…and with the preliminaries behind us, we moved on to the main body of the dinner. We learned that the chefs source organically, sustainably and locally "whenever possible", especially within a 50 mile radius, though they do not limit their search for the best product there, "going to the ends of the Earth" to find special ingredients.
The next dish was larger than the previous dishes, but still genteel in size, Fluke sashimi with daikon radish, cucumber and Thai Prik curry was a marvelous dish combining the subtlety of the fluke with a moderate level of heat from the daikon and Thai curry. The combination of the daikon and the spicy curry was reminiscent of a nicely aged kim chee, which led to a discussion of that Korean condiment and devolved into a fascinating discussion of dry aging fish including techniques such as those used to make mojama – aged salted and dried tuna loin, dried scallops and bacalao and more! Alex wondered what he could do with the water used to reconstitute salt cod. Oh, the flights we took!
Our conversation continued on the salt cod, arroz con pato and other wonderful dishes at Aldea until the next course arrived. This was Kindai Shimaji
with Monterey Bay abalone, tomburi, ginger, scallion and white soy, which brought our focus back to the meal at hand. The texture of the abalone really added to the dish.
This dish, a take on Sauce Grenobloise – turbot with parsley puree, crispy capers, smoked potato and caper emulsion, spinach, Meyer lemon and brown butter caramelized milk solids, totally knocked me out. It was delicious and one of the best deconstructed dishes I have had in some time. The individual elements shone on their own and together. The brown butter solids ("tuiles") atop the fish had been inspired by Alex's work on milk solids. They were the element that brought the whole dish together. I considered the preparation, a "platelicker."
Another blockbuster followed sandwiched in amongst reminiscences on how all of us first met each other. Arctic char with the house cured and smoked steelhead roe that I had seen being cured earlier that day and potato faux risotto with roasted garlic and watercress emulsion provided great flavor, balance and texture. The caviar, inspired by Steve Stallard's Blis Caviar
, the caviar was wonderful with a perfect pop-in-the-mouth sensation and just enough smoke and brine to provide flavor and depth without overwhelming. The fish itself was wonderfully cooked and flavorful as was the "risotto." I'm not sure the restaurant fully understood the specialness of this dish as we had to ask for spoons in order to greedily retrieve every last morsel and drop off the plate. Had they fully understood, the spoons would have been already set for the course! I suspect they now know!
Previously firmly in the sea, the next course began a progression towards the land combining a surf and turf of Kindai tuna cheek atop sea beans, black garlic, watercress and spinach along with sunchokes, seared foie gras and a pomelo beurre blanc sauce. The dish was harmonious while allowing for extended solos amongst the various ingredients. Shola likened the dish to Carmina Burana. Of course the meaty tuna cheek and the rich foie gras stood out, but so did the other elements like the toothy sunchokes and the black garlic. One element that did not stand out separately, but was perhaps all the more valuable was the understated but still vibrant pomelo sauce, which married everything.
Joe Sparatta explained to us that the tuna cheeks are an often
overlooked part of the fish, often just thrown away with the rest of the
head.At Elements they put it to extremely good use.
Red-leg partridge with broccolini, local squash puree and ricotta and goat cheese stuffed raviolo, a dish liked by all, was proclaimed by Shola to be his "favorite dish so far." The partridge reminded me of well-prepared pheasant. This was perhaps the most classically European dish of the evening. Following up on an unrecognized element on the menu we learned that Zone 7
refers to a company run by Mikey Azzara that delivers produce from local area farms similar to what Farm to Chef Express has done with farms from my region delivering to NYC restaurants.
