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Just desserts

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Indigenous peoples around the globe know the dead are not dead. Native Africans, Australian aborigines and Amazonian tribespeople commune with the spirits of their loved ones long after their bodies lie down for the last time. Some tribes even set a place at communal feasts for the uncle or sister who has passed on into the other world. Just another quaint superstition, right? Oh, the misguided beliefs of these heathens living in darkness.

Or do our tough brothers and sisters, who have survived through the millennia without the advantages, and the curses, of advanced technology, hold dear something we have lost in our mad shuffle toward a brave new world? Einstein told us, "No energy is ever lost." Who is to say that at the moment of death, the indefinable life force that is you simply disappears, never to return? Might it be that we continue on, not only in the collective memory of those who have known and loved us, but also in subtler and more meaningful ways?

One afternoon last month, when I first stepped into Elaine's on Franklin, the cozy new restaurant at 454 W. Franklin St. in Chapel Hill, I was thinking of my dear friend, Linda Ironside, a budding filmmaker, student of voodoo priestesses and food writer for The Herald-Sun. Ever since Linda died after a car wreck in Greensboro several years ago, I have felt her presence with me in ways I never could while she was alive. And as I approached the task of writing about an unfamiliar restaurant, I silently called upon her to help me remember the many things she taught me. Linda was not a critic of the snooty, judgmental sort; she did not go into an eating establishment looking for what was wrong, any more than she would have read a novel looking for typos. Though not averse to suggesting ways of bettering service or honing strong points, she looked for what she liked, and she knew a good thing when she tasted it.

I'm happy to say that though Elaine's is a new restaurant with the inevitable kinks to work out, it is a likable place that offers many delights, both in terms of appetite and atmosphere. The cool lighting accented with a row of skylights sets off the warm blues of the decor, though the eye is often drawn to the bustle and glare of the wait station and kitchen to the rear. Large and small tables for public and more intimate dining share the room with a raised, ample bar well-stocked with beer, wine and liquor. The wall behind the bar is one long mirror, an absolute necessity for those who go out to see and be seen, and who like to watch themselves seeing and being seen. For those whose minds and eyes tend to wander, overhead is an exquisite abstract mural, much more pleasant to the visual palate than the more realistic paintings of food adorning the walls.

I spoke with the owner, the affable Jared Resnick, and his soft-spoken chef, Bret Jennings, while Bret was busy with a long knife and deft hand turning long strips of plump mahi into geometrically rectangular steaks. These two guys are an anomaly: business partners who fight like brothers but manage to remain good friends. Bret told me he learned to cook at the stove of his mother and grandmother. His business sense he mastered at Raleigh's Glenwood Grill, before hooking up with his mentor, Hamid Mohajer, of the now defunct Moe's Diner. He went on to serve a stint as sous chef at the famed Magnolia Grill in Durham before traveling through Italy, Spain and France to study and practice European cuisine. But, he said, his eyes bright with the memories, his most important culinary experience occurred in the kitchens of Mexican women, where matriarchal cooking traditions have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries, and electricity and other amenities are luxuries, not necessities.

His apprenticeship complete, Bret returned to America, where he specialized in preparing seafood at a "big-city powerhouse restaurant," Kinkaid's in Washington, D.C. Returning to the Triangle in 1997, he helped to open the Wild Turkey before reappearing briefly at the Magnolia Grill, where he put the final touches on his craft. Hanging out at Jared's other local venture, the deservedly popular West End Wine Bar, Bret and Jared began scheming a restaurant of their own. Enter Elaine's.

Between directions and suggestions to the kitchen and wait staff, Jared pointed out that he and Bret have located Elaine's between 411 West and Pyewacket, not only geographically but culturally. As the street number indicates, 411 West stands a block or so back toward Chapel Hill proper, and tends to cater to a noisier, more youthful crowd, with Pyewacket on the Carrboro side drawing an older, more predictable clientele. "Elaine's offers simpler, less pricey food, and we must be doing something right, " he said. "We make sure our menu includes new items every few days, and we're already seeing familiar faces. If there's a problem, it's that diners feel so comfortable here they don't want to go home."

Now in their early 30s, both Jared and Bret agreed on one thing: their passion for food. As tough as running a restaurant can be, they do it because they love the work, because they're "trying to make a dream happen." And there's no resting on their laurels; they are planning annual trips together to learn something new to help them with their enterprise. This year they will be traveling to France to study the heady world of champagne.

The next Saturday night, I brought along a friend to spend some time in Jared and Bret's dream. The bar was jumping with a mix of urban clientele: casually dressed young hipsters, men and women in business suits, and older folk dressed to the nines. My companion, Beth, and I chose to sit in one of the two window seats, so as to have a view both of the restaurant and of the busy street outside. Our waitress, styling like all the staff in black, was friendly, funny and more than willing to walk us through the menu. And what an eclectic menu it is: appetizers from the de rigueur salad and chowder, to grilled marinated lamb, gnocchi, dayboat scallop carpaccio and baked scalloped oysters.

The menu's presentation brings me to a question, however, and not just for Elaine's: Why is it that one of the prerequisites for the finer restaurants is a pompous menu? Does a dish really taste better if someone has to translate the name for you? Perhaps the memories, and the influence, of our European ancestors live on in our food lists, but where I come from the dish I ordered is a seafood casserole, and a damn fine one at that, soft oysters swimming in a rich, buttery sauce topped with spiced bread crumbs. It's the kind of thing you could fix at home, but it ain't going to taste as good as when someone else prepares it, and you don't have to worry about doing the dishes. I tried the baked scalloped oysters, Beth had the goat-cheese-and-bean quesadillas, and of course we swapped back and forth. On both appetizers, let me just say, we joined the Clean Plate Club.

Beth was disappointed by the dearth of vegetarian choices, so her only choice was the hand-cut pappardelle, a wide pasta cooked and cut with loving care and covered in grilled radicchio portobella mushrooms with zucchini ribbons baked in a porcini brodo sauce, and that's saying a mouthful to be sure. Beth told me the pasta itself was tasty, but the sauce not so. "If you're only going to have one vegetarian dish on the menu," she said, "it better be rockin.'"

I went for the far end of the culinary spectrum, straight to the red meat, but my luck was equally mixed. The buttermilk-red potato mashers were as good as my mama's, but the grilled marinated flank steak was tragically chewy. Friends have told me they've fared much better at Elaine's, and I definitely plan to give the salmon and mahi a try some time soon.

The meal's end was even better than its beginning. For dessert, Beth had coconut cake with a passion fruit sorbet, tart and refreshing. My banana split with caramel brûlée was a sweets lover's delight, crispy glaze over the world's most perfect fruit. From somewhere across the room, we heard the magical pop of a champagne cork, and laughter bubbling over. Cups of gourmet coffee rounded off the evening in fine fashion.

As we drove back home, I shared with Beth what Jared had told me when I asked him how Elaine's got its name. "Elaine is my wife's mother," he said with a wistful smile. "She passed away last November, the same month we opened here. She was a great cook, and she always loved desserts. During her chemotherapy treatments for cancer, the only thing she could taste was sweets. In honor of Elaine's memory, our pastry chef, Michelle Polzine, has seen to it that the specialty of the house is our desserts."

For primal peoples the worst thing that can possibly happen to you is to be forgotten, because once the last memory fades, you cease to exist. We keep our ancestors alive by venerating them in our everyday actions, by lovingly repeating the good things they have taught us. If Linda Ironside were here, I think she would say, "Rest easy, Ms. Elaine, you have nothing to worry about." EndBlock

To contact Elaine's on Franklin, call 960-2770.

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