A few seats to my right at the bar, an expensively-dressed middle-aged woman spoke loudly on her smartphone while the stoic waitstaff artfully transferred white beans from a polished steel serving tray to her wide, gleaming white plate. Behind me in a booth, two young men chatted over $20+ appetizers, their old Nike sneakers up on the doeskin-soft leather banquette. At another table, a couple whose combined age I’d place no higher than 30 photographed their dessert, flash on.
These were the patrons with whom I was sharing the subtle ax motif of The Elm, chef Paul Liebrandt’s below-ground restaurant nestled in the foundation of the King and Grove hotel in Williamsburg (160 N 12th St).
While I waited for my dinner companion to arrive, I became increasingly convinced I was about to be fabulously ripped off on dinner, starting with the negroni. I found myself regretting the order as I placed it, since it’s a cocktail that I’m disappointed by too often to justify continuing to order it.
My cocktail arrived a bit before my friend, and I was surprised.
I was told that The Elm was the creation of a chef known for a strong, sometimes difficult personality and brilliant food. The cocktail had me hopeful about the second claim: clear and vibrant, with none of the hazardous syrup quality common to the bad negroni, it carried through on an attention to detail that was clear enough in the design of the dining area and fixtures.
We were brought to our table, on which each strip of wood was labeled with the genus of the tree it came from. The dining room’s decor, which I found a bit too strong and new-feeling at first, grew on me slowly. The menu was organized like the armed forces: raw, sea, land, and share, and we decided on small plates from the raw, navy, and army sections.
The first dish – foie gras with black trumpet mushrooms, sake creme, and green apple – arrived, and I was surprised again. Like most twenty-somethings, immediately after college I found myself eating an awful lot of foie gras. I was working at a high-end cheese store and taking home the ends of the not-quite-legal handmade farmhouse pâtés we sold, busily working on my incipient gout.
That pâté was meaty, hearty, closer to liverwurst; Liebrandt’s was the opposite. The texture was silky smooth and it was served cold alongside a platonic slice of brioche toast. It did not melt; it sublimated upon hitting your tongue. The perfectly-shaped puck itself was orbited by flavorful dabs of sake creme and apple atop which had been carefully placed tiny mushroom heads and splayed green cotyledons. The attention to detail continued.
The second and third dishes – a vongole sporting three varieties of clam, bacon, and wonderfully salty breadcrumbs and a boquerone-laden chicory salad – followed strongly. The vongole’s defining feature was a single razor clam shell on which the varieties of clam were displayed. This was a nice touch, since it allows you to see and taste them individually. Among the pasta, their textures intermingle, making the dish feel varied and complex despite the flavor being crowd-pleasingly simple. I found the salad less interesting – we’ve set a high bar here – but the vegetable crunch did round out the other flavors nicely.
We ended with a buttermilk panna cotta which, between the honey and cultured milk, tasted- and chef, if you read this, please pardon the comparison since I mean it lovingly – like an idealized version of one of those greek yogurt and honey combination cups. I had it alongside an unremarkable but pretty-looking macchiato. My friend went nuts for the petit fours (“That’s the best bite of anything I’ve had in months”) and had to be physically restrained.
Two cocktails, three small plates, one dessert, one coffee, de Blasio’s share, and a 20% tip set us back a total of $132. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I did not feel ripped off in the slightest.