Restaurant Review: Elm, New Canaan

Brian Lewis’ 28-day-aged rib eye is a star at Elm in New Canaan.

Brian Lewis’ 28-day-aged rib eye is a star at Elm in New Canaan.

★★★ [Superior]

New Canaan, with three white churches on its town green and a Main Street with tall trees, brick sidewalks and lampposts hung with flower baskets in summer and capped with snow in winter, looks like a movie set. And it’s determined to stay that way. With sweet little shops all in a row militantly resisting urban sprawl, it’s possible to stroll from the post office to the movie theater, to the library, to a bakery, as well as to virtually any restaurant in town—and there are many: French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Latino, Thai, Mexican—and most recently a bold, bright cutting-edge take on farm-to-table New-American cuisine.  

Elm is a showcase for the considerable talents of chef Brian Lewis, who is perhaps best known for his collaboration with actor Richard Gere in developing The Barn and the Farmhouse at The Bedford Post in Westchester, but he has also cooked with legendary chefs like Jean-Louis Palladin and at famed restaurants including Lutèce, Oceana and Sign of the Dove in New York City.

Elm is his first solo venture. And venture, he does. Almost everything on the menu is new and different in some way. My foodie friends and I, bored with same-old same-old, found it thrilling. Others might not. Or not for every day. But to step from the brick sidewalk of a studiously quaint Connecticut village into the wild blue yonder of contemporary decor and innovative cuisine by a world-class chef is an experience not to be missed.

Elm’s bar and adjoining dining room are elegantly minimalist. Muted colors, long stretches of wall decorated only with two large paintings of sand, sea and sky—plus a huge screen in the bar projecting the image of a flower, opening, swaying, dropping green seeds, one by one, onto green leaves. Mesmerizing. Fun.

Arriving well ahead of the Friday night crowd, my friends and I found the space soothingly suave, almost Zen-like, the perfect staging for the culinary drama that began to unfold. From a curtain-raising shot glass of chilled cucumber soup with a hint of mint to a denouement of roasted pineapple with passion-fruit sauce, our meal intrigued, surprised and delighted.

We began with a small plate of the crispiest soft-shell crab imaginable. Served with shiso (Japanese basil), tabouli and spiced yogurt, it was a mini-meal, perfectly cooked and pretty to look at. Blue prawns, too, were beautifully prepared and presented, tandoori-roasted and served with green chickpeas, a radish and a tiny sweet pepper.

Clearly we had begun forking our way around the world, starting close to home in Wilton with a salad of Millstone Farms Little Gem lettuces in lemon-dill dressing, queso de mano (handmade soft white cheese) and brioche croutons. Hudson Valley contributed foie gras, which chef Lewis embellished with hibiscus granola, wild huckleberries and gold husk cherries. I liked this so much, it pained me to share.

Main courses were equally creative. Slow-baked Maine halibut was spiced with vandovan curry, one of India’s mildest, and garnished with mission figs and lemon and honey marmalade. Atlantic monkfish came with squash, pine nuts, black olives and prosciutto. In each case, the quality of the ingredients was notable. Beef brisket, for example, was made with Wagyu beef. Exceptionally tender and flavorful, it was served with sea urchin tempura. I know, uni is oogly, but tempura-frying sea urchin (or uni) changes its texture completely. Be brave. I was and was rewarded with one jazzy surf and turf—tiny, tasty tidbits of uni, beef brisket, kimchi and duck-fat potato. I’d go for it again.  

The heartiest dish we tried was a 28-day dry-aged prime rib eye steak served with a rich wild mushroom, “bone-marrow” and brunella wine sauce and warm panzanella salad. Expecting a slice of bone with its trove of marrow, we were disappointed to discover the marrow was in the sauce.

Portions are small but satisfying, the way we all should be eating all the time. It’s also a way of tasting a great many dishes at the same meal. If you want chef Lewis to choose for you, there are five- and seven-course chef’s tasting menus, which he calls “seasonal and spontaneous.” Besides built-in portion control, it’s easy to satisfy other dietary requirements. One of my guests was on a gluten-free diet, so in addition to the basket of excellent bread, we were supplied with a plate of Parmesan crisps—all cheese and no wheat. Carb-counters, too, should be happy here because Elm’s chef sees no need to balance every single plate with starch. Withal, there was some lovely handmade pasta on offer, along with various potato and rice creations.

There was also dessert, an irresistible temptation to go wild in a rococo way. Roasted pineapple was glazed, caramelized, laved with passion fruit coulis and topped with coconut ice cream. Warm chocolate cake was lily-gilded with something I’d never had before—cream cheese frosting ice cream, unexpectedly piquant. Butterscotch pudding was embellished with chocolate crumb, cranberry jam and almond brittle. The cookie plate included adult-pleasing versions of chocolate chip and lemon-lavender sugar cookies.

A lot of delicious things go on at Elm: private parties at the chef’s table, counter seating facing the open kitchen, cooking lessons by chef Lewis, Sunday night supper (a bargain at $35). A fabulous Sunday brunch includes Scottish langoustine with Anson Mills grits; sweet pepper frittata with goat cheese; black mission fig and Chioggia beet salad with Gorgonzola, walnuts and dandelion greens—not to mention house-made pepita granola with berries, yogurt and agave nectar.

Elm may or may not be your cup of chestnut soup spiked with cognac and foraged wild mushrooms. There are no humongous cowboy steaks, no mountains of French fries. But discriminating gourmets looking for a new food adventure will find it here.

73 Elm St., New Canaan, 203/920-4994,
Dinner Tuesdays through Thursdays 5:30 to 9:30. Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 10. Sunday brunch 12 to 2, supper 5 to 8. Wheelchair access. Major credit cards. Price range: appetizers $8 to $17, entrées $18 to $48, desserts $12.

Restaurant Review: Elm, New Canaan

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