When it first opened in Soho in 1979 — and later, when it moved to Tribeca — David and Karen Waltuck’s Chanterelle was a downtown pioneer, and over the three decades the restaurant operated, it helped transform the neighborhood(s) around it, becoming a beloved institution and an anchor of lower Manhattan dining. “What David and Karen did was to take the idea of what fine dining is and strip it down to its most basic elements,” says long-time general manager George Stinson. “They added hospitality and warmth, and they led the way with having women on the floor. They stripped away the white glove, tuxedo approach and installed a bistro approach in a fine dining atmosphere.”
Chanterelle made its exit at the end of 2009, the victim of the financial crisis that swallowed many of this city’s restaurants. But the team is back, this time with Stinson as a co-owner: As of last week, you’ll find them at élan (43 East 20th Street).
This is not Chanterelle 2.0, Stinson stresses, though the spirit and style of the team behind the restaurant remain. But the owners have worked hard to make this restaurant a product of its time, both in the physical space and food it’s serving, and that means reading the needs of Gramercy, a neighborhood where it’s not a pioneer. “There’s no longer really a situation where you can define neighborhoods,” says Stinson. “It’s more about finding neighborhoods where there is a good professional community, residential community, and tourist rate — those aspects are so much more important. We took a lot of time to decide on the real estate we were going to have. There’s an overwhelming neighborhood feel here, and that was a little bit of a surprise. Everyone in the neighborhood has stopped by — it feels like an intimate enclave of New York.”
And so élan is set up to feel like a neighborhood place, with an informal dining room lined with banquettes beneath white brick walls. Rotating selections of artwork showcase both emerging and established artists, relationships the Waltucks developed downtown. David has always been French technique-driven, and Stinson says his approach here will be very straightforward — don’t expect dishes with multiple layers — a theme that expands into the front of the house, where servers are encouraged to speak with passion and intelligence and have a sense of humor with guests.
The team wants to continue to indulge old fans, and so some old dishes — like the grilled seafood sausage — made the list here, too. But élan’s menu also dispenses with the old fine dining custom of providing a starch, vegetable, and protein for each dish, giving the board a more modern feel. “From a food standpoint, what we kept is that unique and direct technically based approach to cuisine,” Stinson explains. “What we’ve changed up is that people have more control over what they’ll eat. We’ve added sides to menu, and some dishes include starches and some don’t. David has decided what’s important and what can be optional.” The chef has also incorporated more global flavors into his cooking: Look for potato potstickers with summer truffle, grilled mackerel with clam-dashi risotto and yuzu, General Tso’s sweetbreads, and duck fat hash browns.
You might start your meal with a cocktail and a starter, including a foie gras pop — made with foie gras mousse, pistachio, and fig — and many different kinds of bar nuts. It’s worth perusing the wine list, too, which is about 80 bottles deep. And if it’s the old Chanterelle-style tasting menu you’re after, well, élan can do that, too.
It may not be redefining its neighborhood, but Stinson hopes this restaurant will add something important to the current dining conversation. “We want to speak to multiple generations about how this is important to what’s going on in New York, which is exciting,” he says. “David is one of the leaders when it comes to this type of technique, and no one does it with more consistency. This is still modern, and it’s still worth including technique and not just plate design and textures, color, and tension in meals.”
Élan is open from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday and 5:30 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Look for brunch service to start later this summer, and lunch to come online in the fall.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 11, 2014