The next dish really raised my eyes in anticipation when it came to the table. Suckling pig three ways: neck braised in dashi with persimmon chutney, foreleg with aji amarillo and shishito pepper and rack with stuffing and porcini puree. There was actually a fourth way as cracklins were brought to the table too. While certainly not a bad dish (can suckling pig ever be bad?), this was the only relatively disappointing dish of the night. It was disappointing because it was suckling pig and it wasn't great. The cracklins were nicely done, crispy and delicious. The neck meat worked well with the dashi and persimmon. The rack was succulent, but needed some maillard and additional seasoning to put it over the top and the stuffing, really a sausage, was probably the most delicious part of the dish. These elements all worked reasonably well, but the foreleg with the aji amarillo and shishito pepper lacked cohesiveness within itself or the rest of the dish. My shishito happened to be a spicy one, which didn't enhance the dish for me. I suspect that the intent was to let the suckling pig speak for itself, a noble thought. i just wish the overall volume would have been raised slightly.
Any disappointment that may have lingered from the suckling pig disappeared with the arrival and first bite of the next course. Kagoshima (true Kobe beef) chuck rib with preserved garlic, kim-chee, broccoli, maitake and eggplant featured the juicy, explosive mouth feel and flavor of Kobe, cooked to the perfect temperature with a nice sear along the edges. !The house-made kim-chee provided a controlled kick that was added to with black garlic and Korean chili-paste sauce. This course completed the savory part of the meal.
"Bacon & Eggs," a house signature bridged the gap from savory to dessert. The egg was layered with the bottom consisting of a brioche French toast bread pudding, the middle layer a creme brulee like bacon custard and the top an aerated house-smoked maple infused milk with linen-smoked sea salt. To the side of the egg was french toast, bacon strip and Blis bourbon-barrel maple syrup. The French toast, bacon and Blis was very good, but the "egg" stole the show. It was a sensational combination of sweet and savory that rocked our table. The plate itself was notable as it contained the upright egg perfectly.
Just prior to dessert we were treated to house-made limoncello, zesty and not too sweet, making a lovely, aromatic digestif. For dessert we received a tray containing a wide array of the restaurant's dessert offerings. Adhering to the same philosophy of using diverse and unusual ingredients as the savory portion of the meal, each of the desserts was very good, especially considering that they are made without the benefit of a dedicated pastry chef. Joe Sparatta, the sous chef, is also responsible for the desserts. Amongst the items on the tray was his version of a "kit-kat" with gianduja, similar to one served at Michel Richard's Central, but not as sweet and therefore preferable to me. There were also various cchocolate ice creams, a delightful meyer lemon tart with an almond-lemon-grass chibouste, toasted almond ice cream, medjool date bread pudding with Albert T. Lee single barrel bourbon, medjool date ice cream with bourbon creme anglaise, chocolate malt "Snickers bar", malted milk balls, bay leaf creme brulee,and satsuma tangerine ice cream. The desserts were truly delightful. Sparatta is clearly multi-talented. I could only imagine what he could do with dessert if he was a full-time pastry chef.
One thing that surprised me about Elements wa
s the level of luxury
within the restaurant. make no mistake, this is an unabashed fine dining
restaurant, even if the dress code is relatively casual. From the setting to
the chairs to the plates to the silverware to the glasses, everything
about the setting is top notch.Though we didn't have wine, the food and
beverage program matches and even exceeds the sophistication of the
environment. The main dining room is beautiful as is the private dining room, but if one enjoys the action of a kitchen, the kitchen tables at Elements are the place to be. The table and chairs are exceedingly comfortable, set back far enough from the kitchen so as to be unobtrusive, but close enough to get a sense of the action.
While the restaurant has all the creature comforts and is quite sophisticated, the reason to go there remains its culinary cornucopia. From the bar program to the food, the restaurant is a clear original, doing what it does with personality, taste and skill. We did not have wine, so I can not personally speak to the wine program, but I have no reason to think that it would be any less stellar than the rest of the restaurant. In building this restaurant, Principle owner, Stephen Distler, seemingly spared no expense and put together a real winner of a restaurant. The one question I have is, Why couldn't he have chosen Hanover, New Hampshire?