Walk down the stairs into the Elm, which opened over the weekend in the King & Grove Williamsburg hotel, and you won’t feel as though you’re descending into a basement. Rather, you’ll enter a large, high-ceilinged space as bright as a fishbowl. Sun streams in through skylights and deep windows, illuminating muted woods and exposed beams, pendant light fixtures, and vine-laced living wall. Look to the back of the room, and you can watch the kitchen, where a large team of apron-clad men and women slide around each other to pick up tickets. On the floor, an army of servers dressed in black move like ants, weaving in a line between tables to fill water glasses and deliver bread.
The Elm is not exactly casual (though hotel guests wandering in wearing shorts and T-shirts might beg to differ), and there’s formality in every interaction. But it’s certainly a departure from the white tablecloth joints that characterize chef Paul Liebrandt’s career up to this point.
Accolades have rolled in for Liebrandt over the years: At 24, the chef became the youngest ever to earn three stars from the Times for his work at Atlas; Corton, the Tribeca French restaurant he owns with Drew Nieporent, holds two Michelin stars. But he’s also been a bit of a polarizing figure–prolific critic Jonathan Gold is quoted on Liebrandt’s website calling the chef’s food “the result of a failed science experiment,” and he was dismissed from his role at Gilt just eight months into the restaurant’s lifespan.
At the Elm, he attempts to bring fine dining fare down a notch, and he’s doing vaguely French food in his own distinctive style. Liebrandt’s food is as much a visual experience as anything else–each plate is composed exactingly with tweezers; each component is carefully shaped (watermelon is pressed into rectangles and gnudi formed into spheres, for example) so that it creates the correct angle when juxtaposed next to other elements of the dish. Edible flowers are a finishing staple of most presentations. You’ll also notice some Asian influence on the menu a scallop sits in a puddle of coconut-scented broth meant to mimic Thai tom yum; shishito pepper graces the agnolotti. Choose from the raw, sea, land, and share categories; the latter of the four offers roasted chicken, pork belly, or a $48 vegetable tasting sizable enough for two people.
The board pairs to a drink list that comprises simple cocktails, beer, and wine; the back bar is heavy on whiskey, which seems as good an excuse as any to finish your meal with a nightcap.
And while prices come in well under what Liebrandt charges for his fancier spots, the best way to do this place in a budget-minded way–if you just want to check out the digs–is to grab a spot at the bar for a beer (maybe Cisco’s crisp lager) and the kanpachi “jamon,” a cold-cured fish creation that’s a good example of the chef’s canon. As a bonus, you’ll be privy to a little harissa-dusted popcorn.
If this kind of food really does it for you, you’ll be able to get a more personal experience with Liebrandt soon–the Elm is launching an eight-seat chef’s table come this fall, where you’ll be treated to a multi-course seasonal meal constructed daily on the chef’s whim.
The Elm is open for dinner daily, and it debuted breakfast today.
Check out more photos of the food and space on the next page.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 18, 2013