New hope for high-end dining
While uneven, Elisir also edges on great
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012
Elisir represents an agreeable change of pace from the many over-played and under-developed additions to the Washington area dining landscape.
It is not a barbecue joint with faux soul. It is not a Mexican hacienda with Midwestern seasoning, or a restaurant that wants to be a club as much as a place to eat.
Rather, Elisir marks the return of Enzo Fargione -- a chef last seen two years ago at Teatro Goldoni -- and trumpets hope for high-end dining. My most recent dinner at Elisir (pronounced el-eh-SEER) involved two amuse bouches, five breads baked in-house, French linens, a glint of gold leaf in one dish and a whiff of black truffle in another. An army of waiters in dark suits attended to my party, in a setting energized by an open kitchen that runs nearly the length of the room. A wall behind the pumpkin-colored banquette suggests giant champagne bubbles.
The extravaganza didn't always come together. One of those gifts from the chef, a prelude to the $75 seven-course tasting menu, was an unnecessarily deconstructed dirty martini. It consisted of a little white ball and a little green orb that we were instructed to pop into our mouths, one after the other, to experience the sensation of the cocktail. All the show did was make me think less of dirty martinis. The bread is more about quantity than quality. An otherwise beautiful baby beet salad came with an ice-cold igloo that tasted like goat cheese ice cream topped with Durkee's french fried onions.
That was the forgettable part.
What's good at Elisir sometimes edges on great. I'm dreaming now of a tiny glass globe containing a perfect bite of salmon crudo, bits of Sicilian green olive, a nest of shaved fennel: an exquisite fish salad capped with an airy white froth of licorice that ties the package together. Lamb loin presented as two petite towers banded in pancetta and staged with golden pearls of Yukon potatoes, plus sambuca-infused fennel - a sixth course designed to segue into dessert - was a similar triumph of choice ingredients and jousting flavors.
Petit syrah with sea bass? Belgian-style ale with a sweet celebration of hazelnuts and coffee? The wine pairings at Elisir can be as novel as some of the food.
At lunch, one of the more elaborate dishes is "sushi Italiano." No raw fish is involved. The role of nori is played by proscuitto, wrapped around a little totem of white-as-rice marinated goat cheese and clipped asparagus. There are four pieces per plate, each set off with a sail of fried artichoke and served with pickled carrot and a balsamic dip posing as soy sauce. The display excites both the eye and the tongue.
Lunch, you should know, is an altogether different experience than dinner. To attract a broader clientele, Fargione removes the linens from the tables, asks servers to shed their jackets and offers a deal to anyone perched at the bar: a choice of one of 13 entrees, plus soda or coffee and dessert for $19.
On a cold afternoon, there is potent comfort in a bowl of the chef's chickpea soup, lashed with olive oil and garnished with olive foccacia croutons and a halo of thin onion rings, as well as in the roasted suckling pig. The latter -- shaved meat redolent of garlic, black peppercorns and cracked fennel seed and stacked on broccolini with wrinkled fingerling potatoes -- is one of those lusty feasts that bring out the caveman in some of us. Priced at $19, the dish can yield dinner; the lunch portions on the regular menu at Elisir are that generous.
A less compelling reason to book a table at lunch is linguine draped with an indifferent pesto and adorned with ordinary fried squid rings.
Service is abundant, but, frankly, I could do with less table grooming at Elisir, where no crumb of food is too small to escape the notice of a brush-wielding waiter, and where too many dishes are delivered with comments bordering on the comical. Take, for instance, a server's description of the dark crumble of dried morels, coffee and almonds on the aforementioned plate of baby beets. "Textures," she points out as she introduces what looks like soil (and we diners try not to laugh). Other nights, there can be long lags between courses and ... by the way, can someone fetch me a fork so I can eat my fish?
Overhead monitors in the dining room let customers see dishes as they're being finished. I like open kitchens as much as the next diner, except when they remind me how the sausage gets made in some restaurants. "Pick up, PLEASE!" I heard repeatedly through one dinner when I was seated mere yards from the kitchen counter. And was that an eye roll I caught an underling giving his boss after Fargione shouted an order a few stoves away? "He's yelling," I whispered to my dinner date. "Instructing," he whispered back. On the other hand, it's easy to sympathize with the dashing chef, who, no matter the time of day, seems
to be front and center in his kitchen.
Flights of whimsy on the dinner menu are interspersed with more straightforward dishes, although even the image of Fargione's rib-eye looks ready to hang in a gallery. Juicy bars of rosy beef garnished with those terrific onion rings are arranged on a large white plate that serves as a canvas for a tiny potato cake, a single slice of roasted porcini mushroom and a dark green block of wilted spinach, rich with cream. Equally impressive is the giant pillow of pasta stuffed with sheep's milk ricotta and spinach, and finished with a blizzard of grated aged Parmesan. A soft-cooked egg inside unleashes even more pleasure after the yolk is pierced. No matter how much I've eaten, I always find room for pastry chef Elisabeth Barbato's elegant finishes.
Baked sea bass with a flurry of fennel (Fargione loves the stuff) spoils the fun. The fish is spot on, but smoked marbles of purple potato steal the limelight, and not in a good way: They're undercooked and defy the teeth. And what's star anise
doing in the picture, which includes saffron broth? Some of the chef's ideas could use pruning.
Quibbles aside, it's entertaining to see Fargione cooking again. Not every dish soars, but his high notes verge on the operatic.