elan – Review
Remember Chanterelle? It was an elegant, old school spot that drew people down to TriBeCa long before TriBeCa was a cool place to eat. Hell, I used to drive into the city all the way from suburban New Jersey for the divine seafood sausage at this modern French spot when I was growing up. But 30 years – at least in restaurant years – is a really long time, and unless you change with the times (and I mean really change!), you’re bound to become, well, stale. That’s what happened with Chanterelle. It faded away.
So David Waltuck joined the owners of Employees Only to launch a decidedly hipper spot called Macao Trading Company, which had nothing in common with Chanterelle, except that it was also located in Tribeca. To be honest, I’m not sure why David Waltuck took on this oddball project — though he does have a thing for Chinese food — but Macao was a trainwreck from the get-go. While it was a looker of a restaurant, the menu was not so much a fusion of Chinese and Portuguese cooking as it was a full-out war, which is never a good thing when it comes to food.
Inevitably, Macao disappeared, and sadly so did David Waltuck. Recently, he and his former Chanterelle GM, George Stinson, have teamed up once more, this time in Gramercy with élan. This is what many are calling Waltuck’s comeback, his official return to the New York dining scene. At Chanterelle, David Waltuck leaned very French, with decadent dishes, like Shrimp Risotto and Duck & Foie Gras Dumplings. At élan, he seems to have loosened up, decidedly more playful and international with his cooking. Which is why you’ll find Foie Gras Pops that are indeed served on a stick. And they’re just as good as they sound; an unctuous nub of cold Foie Gras, laced with a feisty Fig Chutney, rolled in Pistachios. Did I mention the Sea Urchin Guacamole or the General Tso’s Sweetbreads? You can’t accuse Waltuck of not being original.
The menu is unconventional and unexpected, which is what makes dinner at élan so fun and refreshing. There’s a Roast Rabbit Salad alongside Chicken Pot Pie, Potato Potstickers and Duck Fat Hash Browns. Light it’s not, but that’s just Waltuck’s style, unabashedly rich and flavorful. Even the Summer Salad is bold – a vibrant and crunchy melange of the summer’s best produce — radish, cucumber, summer squash, green & yellow beans, lettuce– all surrounding a salty and luscious Yogurt-Feta Custard. His Tomato Watermelon Gazpacho is laced with Lobster and Crisped Prosciutto, and the Oysters are fried, and topped with a tasty Caviar Remoulade, made with American Hackleback Roe. Lest I forget the Zucchini Blossoms with confit Cherry Tomatoes in a Lemon Creme Fraiche. Thankfully, David Waltuck has resurrected his signature Seafood Sausage from his days at Chanterelle at élan. This velvety mix of Lobster, Shrimp & Scallops, spiked with brandy, port & cream is just as great as I remember it was downtown. (Maybe better.)
Unfortunately, the appetizers are the highlight of the meal, as dinner goes downhill from here. While I enjoyed a Duck Breast, anointed with a Smoky Duck Jus (although its accompanying Vegetable Spring Roll was greasy and bland), I flat-out hated the off-the-menu Duck & Foie Gras Burger, topped with so much Bacon Mayonnaise and Fig & Onion Chutney that you could barely taste the patty itself. This poor patty literally caved to the weight and assertive combination of condiments. If only they had skipped the toppings and let the burger and its brioche bun speak for itself. Then, there was the Red Wine Reduction, which stomped out all the delicacy a filet of Striped Bass had to offer, not to mention, the deceptively labeled Creamless Corn, in fact, had been made with butter and milk (but not cream).
If you feel like you’ve been to élan before, it could be because the space was, until not very long ago, Veritas. Waltuck and Stinson have dressed down the room and lightened it up with maple tables, brown leather chairs and some funky art. While it’s a pretty muted looking room in shades of white, grey and brown, it’s an oddly serene and cozy spot to linger for a few hours over a bottle of wine, a beer (there are plenty on draft), or cocktails, dubbed names, like the “MFK She’s A Peach” with bourbon, peach and lemon verbena.
élan is a tough reservation, even in the middle of summer, which speaks volumes about the dining scene’s collective respect for David Waltuck. His menu is eclectic, to say the least, loyal to no particular country. It’s what David Waltuck wants to be cooking, which is exactly what a seasoned, restaurant veteran has every right to do in this business. And if you stick to the appetizers, dinner here can be wonderful, but you’ll want to watch out for some missteps in the entree section. Desserts are hit and miss with a tasty Cherry Sundae, layered with cubes of Amaretto Cake, Cherry Sorbet and Almonds, a so-so Apricot and Peach Tart with a flavorless pastry shell, and a medicinal tasting Coconut Panna Cotta tainted by Lemongrass.
If only all dishes were as original as the Foie Gras Pops and gratifying as the Summer Salad with Yogurt-Feta Custard. Truth be told, I’d come just for the complimentary Pretzel Rolls, dusted with everything seasoning, and served with a Mustard Butter. I just wish the menu weren’t so tricky to navigate.