If Babar Were a Foodie in The 'Cuse

I absolutely adore the fact that my friend Mimi, from Annapolis, has occasion to take business trips on a regular basis to Syracuse. Because even though I drive through the Salt City all the time on my way back and forth to Watertown, without a reason to stop it’s just a blur along Route 81. And believe me, I drive like a bat out of Hell; it’s really blurry.

Earlier this month, Meems was up here, staying in her fav, the Jefferson Clinton Hotel, and I drove up to meet her for dinner in Armory Square after a follow-up hearing appointment with my ENT. If you have a reason to spend a night in the ‘Cuse, like, I don’t know, a basketball game or something, consider the Jeff-Clint. It’s one of the grand dame kinds of hotels: older, but completely renovated, classic, elegant. And it’s located right in the heart of Armory Square, so there’s lots of good food about. I grabbed a quick coffee at Freedom of Espresso around the corner while I was waiting for Meems to read a text I sent to her home phone (LOL, I’m swift like that), and it was a lovely space.

For dinner, we chose Bistro Elephant, which shares a menu and space with Lemon Grass. I don’t really understand the elephant theme, but the space is great: sleek and warm at the same time, with dark woods and comfortable banquets in the bar. The atmosphere is very chill, with relaxed, but not slow, service.

If you’ve already clicked through to look at the menu, then you know what I ordered as an appetizer. DERR: steaky bacon! Roasted, then stewed, this pork belly was rendered down and luscious, with a hint of smoke flavor and a nice jus. It was served with chili tamarind sauce and little fried buns a la bao but with a bit more flavor and texture due to the frying technique. They had a light crispness outside, but were much more pillowy and fluffy inside than another other Asian steamed buns I’ve had. Thumbs up. The sauce was wonderful: garlicky, spicy and round; and little bacon-y pork sandwiches with the buns, meat, sauce and jus were addictive. I loved this dish. And Mimi, who is seriously one of the best people ever, period, let me eat most of it.
Three compartments of yum

Have we discussed the oyster phase I’m going through right now? I don’t know what it is, impending spring, maybe? But I want them all the time. My sign is in the house of the Oyster or something. Even after last week’s seafood binge at Parc, I have no trouble finding fresh vocabulary to bring you news of our other fantastic appy, Maine oysters with sambal and fried shallots. It’s actually Meems with whom I first ate oysters, so maybe it’s becoming a tradition for us. If so, consider me a traditionalist, because these were slammin’: huge, creamy, briny bi-valves, with sweet/spicy red chile sauce and crispy shallots, which were so fried they were texturally similar to the French fried onions you get from a can and use to top your green bean casserole each year. Topping each monster oyster with a squeeze of lemon and some of the balanced sambal plus a smidge of crunchy shallot was a perfect combo, although they were good with the tamarind sauce from the pork buns, too. At this point in the meal, we were both really happy campers, and I’ll give you a spoiler: that feeling never subsided. I still have it, in fact. Sometimes I just walk down the hall at work and whisper to myself, “sambaaaaaal.” No wonder I haven’t gotten promoted yet.

How fun is the word sambal?

I gave it a rest until the entrees, but Meems couldn’t resist the tom yum soup, which is a comfort food for her. A Thai staple, tom yum is comprised of lemongrass, kefir lime leaves, fish sauce and crushed chiles. To my unaccustomed palate, the fish sauce was a bit jarring, but I liked the cilantro and lemongrass flavors in it – the broth was exceedingly aromatic. The straw mushrooms taking a swim in Lake Flavor also were a nice touch.

Meems and I are both kind of suckers for scallops. Fact is, I eat them often when I’m out because they always seem so expensive to make at home. That is clearly faulty logic, as they’re no less pricey in a restaurant, but my brain can’t be logical all the time about food, people! I love it too much!

I had the set menu version of the scallop entrée: pan-seared diver scallops with bacon vinaigrette. The large scallops were really perfectly cooked: browned and slightly crisp outside and almost meltingly tender and rare inside. The flavor, as usual with these most delicious of shellfish, was clean and almost creamy. They were served over a bed of arugula with a piquant Berkshire bacon vinaigrette, bright with cider vinegar. There was a big bowl of white, fluffy rice served alongside both our meals, and I really liked the blandness of the rice with that sparkly dressing and the peppery arugula. This dish was firing on all eight cylinders: the luscious scallops and fatty bacon with the fresh, bitter arugula and sour vinegar created a really balanced presentation that was satisfying without being too heavy.

My, uh, second helping of bacon for the evening
Mimi’s scallop entrée was on special: the same huge diver scallops swimming in a moat of delicious Asian-inspired broth, with mushrooms and green onions. It was a hearty portion, but the lemongrass in the broth lightened up the affair, giving it depth but also freshness. This dish was both earthy and light, which after the feast we’d just inhaled, was a welcome addition.

Look at all those mushrooms! I die.
Because so much of our meal at Bistro Elephant was Asian-tinted, I’m going to go ahead and recommend its sister restaurant Lemon Grass as well. I can’t imagine this entire menu isn’t as successful as its Americanized relative next door. We gave BE a nine on the BHS scale, and I would definitely go back to try the pulled pork poutine, roast duck, or lobster and pheasant ragu over pappardelle pasta ribbons. You don’t need to be dressed up here, but the feeling is upscale, so proceed accordingly. And enjoy! This was a spectacular meal, and somewhat unexpected. I hope you enjoy it as much as we did.

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Bistro Elephant on Urbanspoon

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like a fabulous meal, both the company and the food! And you can't go wrong with two things with bacon.