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.)
Muse highlights include Manuela Hoelterhoff on music and Jeremy Gerard on theater.