eleven14 Kitchen, Greenwich

 

★★★  [Superior]

We have to talk about legs if we talk about decor. And we have to talk about decor if we’re going to talk about eleven14 Kitchen, a new restaurant at The J House, the new hotel in Greenwich. The legs, a made-you-look Warholesque sculpture, are the first thing you see when you enter the hotel’s cyber-stylish cocktail lounge. Barefoot and casually seated, without benefit of a torso, they’re surprisingly non-threatening. Almost companionable. In fact, my friends and I choose the plushy seats beside them for a drink before dinner.

I am semifamiliar with the premises because several weeks before I had attended a press event, which included a tour of the hotel, a makeover so dramatic it’s hard to believe. The J House—shiny, sleek and techno-chic—used to be a down-at-the-heels Howard Johnson motel. Impossible to compare. Like or love doesn’t apply. Amazement does. Along with admiration for the architects and designers who have managed to fit a lounge, restaurant, wine cellar, business center, outdoor dining, two bars, 85 guest rooms and chococentric sweet shop on a scrap of land between the Post Road and I-95.

If The J House has a theme, it is that themes are passé. We’re invited to make what we will of the interlocking spaces, mirror images, projected wall art and a collection of modern objets d’art whimsically placed. No sacred icons here. Lighten up. eleven14 Kitchen echoes the invitation, with an experienced, impressively credentialed chef in charge. Chef François Kwaku-Dongo was raised on West Africa’s Côte d’Ivoire. As a young man, he came to New York where, while he was working at Remi, celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck recognized his “raw talent and star quality.” His culinary career took off. En route to The J House, Kwaku-Dongo served as executive chef at Spago in West Hollywood, opening chef for Spago in Chicago, executive chef at L’Escale in Greenwich and made TV appearances and won awards.

For eleven14 Kitchen he has created a lively New American menu, globally inspired and locally sourced. In print, it’s crisp and direct, blessedly free of hype. What you read is what you get. Appetizers, main courses, desserts, plus specials cover most categories—soups, salads, tartares, meat, seafood and vegetarian options. The fun of the list is its variety—hot, cold, silky, crunchy. Some dishes startle, some soothe. Benign-looking little lamb sausages, for example, pack a powerhouse punch of spice. In contrast, seafood carpaccio is an icy-cool array of shrimp, scallops and sushi-thin tuna and black bass, dressed with lemon-lime Dijon-spiked vinaigrette.

Forest mushroom toast is as tasty as it sounds, consisting of porcini, cremini and oyster mushrooms atop a surprise layer of red onions sautéed with shallots and garlic, sweet honey and fresh thyme.

Ignoring The J House’s commitment to fashion and flash, chef Kwaku-Dongo hews calmly to his own culinary ethic, which is to simply enhance the innate goodness of fresh seasonal ingredients—his way of cooking long before “natural” became the buzzword of the day. In his current repertoire there are few rich sauces or elaborate constructions.

His gloriously simple flat-noodle pasta with Maine lobster is a case in point. Each ribbon of toothsome al dente pasta is filmed with a gossamer light, coral-colored lobster jus or broth—not enough to pool in the bottom of the bowl, just enough to flavor every strand. On top is a snow-white piece of poached lobster tail as tender and sweet as any I’ve had in Maine. Years ago, under the tutelage of Francesco Antonucci at Remi, Kwaku-Dongo became a master of the art of pasta making. Here and now we benefit.

For an entrée, we choose roasted whole sea bass—fresh, delicious, a treat to the eye but a bit hard to eat. Watch out for scales. They’ll fillet it in the kitchen if you wish. A pork chop, cold-smoked in-house over applewood, is lovely served with a chutney of apple, rhubarb and fennel. But for meat, it’s hard to beat the monumental bone-in rib-eye, grass-fed, cut thick, grilled to perfection, served sizzling and unadorned. Most main courses come without vegetables or starch so you may want to order sides. Hand-cut fries, grilled asparagus, spinach and Yukon Gold potato purée are on offer.

Sockeye salmon, robust, red-fleshed and one of the world’s most flavorful fishes, is a knockout served medium-rare and garnished with sea beans and snippets of artichoke heart. But the mention of sea beans almost dissuades Moira from ordering it. She doesn’t like beans. So she’s delighted to get acquainted with the short thick stalks of salicornia, a dark green vegetable sometimes called sea beans because it grows wild in marshes and on beaches near the ocean. Its salty, grassy, asparaguslike taste is perfect with fish.

Service is a work in progress. Our waiter is over-solicitous, and the wine sommelier decants our Cabernet and departs, never to return. We fill and refill our own glasses.

A sweet shop right off the lobby called Chocolate Lab (inspired by the cocoa plantation once owned by chef Kwaku-Dongo’s grandfather) is the source of exquisite chocolates and interesting sorbets and gelatos that figure prominently on the dessert list.

Fruit and sorbet combinations abound. One of the most refreshing is carpaccio of pineapple marinated in pineapple juice and pink peppercorns served with cassis sorbet. Extra Virgin Madeleine turns out to be the traditional shell-shaped French cookie made with dark and fruity Arbequina olive oil. We have high hopes for peach-and-rhubarb cobbler but it disappoints—too much pastry over too little fruit. But a chocolate extravaganza called eleven14 chocolate cake is the crown jewel of the collection, a luscious chocolate mousse, flanked by crisp rectangles of chocolate ganache 80 percent strong, with chocolate-covered coffee beans scattered here and there.

If you want to make the scene, go on a Friday night—if you can get in. For conversation over dinner, go during the week. If you’re curious, just go. And tell the legs I said hello.
 

eleven14 Kitchen
The J House
1114 East Putnam Ave., Greenwich, 203/698-6999, eleven14kitchen.com
Lunch 11 to 5 daily. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5 to 10:30, Friday and Saturday till 11:30. Sunday brunch 11 to 2. Price range: appetizers $11 to $22, main courses $18 to $42, desserts $8 to $14.
 

eleven14 Kitchen, Greenwich

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