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Elaine's on Franklin -- Chapel Hill


Varmint
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A friend and I had the fortune of visiting Elaine's on Franklin last week, knowing that our arrival time of 9:00 on a Thursday may lead to less than stellar service. We were wrong and had a very strong meal.

Elaine's is owned by Chef Brett Jennings, a native Virginian who ended up at NC State University in Raleigh. He worked at two iconic restaurants, Magnolia Grill in Durham, NC and Kinkead's in DC, and his cooking is a reflection of both restaurants: innovative American cuisine with a nod to Southern traditions. Most importantly, Jennings' commitment to local ingredients and products (in the style of Ben Barker at Magnolia Grill), demonstrates that Elaine's is working to make the local food scene better for us not only in the restaurants, but at the markets, too.

The restaurant itself pulls off a difficult fete by being fun, warm, comfortable, hip, yet still maintaining a level of quiet sophistication. It won't win awards for creative design, but the oversized colorful paintings of food surrounded by cushioned walls makes you forget that this is really a small establishment that should be a lot louder than it is.

We started with an amuse of squash and marscapone soup, and the clean flavors of the primary ingredients demonstrated how this simple dish is a perfect way to start the meal. Of course, had I known that we would have been served a soup as an amuse, I may have not ordered the appetizer I did. That would have been a big mistake, as the cauliflower soup exploded with the flavor of truffles (mostly in the form of truffle oil). To offer some textural elements, Jennings didn't merely add a few croutons to the soup, he added a grilled "ham and cheese sandwich." Of course, when the ham is proscuitto di Parma and the cheese is some white Italian variety that is laden with truffles. On this cold and rainy night, this soup was absolutely perfect.

My companion had Kobe beef cheek tacos that were served with a homemade arbol chile salsa. I'd love to share with you how this dish tasted, but my friend wouldn't let me anywhere near her plate!

I did get to try her main course, fortunately, which was slices of venison loin served with caramelized onion and chestnut cream and several savory and extremely flavorful "condiments" in timbale-shaped portions: spinach and leek, oven-dried tomato with fennel, and roasted eggplant with red pepper. This dish was solid, but the condiments almost overwhelmed the flavor of the venison.

I had what might be the single best piece of salmon I've ever eaten. Jennings calls it "barely smoked organic salmon", but the crispy crust of this fish was redolent of wonderful smoke, whereas the inner flesh was soft and unctious. If I were from Jersey I might say, "Like buttah," but I'm not, so I won't. But it really was! This heavenly piece of fish sat on a bed of homemade spaetzle, lardons, cabbage and mustard. Jennings was a little heavy-handed with the mustard, but this accompaniment played well against the smokiness of the fish. I really don't know why I ordered salmon, something I never willingly ask for in a restaurant, but I'm damn glad I did.

We shared a single dessert, a pineapple crisp with a macaroon topping served with macadamia-rum ice cream. This was the weakest dish of the evening, as the fruit was too watery, lacked a lot of flavor, and just didn't work all that well texturally. It was certainly a good idea, but the execution was lacking (as well as the ingredients, too).

The meal was a pretty good value, costing me just under $140 with 4 glasses of wine, including tax and tip. Knowing that Jennings' strength is during the summer months, when he can show off the local produce, I'm happy to add Elaine's to my regular routine of top notch restaurants in the area.

Dean McCord

VarmintBites

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Light smoking of a semi-oily fish like salmon is a really good technique. It harkens back to the familiar flavors of more pedestrian cured smoked salmon but can be heated very slowly (perhaps after the initial light smoking) to give that creamy texture that Varmint describes--perhaps a sous vide bath, followed by a short smoke, then a quick sear.

The floating grilled cheese sandwich seems cool, too.

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I've always been impressed with the level of service at Elaine's. I've been over to eat there three times so far, and have consciously noticed the professionalism of the floor staff on each visit. This, coming from a picky professional cook, should be a pretty good service quality barometer.

I've been impressed with the food, as well. While I think that most cooks in Brett's style are guilty of offering insipid, boring but passable entrees while really showing off their chops with their appetizers, I've found the main courses at Elaine's bucking that trend. The entree side of the menu always seems to have a huge variety of flavors, rarely straying into the mashed potato and sauteed spinach doldrums. Finally, who can help loving a casual-hip bistro that always sends out an amouse-bouche? Classy touches all around. Kudos are due.

Will cook for food.

jasonbissey@yahoo.com

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Susie and I went to Elaine's for her birthday and had a delightful time. As a starter I had the "Fois Gras BLT" which is one of the two best dishes I've had in the past year. It was a tender lobe of fois gras seared and then put between two small pieces of sandwich style bread with candied bacon, arugula, perfect tomatoes, and just a touch of house made mayo. I could have just kept eating those throughout the night and I would have been in heaven.

Bryan C. Andregg

"Give us an old, black man singing the blues and some beer. I'll provide the BBQ."

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Well, this may seem inappropriate, but one of my most vivid memories of Elaine’s is from last Valentines Day, when my now wife and I went for an early dinner. I think there were 2 choices for each course, and one of the soups available was a roasted garlic soup. Maybe with fried oysters - I'm not sure.

I love garlic, and the soup was delicious. And as I recall, the remainder our meal was excellent as well. But it being Valentines Day and all, there was other business at hand. Unfortunately, the other business was never attended to due to the case of 'the vapors' that I developed soon after. I guess it is another case of 'I love x, but x doesn't love me'.

I've always had a suspicion that the soup was on the menu as a prank. I mean, really, it was Valentines Day, and I did have a choice, but I was set up by the menu. How was I supposed to resist fried oysters?

Well, if it was a prank, it worked. That was the first and only night I have ever had to go sleep on the couch.

~Nibbs

On a more pleasant note, their blood orange ice cream with chocolate cake is outstanding, and I'm not one for citrus and chocolate.

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Well, this may seem inappropriate, but one of my most vivid memories of Elaine’s is from last Valentines Day, when my now wife and I went for an early dinner.  I think there were 2 choices for each course, and one of the soups available was a roasted garlic soup.  Maybe with fried oysters - I'm not sure.

I love garlic, and the soup was delicious.  And as I recall, the remainder our meal was excellent as well.  But it being Valentines Day and all, there was other business at hand.  Unfortunately, the other business was never attended to due to the case of 'the vapors' that I developed soon after.  I guess it is another case of 'I love x, but x doesn't love me'.

I've always had a suspicion that the soup was on the menu as a prank.  I mean, really, it was Valentines Day, and I did have a choice, but I was set up by the menu.  How was I supposed to resist fried oysters?

Well, if it was a prank, it worked.  That was the first and only night I have ever had to go sleep on the couch. 

~Nibbs

On a more pleasant note, their blood orange ice cream with chocolate cake is outstanding, and I'm not one for citrus and chocolate.

Maybe this should be taken as a cautionary tale to others :wink:

CBHall

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