By Elizabeth Keyser
4:35 PM EDT, March 19, 2013
73 Elm St., New Canaan, (203) 920-4994, elmrestaurant.com
Chef Brian Lewis is doing his thing, his way — creating dishes that "slide, slip, crunch, awaken or calm you." His menus are like music. He composes moments, three to four bites (notes) at a time. His restaurant Elm celebrates its first birthday March 20, and from the start, his inventive, "seasonally inspired" modern American cuisine was destined for national attention. Esquire Magazine named it a "best new restaurant," despite being in slightly out-of-the-way New Canaan. Accolades for his new venture were expected the minute Lewis left Richard Gere's Bedford Post with great reviews and the glow of stardom about him. But Lewis, an intense, serious perfectionist, wants to be part of the local Fairfield County community too.
You can come into Elm for "an album or a song," he says. That's not "for a song"; prices reflect the best ingredients, detailed, labor-intensive cooking, and pricey real estate in one of the richest towns in the country. But you don't have to be a hedge-funder to sit at the bar and marvel at a small plate of crunchy yellowfin tuna ($16), seared outside, raw inside, resting on silky-rich sunchoke purée and topped with quinoa brittle. The plate is circled by an incredibly great idea: brown-butter-soy caramel sauce. Flavor (melody) and texture (beat) play clean, rich, soft, silky, crunchy, sweet, salty, with an umami harmony.
Lewis's dishes are precise and beautiful. Rabbit porchetta is preciously spring-like, the plate painted with leek vinaigrette, accompanied by mostarda (a sweet-sour, mustard-flavored fruit condiment) made of pixie mandarins. A dab of pickled mustard seeds add a subtle sensation, a gelatiny pop. Baby greens, of dark and light hues, smooth and ruffled textures, are placed just so. A translucent slice of radish stands up against the red veins of baby chard. "It's all about the touch," Lewis says.
Lewis can make a savory plate seem like dessert. The foie gras pb&j ($12) looks like a round Lindt truffle. It's filled with spiced date jam, and sits on a bed of Marcona almond brittle. Dots of tart-sweet lingonberry jam anchor earthy-flavored micro chard leaves. A glass of Sauternes makes the music swell.
Elm is soothing, comfortable and quiet. The earth-toned dining room has a muted feel. The glowing white room beyond, the chef's table and counter overlooking the kitchen, exert a pull. And the kitchen looks more like an elegant, white laboratory than a restaurant kitchen, save for a profusion of gleaming copper pots. "People love the counter," Lewis says. He's happy to be on stage in this amazing space.
The chef's tasting menu lets you enter the maestro's controlled, wild imagination. Expect the unusual from a man for whom pasta is wild escargot tortelloni or wild nettle risotto with quail egg. He deconstructs, re-engineers. Unusual ingredients, treatments, combinations invoke questions, and Lewis's fast, quiet descriptions are sometimes barely caught before he returns to the kitchen. The need for answers melts away into the sensations of the tastes. Just enjoy. At $75, I'd say letting Lewis orchestrate a spontaneous tasting menu is a must-try Fairfield County experience. A recent tasting had many standouts.
"Bacon and eggs" is presented in an eggshell resting on a silver napkin ring, accompanied by a small spoon. Beneath the foamy topping, a light luxury of egg and fonduta, fontina sauce flavored with truffles, maple bacon and chives.
A chilled kushi, a small mild, Northwestern oyster, carries apple gelée, pickled fennel with wasabi and pickled Buddha's hand and yuzu vinaigrette, flavors that awaken the mouth. Light, citrus-y, sweet, fiery, vinegary, followed by the mineral satisfaction of the oyster.
A small jar containing a white creamy liquid is a smoky, creamy, salty delight. Smoked trout roe and potato yogurt, topped with crispy wild puffed rice. It was so unusual and wonderful. "I like silky," he says. "It's sexy."
The "Oh My God!" moment. We bit into deep-fried golden croquettes filled with quivering, unctuous bone marrow. It sat on an elegant bed of baby greens two-ways, wilted chard and fresh miner's lettuce.
Dessert was preceded by pre-dessert, a sweet-tart palate-cleansing bowl of yogurt ice cream and pineapple. It refreshed our spirits. Dessert itself was a granola-sprinkled jar of rich, smooth caramel and cream, with a decisive use of salt.
On weekends Elm gets the date-night crowd. But Sundays, brunch (house-made English muffins) and Sunday dinner "are huge family days," he says. Sunday dinner ($35 for adults/$15 for kids) is a three-course meal. Expect a minestrone of spring garlic, wild nettles, cardoons and miner's lettuce. A steak of local pork could be accompanied by sunchoke risotto and an imaginative reinterpretation of bacon. The ice cream, if you're lucky, will be rosemary.
Lewis has been doing more events, teaming up with local wine merchants, farmers like Annie Farrell of Millstone (where Lewis sources ingredients) and other chefs. At a recent Whole Hog Dinner featuring Ryan Fibiger of Saugatuck Craft Butchery, Lewis started the evening with spoons containing "Animal crackers" — crispy pig's ears and chicharones in smoked oat milk.
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