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Tuesday, March 20, 2012



Plaudits: None
Neighborhood: Downtown, Penn Quarter

The Setup

Official Girlfriend of DCWD Texas and I were in the area and were searching for a dinner spot before meeting up with friends later. So with the four-month old Elisir right in the center of that zone, we had to try it out.

The Vibe

Elisir is Enzo Fargione's return to cooking, after his sudden and surprising ouster at Teatro Goldoni. On all levels, my good meal there was totally a credit to Chef Fargione's bubbles; the restaurant's disastrous and sudden downfall into its current silly trendy Teatro state is entirely due to his eviction. Luckily, this gave him an opportunity to restart, and what a lovely place it is. A theme of bubbles abounds, from the windows to the walls. The first part is a small bar with a few high bar tables, then two dining rooms, a small side one at first to the right full of fours which is lower lit and more brown; and the main one which is bright in red and orange (save of course, for the giant wall of bubble wallpaper). The seating in this section consists of a half booth row; otherwise it's basically all fours. The really cool part of the room is the flat screen TVs that are mounted every so often; they depict a live feed from a camera over top of the counter of the open kitchen, specifically the section where chef finishes the dishes before placing them on the counter. This is not only a cool part to watch, but it also serves as an early warning system for when your dishes are on their way. They are interesting yet unobtrusive.

The other part to note was the amazing service. I'll be honest: Elisir was a last minute decision and it being a Friday, we were in jeans casual. Still, despite our homely appearance, from the get-go, our server was attentive and explanatory. The sommelier matched us up with a perfect Pinot Noir; while it was on the higher end of our price range it wasn't exorbitant, and it was sort of a nice compliment that he thought enough of us to recommend something that expensive. We can't change that we're young (at least not any faster than anybody else), but all the same I've dealt with a lot of eye-rolling service at high-end white-cloth restaurants from servers who assumed we'd order cheaply; it's nice to be at a restaurant that will treat you nicely regardless.

The Food

The tenor of the meal was set with the chef's proclivity for free add-ons, exemplified by the delivery of not one, but two amuses: the first a rolotini of bolognese sauce topped with parmesan cheese, the second of thin vermicelli-like wheat noodles topped with roe. Combined with the lovely olive oil and salt sampler that we ordered, these were a nice start to the meal.

To start, I ordered the green pea "cappuccino," a preparation of pureed green peas layered atop bruleed goose liver custard topped with crispy leeks and a porcini froth, paired with a fontina cheese strudel. Here's my first reaction: ZOMG. Here's my second reaction: #%!#@! Okay, here's my third more discerning reaction: this was one of the best dishes I've ever eaten in my life (a judgment shared by Texas, who I convinced to have a bite, given its Hudson Valley provenance). It was creamy and deep, like the best green pea soup you've ever had. Luscious notes of the rich foie fat blended with the peas and mushrooms froth to make a delicious cold-weather spoonful, while the leeks provided a great textural counterpoint. It's hard to combine high-end tastes and still make it feel like a better version of a dish you had as a kid, and yet this dish successfully merges those two ideals.

Compared to that, Texas's appetizer was almost pedestrian: tempura lobster and scallops with smoked baby spinach leaves and poached white asparagus in a shallot dressing. There were good parts and bad parts for this dish: the lobster was decent with some suitable crunch, and the vegetables were pretty good. The downside though was the ample amount of salmon caviar spread all over the dish, which in theory was there to provide a salt counterpoint. Instead, they just overpowered all the other good things about the dish. Still, fairly enjoyable.

For my main course, I went with the veal duo: roasted filet and pan seared sweetbreads sitting in a creamy orange and mascarpone cheese sauce with cipollini onions and sauteed mushrooms. This was a great dish for a number of reasons. For one, the cooking was on point: a perfect sear on both cuts of meat, the veal wonderfully tender. The sauce was an interesting addition, but everything else was pretty standard. This is not really a complaint, just an admission that it was a dish that might appear anywhere else.

For her part, Texas ordered the black squid ink and saffron pasta sheets with a ragu of lobster, cherry tomato confit, oregano, and basil. Both of us were pretty "whelmed" by this one, the pasta well-cooked but lacking any of the punchy flavors promised by the words "squid ink" and "saffron." The lobster was good, but sparse, leading you to declare victory anytime you found one in your fork. It still was a solid dish, acting very much like a cleaned up, better pasta in tomato sauce. But it could have been so much more.

As a parting touch, the kitchen sent out some mignardises: a chocolate panna cotta with cherry gelee and pistachios, a praline/caramel bar, and a little cinnamon bite. Of the three, the panna cotta was the clear winner, as the most interesting of the bunch.

The Verdict

As I read over what I wrote, it seems pretty critical even though when I revisit the meal, it's entirely a positive memory (especially of that foie pea dish). Perhaps it's because I'm holding the restaurant to fairly high standards. Either way, impeccable service combined with good and sometimes superlative food.

Food Rating: ****
(out of 5)
Date Rating: 4.5 Hearts (out of 5)
Dress Code:
Bar Rating:
Classy Crowd
Calm to chatty
(out of 5) ($75-$100 for two)
: I love E Street Cinema, and the current lineup is a good one. Head down the street for one of the theater's many midnight showings.

Elisir on Urbanspoon

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