growing up morrell & dining with élan
“I’ve had plenty of foie gras pops in my day,” my mother announced as we cobbled together our order at her recent birthday dinner at élan. Now I ask you: how many people can say that?
Alas, this was my first–though hopefully not last–opportunity to try a fig-centered lollipop of foie rolled in crushed pistachio. My parents, on the other hand, clocked many a hedonistic evening starting with foie gras pops at David Waltuck’s seminal TriBeCa gem, Chanterelle. As a child, hearing the word chanterelle was confusing for me because it meant either that I was going to eat some delicious mushrooms, or that I would have to spend an evening with a horrid babysitter while my parents enjoyed a sumptuous meal in the music-less downtown dining room where bringing a child, no matter how well-behaved or precocious, was ill-advised. If the latter were the case, however, it also meant that the story of an extraordinary meal would follow and if I stayed up late enough, I could fall asleep with my mother’s mellifluous voice: “We started with little popsicles made out of foie gras…then Daddy had the ravioli, tender potato-stuffed pillows with truffle shaved atop like fragrant confetti…gamey venison with wine-soaked prunes that tasted of Christmas…” This was my lullaby.
It’s a habit in my family for my mother to recount every detail of what she’s cooked or eaten. When I was a teenage tour guide in the caves de Champagne of Moët et Chandon, calling home tearful and lonely at dusk from a payphone in the seedy center of Epernay, I used to have to remind my mother that I didn’t need to know every nuance of the trout en croûte, cassoulet or coquille Saint Jacques she’d prepared for dinner the night before: “That sounds delicious, Mamma, but this is, like, long distance.”
While we are on the subject of speaking to my mother on the telephone, I might also mention that she often asks me to “hold on” while she has a conversation with her dachshund, Guinevere. There’s a distinct lack of urgency in most conversations with my darling mother. Very often she’ll go off on a tangent about the fragrance of the lilac bushes beside her vegetable garden, or for that matter, how her zucchinis have grown in size so outrageously in a week, that they are now only suitable for zucchini bread. Her stories meander in her melodic, perfect elocution through many a circuitous, deliciously detailed discursion before arriving at an adorable (albeit anti-climactic) point.
But I digress. Back to élan and its fabulous foie gras pops, its excellent seafood sausage with sauerkraut in a shallow pool of tangy beurre blanc, both much appreciated holdovers from Chanterelle. We gobbled a rabbit terrine, laced with herbs and hazelnuts, springy from poaching in the fatty meat. Pickled veg and a most excellent house mustard (served also with the irresistible pretzel bread at the start of the meal) got our taste buds going.
While not everything struck such high notes (don’t you dare tell me something has sea urchin in it and then be stingy on the delivery…it makes for one angry uni addict!), dishes such as grilled mackerel with crispy, oily, beguiling skin and clam dashi risotto with unapologetically fishy broth brightened by yuzu were excellent and unmistakably influenced by Japan. While the Chinese-inspired “General Tso’s” sweetbreads with bok choy, orange and chili was audacious and attractive for its brashness. Waltuck’s food is playful and the perfect definition of the exasperating catch-all, “New American.” He borrows cleverly and combines adroitly. If there was music in the dining room at élan, or if it maintained the shrine-like tinkling silence of Chanterelle, I noticed not, so rapt was my attention on the food and on my family, right where it should be.
The meal proved an apt map for our ancestral patterns: my mother’s characteristic restraint (how exactly does one refuse a foie gras pop?!); my father’s habitual gluttony (post foie pop he chose the duck burger with caramelized onion, bacon mayo and, you guessed it, foie gras, which rather exploded when we cut it but was undeniably decadent and delicious); and my svelte auntie’s predictable discipline with an appetizer as her entrée. Daddy was telling terrible jokes and passing notes to a sommelier pal at a neighboring table. Mummy was smiling wide and gushing over her birthday bites. The meal and room were familiar, perhaps outdated?–yet nonetheless highly enjoyable, much like family itself. In fact, it was a reminder of just how good I had it, growing up Morrell in the perpetually reinventing, ever-enticing food scene that is my hometown, New York, New York.
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