Restaurant Review: Good Elephant, Chester

All images by Jeff Kaufman

★★½  [Very Good-Superior]

The five elemental flavors that govern Vietnamese cooking—spicy, salty, sour, bitter, sweet—flit through Chef Everett Reid’s repertoire like birds set free from the bonds of tradition and geography. Searing curries spiked with galangal root and chilies share pride of place with soothing sweet treats like a rum-laced coconut ice cream milk shake, all set against a French connection that floats in the air like a romantic memory.

The story begins with a man and a woman, Americans in Paris, at a small café on the Rue de Verneuil. Clichés happen, but this one broke ranks.

Everett and Linda Reid are restaurateurs and the café was Vietnamese.

 As Linda Reid tells the story, “It was French and yet it wasn’t, just as it wasn’t only Vietnamese; nor was it simply spicy and sweet. At Tan Dinh in Paris, we first encountered the vibrancy of the flavors of Vietnam and the sublimity of pairing them with French techniques, and the question, ‘Can we do this?’ began to simmer within us.”

It continued to do so over the years as the Reids sought opportunities to experience fine Vietnamese cuisine wherever they traveled. In the U.S., Everett, a classically trained chef, and his accomplished sous chef spent many hours researching and experimenting, visiting Asian markets and studying restaurants like Bricolage in Brooklyn and Charles Phan’s famous Slanted Door in San Francisco. They even met with Vietnamese nuns at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell.

Now six years after opening their French bistro-style Restaurant L&E in Chester, the Reids have opened Good Elephant, a Vietnamese eatery on the second floor. A separate entrance on Main Street, through the yellow door and up a narrow flight of stairs, gives the place a deliciously clandestine feeling, like a secret club—which it well might be, in an attic room with a tiny bar tucked under the eaves, artfully furnished with a discriminating traveler’s collection of curious treasures.

On a Saturday night every seat was taken and there was so much chatter and laughter it seemed as if one big party was going on. The mood was relaxed and festive. We succumbed and enjoyed.

While we were studying the menu, the kitchen sent out a refreshing amuse-bouche—a tiny slice of sushi-grade tuna, gorgeously fresh, about the size of a large postage stamp, garnished with diced fresh pineapple, watermelon radish shavings and litchi purée. A hint of what was to come.

Even a rice cake was a revelation, mixed with an abundance of peekytoe crab, topped with crispy scallions, garnished with tissue-thin slices of pickled cucumber and a swirl of gingered lemongrass aioli.

Everyone around us seemed to be ordering steamed clams (below) so we did too. At least a dozen arrived, fresh and perky, shells open, in a black lacquer bowl deep enough to hold an ample supply of not-to-be-missed white wine, cilantro, ginger and chili butter sauce.Of course, there was pho. One made with chicken, one made with tofu, both best-of-kind. And spring rolls, either beef or vegetarian. Most fun was a tiny, starter-size báhn mì made with pork meatballs, bean sprouts, daikon and sweet dried papaya on a rice flower bun.

My favorite entrée, five-spice duck, a showy, trophy-wife sort of dish with a cute name (Ducky Duck), was coated and perfumed with herbs and spices and Asian mystery. It was served in a big bowl of noodles laved with a spicy broth—which, for me, overpowered the duck’s subtlety. So I ate every morsel of the duck balanced with a small portion of noodles. Schuyler, the fire-eater at the table, eagerly claimed the rest.

Vietnamese BBQ spare ribs were wildly spicy, too, but in such a tantalizingly good way, I ate more than my share of two giant slabs and nibbled each rib down to the bone. Under a crispy layer of grill-glazed sauce, these ribs would be prizewinners in any contest.On a lighter note, pan-fried red snapper cooled things down pleasantly with pineapple, Chinese celery and fresh squid. Pan-fried skate was a special of the day, a simple preparation spotlighting the freshness of the fish and its delicate flavor. Mild (some might say bland), it provided a welcome balance for the mostly spicy menu. 

Vietnamese chicken curry, a case in point, was a fiery blaze of exotic tropical heat—galangal root, chilies and turmeric in a bright orange sauce poured over a good-sized piece of chicken on the bone. Yes, there were lots of pretty little plates here but there were generous portions, too. Equally pretty.

More than satisfied, we moved on to dessert. The list is surprisingly short, perhaps because so many after-dinner libations are available: exotic cocktails like Jungle Bird, Red Lotus and Lychee Bellini; French wines; imported beers; and tea, of course, including green artichoke.

But don’t miss the three house-made desserts that made Good Elephant’s carefully curated final cut: A tangy sorbet of pineapple, ginger, mint and dragon fruit syrup; an intense lemongrass and ginger pot de crème with candied ginger brittle; and the aforementioned mystical magic milk shake made with coconut ice cream, spiced rum, coconut milk and peanut cookie dust.

Contemporary Vietnamese cuisine like this—sophisticated, saucy, with more than a soupçon of French flair—is more often encountered in Paris, Ho Chi Min City, New York or San Francisco. But Connecticut is in luck. Voilà! Good Elephant is here.

Good Elephant at Restaurant L&E

59 Main St., Chester, (860) 526-5301, goodelephantcafe.com

Dinner: Wed. to Sat. 5:30 to 9 p.m. Price range: appetizers $9 to $12, entrées $17 to $25, desserts $6 to $7. Major credit cards. 

(This article was originally published on a different platform. Some formatting changes may have occurred.)

This article appeared in the July 2015 issue of Connecticut Magazine

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