Sometimes a forceful vision is all you need for success. Example: Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ is really just an extremely long snuff film, yet it somehow managed to rally flat-earthers and contrail conspiracy theorists all over the globe. Even if you don't care much for the idea of the auteur, you still must admit that an iron-fisted aesthetic sensibility always trumps a circle jerk by committee.
A true auteur such as Steven Spielberg understands the rigorous attention to detail that's needed in order to get people really, really shitfaced.
Actually, I guess I should immediately take that back: Sometimes the iron fist gets its iron ass handed back to it by the committee of disorganized jerks. World War II is a prime example of this. Hitler was defeated against all odds by a ragtag team of soldiers consisting of a corn-fed country boy, his Jewish best friend from Brooklyn (who was tragically killed despite his lucky Mickey Mantle card tucked into his helmet), an Irish guy, a guy obsessed with his girlfriend's letters from home, a Southern bumpkin, and their quietly heroic platoon leader. There would've been a black dude on the team too, but unfortunately his participation would have to wait about 25 years for the next round of war movies. And by then, napalm and helicopters and LSD were invented, all three of which made both movies AND war that much more awesome.So Truffaut's auteur theory doesn't really work in warfare, but it does work for restaurants. Wendy's was once one of the better fast-food burgers. But then founder Dave Thomas died. Without Thomas's guidance, Wendy's eventually slumped. Now it's just a bunch of stale bullshit distinguished only by its flagrant disregard for traditional hamburger geometry.
Elemental is the same way. It's tucked into a condo building across the street from Gasworks Park. They don't take reservations, and there are only four or five tables, so getting a seat is a roll of the dice. That, of course, is part of the fun. The interior of Elemental is spare and creamy. It looks like one of the display rooms inside IKEA, except, of course, that unlike inside IKEA, there are no screaming children.
This singular vision belongs to some dude named Phred. Yes, I know: By the way he spells his name, you'd think he sells puka-shell necklaces, not food. But you need to get over it because Elemental is awesome.
It's really a unique dining experience. In his quest to hone his culinary vision into a pinpoint singularity, Phred has eliminated the menu. For that, you can always go to the adjoining wine bar, Elemental Next Door. Since there's no menu, food comes out pretty quickly. What's served changes daily, so what I recount here is really only an approximation of what you can expect to eat.
Things started out briskly enough. Glasses of mulled wine were brought out when we sat down, plus a cocktail: a white port and tonic. Double-fisting before dinner? Sounds like an evening with your mom.
The first course was a carrot soup. This soup was as sweet as a stolen BMX bike, with a fine-grained texture. It was startlingly orange, like a bad spray-on tan, and graced with a couple candied pecans. Tasty.
Next up were a couple crostini, topped with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, nestled into a bed of mizuna like a basket of Easter eggs. The mizuna was glossed with a light vinaigrette. This dish seemed a bit conservative, but fuck it: You can rarely go wrong with onions, bread, and greens.
The third course was beet ravioli. Soft, doughy pillows were filled with red beet purée. The filling was earthy and sugary and was colored a vivid maroon, which stained everything it touched. On top of the ravioli was a neat pile of sautéed beet greens. These ravioli were so good, I would have eaten one after it got stepped on by a horse.
After that, a square of pan-roasted cod was brought out to the table in a sizzling cast- iron skillet. The fish sat atop strata of sliced fennel and potatoes, swimming in a light cream sauce, and studded with cherry tomatoes. The presentation was nice, but this dish was less than stellar. The fish was as fishy as your mom, the fennel was cloying, the cherry tomatoes seemed like a pointless addition, and the potatoes were undercooked. At first I thought the potatoes were left a bit crunchy on purpose, as some sort of contrarian play on the expectation of how potatoes should be cooked. But eventually I realized that they just fucked it up.
The meat course was duck. Roasted duck breast was sliced on the bias, as duck breast usually is, then served with a neat cylinder of quinoa and a big syrupy pile of braised chard. This, too, wasn't the greatest thing I've tasted, primarily because the duck was undercooked. The meat was cool to the touch in the center, a bit gummy to the bite. It was so rare, each slice wrapped in a pallid sheath of scrotal skin. Not great. Luckily, the accompanying vegetables were perfect. I enjoyed the quinoa, which was toasty and nutty and served amid shreds of carrot and breadcrumbs, despite the fact that quinoa is the official grain of the Lillith Fair. The chard was even better: supple and buttery, with just enough bitterness left in it to keep things interesting.
A cheese plate finished things off. Almond-stuffed dates and baguette slices accompanied bleu cheese, muenster, a very ripe camembert, and a wedge of something very similar to manchego but which probably actually wasn't.
All things considered, Elemental is a steal. A five-course meal is $40 per person. The cheese plate is extra, but it's only $8 for four different varieties of cheese. A wine pairing is $24, which is DIRT-CHEAP considering that you get wine with every course, and THREE GLASSES with the cheese plate. These aren't timid little pours, either. At Elemental they give you big sloshy glasses of wine, which you slurp back as though you just got divorced until you're utterly shitfaced. I've heard some apocryphal complaining from ninnies who lamented that they got TOO DRUNK. Is such a thing even possible?
Some people don't like Elemental. They say it's too rigid, that the customer has no control over the menu, or that Phred is a big meanie who makes fun of them for requesting a cheeseburger. Clearly, anyone who complains about Elemental doesn't get the artistic vision of the true auteur. And sure, I wasn't enamored of the duck or the cod, but fuck it: Even Spielberg made 1941.
Rating: 8.5 Spielbergs out of 10.
Elemental is located at 3309 Wallingford Ave. N., 547-2317