafood. A crisp-topped block of tilefish was the focus (lobster and mini potatoes were also lurking) but my favorite part was the tiny shrimp like you might normally see dried and used to jazz up Thai condiments or Chinese rice, individually, battered and fried. Adorable.
The short rib with the PL sauce, more closely related to HP than donkey, didn’t make a huge impression on me, not because it was lackluster, but
sometimes hunks of meat, even small hunks, can get upstaged by more unexpected combinations on the table (plus, I ate half the bouillabaise before swapping for this so it wasn’t pristine–my own doing). I’d forgotten that argan oil, the now ubiquitous hair product, was edible.
The lamb is in a similar vein, stylistically, a little Middle Eastern with quinoa rather than couscous. I loved the deeply hued, intensely flavored blobs
(see below also). Dark stiff quenelles may be the new drizzles and drops. The smoky eggplant sheened so purple it was almost black like a good iridescent Goth
Chicken “Kiev Style” comes in multiple parts: garnishes on a plate, en cocotte and with a side of velvety cheese-infused potatoes (pommes aligot, if
you want to be precise) that rank right up there with “robuchons” (not an ill-punctuated possessive, but my household nickname for the famous butter-crammed potato puree). The browned fleshy logs contain the liquid herbed butter you’d expect while the crispy texture comes separately from the tot and wing conglomerate.
Broccolini, a candied lemon peel, aioli and a swampy blob, which logically would have spinach origins, but probably didn’t.
Hibiscus jellies and cookies and cream mini muffins, not all that different in appearance from the initial olive disk, aren’t real desserts, but I never had the urge for those. I hear they’re good.
The Elm * 160 N. 12th St., Brooklyn, NY