Review: Element in St. Louis
Editor's note: Element has closed.
The beauty of roast chicken is its timeless simplicity, humble comfort and one-in-every-oven affordability. Yet, I recently read that there’s a bird boom in New York City, with some restaurants commanding upwards of $80 for a whole roasted chicken (At those luxurious prices, I’m sure it’s labeled poulet on the menu.). Of course, these aren’t the bland commodity chickens found on most Americans’ plates; only organically raised heritage birds sourced from small, nearby farms have the flavor to fetch such prices.
The roasted half-chicken at Element – the new four-chefs-in-one restaurant located on the grounds of the former City Hospital – also came from a small, nearby farm, but it only set me back 18 bucks. It also made me wonder how roasted chicken four times the price could possibly taste.
But before you dig into that succulent bird, look around. Housed on the top two floors of the old hospital’s power plant, Element has a chic, post-industrial feel. The third-floor lounge is warm and masculine: heavy leather couches, low light, polished cement floors, a commanding view of Busch Stadium from the east-facing windows and a stunning outdoor terrace on the west side. The second-floor dining room is dim and sensual, lit by the subtle flicker of vintage Edison-style bulbs emanating from wooden fixtures and amber-hued glass pendants. The space is rich and intimate, enhanced by reclaimed barn wood, exposed brick and rusted iron girders. Many of the handmade tables are arranged along the perimeter of the open kitchen, a setup that is – unlike a chef’s table or kitchen bar – more conducive for table talk than chef chat.
Not that these chefs wouldn’t be worth chatting up. Executive chef Brian Hardesty (Terrene, Guerilla Street Food food truck) has organized a team that currently includes chefs Sam Boettler, Chris DiMercurio and Jerrid Scholten. Rather than sticking to the old command-and-control structure, these guys share everything needed to run a tight kitchen. It’s a kind of crucible, where the chefs clash, converge and collaborate, ultimately fusing their styles and techniques into a cohesive dinner menu (this one divided into small and large plates).
While the kitchen is open, the collaboration is invisible to the diner. We wouldn’t know that Boettler created the venison dish. But we do know the meaty, savory bone-in chop from the large plates menu was seared to medium, tasted richer than beef and lacked the gaminess of wild venison. A bed of roasted parsnips, radishes and red potatoes provided winter earthiness, while a smoked Concord grape sauce added a touch of sweetness.
Another meaty favorite is that half-chicken. The three-step process (brine, sous vide and oven roast) rendered the bird tender and succulent with perfectly crisp, crackling skin. Root vegetables and mushrooms in butter and a douse of sherry sauce rounded out this soul-satisfying meal. Portions of the menu change every few weeks, but this is a dish that I hope takes up permanent residence. Short ribs define winter comfort, but the kitchen redefined the dish with verdant Swiss chard and whipped rutabaga subbing for mashed potatoes on which exquisitely tender rib meat slid off the bone, glistening from its long braise in 4 Hands Morning Glory sweet potato ale. Beef cheeks as an appetizer seemed a bit much given the meat’s extreme richness, but slivers of celery combined with a mild chile heat, a mint chimichurri and an acidic tang from a light lime sauce sufficiently cut the fatty texture.
A plate of beet pappardelle didn’t suffer from the gloppiness that often plagues the noodle when made in-house; these were thick and perfectly al dente. But the sauce of rosemary-scented brown butter and crushed Marcona almonds was too light, making for a dry heap of bright red pasta. A salad of spicy-bitter greens, guanciale bits and shaved Honeycrisp apple would have excelled, but it was laden with oil and not enough cider to cut the slickness. Bread is a Companion mini baguette served warm and crispy with honey-thyme butter, but unless you’re craving carbs, there’s no need to spend an extra $3 for the service.
Desserts are limited to three or four changing selections, but that doesn’t mean they’re given short shrift. One night there was a deliciously festive float of house-made pumpkin ice cream and house-made ginger snap soda, served with a half-shot of rye, if desired. I did. The Blondie was a sophisticated s’more for adults: Crunchy graham cracker cake, house-made marshmallow ice cream, torched marshmallows and chocolate ganache proved to be a chewy union of burnt sweet, salty and butter.
Maybe putting a team of chefs in one kitchen is a recipe for disaster; chefs are known to have some pretty big egos. Maybe the whole concept is a gimmick. But when watching this crew in action, I was struck by how well the components came together. Perhaps these are the four elements of success.
Element, 1419 Carroll St., St. Louis, 314.241.1674, elementstl.com
Don’t Miss Dishes
Roast chicken, venison chop,
The renovated space has a post-industrial, warm, woody and intimate feel.
Small plates: $8 to $14; large plates: $14 to $23
Lunch: Tue. to Fri. – 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; dinner: Tue to Sat. – 5 to 10 p.m.
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