Oct. 23 (Bloomberg) -- At Corton, late of TriBeCa, chemist-slash-chef Paul Liebrandt used to wrap raw fish in cotton candy, puff up beef tendon like fried pork rinds and turn potatoes into ice cream. A dinner date could easily hit $800 for its two-Michelin-starred cuisine.
Now he runs The Elm, a less prepossessing Brooklyn spot where trendy meats cooked sous-vide co-exist with $18 burgers. The chef simply grills a blend of dry-aged short rib, brisket and chuck, and serves it on a bun with spicy pickles and tomato confit. Fries come with.
The hefty patty is medium rare and boasts a stronger dry-aged musk than pricier beef around town. Drink a $9 Allagash White brew and there you have it: A beer-budget dinner from a Champagne-quality chef. The Elm is Liebrandt for everyone, Jackson Pollock taking a turn at the Spin-Art wheel.
Don’t worry, food snobs. Located just below street level at The King & Grove hotel in Williamsburg, The Elm also sends out tom yum froth, tomato dust and apricot gel (at least two of which taste good).
So for Liebrandt, The Elm is a concession to restraint. Unlike Corton, where dinner began with a procession of increasingly challenging amuses, meals at the Elm begin with a yuzu and black-olive financier delivered via service tray.
The sunken living-room space is bustling, open and alive with natural light. A canopy of greenery hangs by one wall, nicely contrasting with the worm’s-eye view of the streetscape.
Service is attentive without being nosy. In the open kitchen, you can watch the Zimbabwe-born chef turning each plate into a small work of art before releasing it to the servers.
Pillowy early autumn beets ($18) would be fine alone, but Liebrandt checks the sugary root with tomato aioli, dried shrimp and bacon. It’s delicious.
The kitchen mixes a farmers’ market load of produce into the $48 garden casserole, tossing in carrots (glazed and shaved raw), roasted purple Peruvian potatoes, pickled ramps, yuzu-compressed Asian pear, anise hyssop, golden frill mustard -- and more. They were perfectly cooked; I devoured them with as much gusto as I might a lamb chop.
No steak here, only a tartare of New York strip stung with chili and horseradish. At $15, it’s a bargain for a Brooklyn neighborhood where restaurants command Manhattan prices (nearby Aska charges $79-$125 for dinner), and hotels charge Central Park South rates (getting a room upstairs here will start at around $450 a night this weekend).
Liebrandt will revert to his more expensive ways in November when he plans on turning the kitchen counter into tasting-menu territory. For now, I’m happy with $18 foie gras, paired with peanuts and topped with Concord grape gelee -- PB&J for grownups. With a $20 glass of Rene Geoffroy Champagne (or an $11 Vinho Verde), there’s your party for one.
Avoid the short rib, a spongy sous-vide preparation that will make you wish for a proper braise. And skip the $52 chicken Kiev for two, a flavorless bore.
The chef redeems himself with fish. He cures oily kanpachi into a chewy but succulent ham. Fried hake filets ($22), the bland chicken fingers of the piscine world, are made exotic with curry mayo. Memorable pasta is cooked in clam stock and the bivalves spiked with sopressata sausage.
And for a final surf and turf, Liebrandt brings on pork belly, pairing it with tomato-stuffed squid for a $50 feast that easily feeds three.
Finish with a fruit tart and savor the fact that Liebrandt is back, very near the top of his game.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Most dishes $25 or under.
Sound Level: About 70 or so; never quite noisy.
Date Place: Yes.
Inside Tip: Very good cheese course for just $12.
Special Feature: For a cocktail, try the “East End”, a blend of gin, maple and sriracha ($14).
Back on my own dime? Absolutely.
The Elm is at 160 N 12th Street. Information: +1-718-218-1088; http://theelmnyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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