Restaurant Review: Primary Food & Drink

 

Courtesy of Primary Food & Drink

★★½ [Very Good-Superior]

When Chicago chef Graham Elliot, restaurateur, entrepreneur and media darling, decided to take on Connecticut, he knew exactly what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it. He chose Greenwich for the same reason the infamous safe cracker Willie Sutton gave when asked why he robbed banks: because that’s where the money is.

Having selected his customer base as precisely as trial lawyers choose a jury, chef Elliot and his partners spent money to make money. It shows. The launch was notably professional, the soft opening exclusive by design, and the premises impressive.

Occupying a prime piece of real estate on Greenwich Avenue, Primary Food & Drink is dark and mysterious, edgy and suggestive. You might walk right by without peering in but I bet you can’t. We couldn’t, although we were supposed to go in and claim a table while Ed parked the car. Viewed through square panes of glass, the bar looked like a movie set. Suits and heels and hair, elbows bent holding martini glasses in the air above the milling crowd. Prime is where it’s at.  

When Ed arrived we went in and were surrounded, engulfed, smothered with ear-splitting din. We were dismayed. We didn’t begrudge the beautiful people their high-decibel revel, but I had a job to do, and Kevin, a wine connoisseur, likes to spend a little quiet time with the wine list and confer with the sommelier. “Is there a back room or something where we can be seated?” I shouted to the attractive young woman at the lectern. She said there was and she led us there.

Unequivocal about what they intend to serve at Primary Food & Drink, Graham Elliot and executive chef Merlin Verrier state it plainly: Contemporary American cuisine. The ambience as well as the food exemplifies the concept. The retro-trendy white subway-tile flooring in the bar and the low-top Keds foot gear worn by the male waitstaff couldn’t be more urban-hip, while the framed scenes of farms and barns on the back-room walls are almost Wyeth-like in their evocation of rural Americana. (The paintings are, in fact, the work of Nicholas Berger, a highly regarded American artist who lives in Hudson Highlands and counts among his credits a sold-out two-man show with Andrew Wyeth in Tokyo.)

So much is expected of celebrity chefs that the brevity of Primary’s menu is almost a shock. On a single page, five categories with four choices each are listed: cold, hot, sea, land, sweet. No caps. No shouting, please.

Graham Elliot doesn’t care if his cooking doesn’t sound scintillating and sexy because he knows it is. It’s also full of surprises. Spoiler: Primary’s deconstructed Caesar salad consists of Twinkie-sized rectangles of brioche dough baked with cheese inside, and loosely wrapped leaves of romaine lettuce and a tiny Spanish anchovy on top. A delectable little package if ever there was one.

Pricewise, Primary Food & Drink is an unabashedly über-upscale establishment. Albeit coddled with crème fraîche, black trumpet mushrooms and sinfully lush truffle coulis, a tiny “filet mignon stroganoff” set us back $42. Salmon cost $35, but it was Scottish salmon, which is farmed so meticulously it often tastes wild. Unfortunately, ours was overcooked. When we mentioned the fact, it was quickly whisked away and replaced with another piece, medium-rare, rosy-hued and silky, garnished with tasty slices of d’Anjou pear.

Still, nothing could compare with lobster schnitzel, playfully luscious and subtly satisfying large pieces of lobster meat, tender and sweet, crisply breaded and briefly fried. At $39, it was served with a royal array of chervil sprouts, shaved asparagus, lobster bisque and cauliflower mousse. For me, it was the highlight of the meal.

Nobody’s perfect, however, and there were missteps, at least from our point of view. In this rarified atmosphere six raw oysters went for $18. We ordered 12: Blue Points, Malpeques and Beausoleils. We were looking forward to comparing the different flavors. Alas, the oysters arrived doused with a foamy, lemon-spiked mignonette that obscured whatever flavor differences there might have been. For the most part, we New Englanders don’t like our raw oysters gussied up too much.

But Graham Elliot cooks to a different drummer and sticks to his guns. Originality is the essence of his talent and what he comes up with usually works splendidly. One of the few exceptions was his Moroccan lamb. Roasted and shredded and mixed with chickpeas, it was mealy, bland and dry. The curry yogurt and green gremolata served alongside helped, but the meat itself seemed to beg for more spice and sauce.   

On the other hand, a barbecued Berkshire pork chop was tender and bold, served with a spicy-sweet root beer barbecue sauce, grits and collard greens and popped up with corn nuts. Nothing like a sprinkle of snack food to liven up a dish and spark a conversation.   

“Sweets” were gemlike mosaics of edible treats. Carrot cake came with pineapple, ginger essence, Neufchâtel gelato and walnut brittle—everything a heart could desire in miniature. “Chocolate quartet” consisted of a tiny chocolate doughnut and dabs of incredibly rich chocolate cream, chocolate mousse and chocolate ganache. Mixed berries prepared various ways featured unusual flavors like lavender and cardamom.

Primary Food & Drink is not the place to go if you’re feeling famished or frugal. The wine list is not shy about aggressive markups, and double-digit small plates, darling as they are, can add up to sticker shock rather quickly. But restaurants like this have other things to recommend them. Like travel and theater, they expand our cultural horizons, deepen our sensual perceptions, and keep the fun in the game. As Graham Elliott said when he announced he was opening a restaurant in Greenwich, “It will be a nice fun spot . . . The menu will have something everyone can relate to with whimsy. No dress code. Come as you are and just enjoy.”
 

Primary Food & Drink
409 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich, 203/861-2400, primaryrestaurant.com
Open Monday through Thursday 5 to 10, Friday and Saturday till 11, Sunday till 9. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $12 to $16, entrées $29 to $42, desserts $10 to $12.

 

Restaurant Review: Primary Food & Drink

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