Indulge your cravings for a cool scene and inventive cuisine at this farm-driven restaurant.
Mary Kate Hogan
In recent years New Canaan’s charming downtown has attracted a bumper crop of sophisticated eateries. But with Elm, the newest place to roost on our high street, we’ve gained a modern farm-driven restaurant that would be equally at home in another downtown, say, on Ninth Avenue or West Broadway. A New York-style buzz swirled around Elm for a good six months to a year before the restaurant actually opened its minimalist doors (construction delays kept pushing things back). Fashionably late to the party, Elm ushered in two hotly anticipated personalites: chef-owner Brian Lewis, known for his cooking and collaboration with Richard Gere on Bedford Post, as well as sous chef Mike Paez, who has wd-50 and Momofuku in the city on his résumé.
Now that service at the sleek eighty-seat restaurant is in full swing, with lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch in the mix, the question is, does Elm live up to the hype? We reserved a Thursday-night table for four (secured on Open Table several weeks in advance) on a quest for the answer, eagerly awaiting the chance to taste the raved-about food.
The crowd around the pewter-topped bar included couples and a few guys in suits who looked as though they just stepped off the 6:55 train. Tasteful contemporary décor blends rich walnut floors and accents with grid lighting and art projected onto a screen. Banquette seating lines one wall and a chef’s table for private dining is set below a sculpted metal sconce and overlooks the kitchen. Restrooms are unmarked. It’s all very understated, a fitting backdrop for a place with a firm emphasis on the seasonal food and changing menus that source from local farmers and artisans.
We ordered sauvignon blanc by the glass—the bar was out of the prosecco we had requested—and some appetizers from “the sea & the farm” section of the menu. The food soon dazzled us. Most exceptional was the Langoustines alla Plancha. Recommended by the waitress, the dish couples tender baby lobster in ajoblanco (a chilled garlic soup that presents like a foam) with lardo, uni butter and togarashi, which adds a hint of spice. Now this is what we’ve been waiting for. Hudson Valley Foie Gras topped with a Pata Negra cured ham and beluga lentils with apricot marmalade made for an equally well-balanced and outstanding starter. Like an edible bouquet, the Roots, Shoots, Fruits and Leaves with goat cheese, almond oil and ice wine vinegar was a colorful mélange of microthin slices and ribbons of root vegetables—a treat for the eyes as well as the mouth. Another solid choice was the Sashimi of Hawaiian Nairagi Toro, with added interest from crispy pieces of fried garlic (love the contrast in texture) and pickled avocado.
Among the mains, the Maine Halibut in Vadouvan Curry was my favorite. The fish is light and lovely, topped with almonds and golden raisins and paired with preserved Meyer lemon. It’s served with a separate copper skillet filled with a fantastic rainbow chard that underscores the farm in farm-to-table. Also fantastic is the Duo of Veal Hay & Ash with Hazelnut Crumble, Mangalica Ham and Farro; it’s super tender with a nutty crunch from the hazelnuts and farro, a creamy sauce with a streak of black ash across the plate. Among the house-made pastas we tried was the Pici Neri—a squid-ink pasta with razor clams, saffron, San Marzano tomatoes, mint and chili—an unusual combination I loved. Georges Bank Sea Scallops were nicely seasoned and seared, but the bed of riso venere—a short-grain black rice they rested on—was overly salty (and I like my salt) and even slightly oily.
For dessert, we were tempted by butterscotch pudding and told it was the most popular choice, but then found out the kitchen had none left. We opted instead for a banana split, a classic with chocolate, vanilla and strawberry ice creams, carmelized bananas and candied nuts on top. I enjoyed the seasonal strawberry salad with tamarind sorbet; it was set on a bed of pistachios with mint in the sauce and a few dabs of crème fraiche—light and refreshing. The dessert I would bypass next time was the chocolate pot de crème with ruby beet sorbet. The chocolate had a hard consistency and the bubble-gum pink sorbet really did taste just like beets, a flavor that I didn’t care for when combined with chocolate.
One downside to dinner at Elm is the cost: Bring along your Amex Black or a friend with an expense account. Portions are modest, so the $33 to $38 entrees may seem a tad steep. You’re likely to want a starter too, and that will push the bill to $100 a head once you factor in a glass of wine, dessert and tip. The veal and the halibut, both so beautifully prepared, were well worth it, but three scallops on a bed of black rice? Maybe not.
Lunch entrees, however, are all less than $20 and there’s a midday three-course tasting for $30, which may be the best value.
Our table by the window was comfortable and service prompt and efficient. These details enhanced a very pleasant evening out. Elm’s creative menu will definitely lure me back for lunch and special occasions. And locals with a city fix may find themselves skipping the train to stay close to home.