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Restaurants & Bars 1

Chapel Hill: Elaine's

David A. | Jul 2, 200306:35 PM

Using my mother's birthday as an I excuse, I finally made it to Elaine's on Franklin Street. Both service and ambience were entirely pleasing, but the food was a bit more mixed than I had hoped. I think I can say that the reign of the Magnolia Grill is not likely to come to an end anytime soon. Due to the usual criss-crossing spoons at a family table, I was able to try a good number of dishes.

For appetizers we had what I think were cornmeal-batter fried soft-shell crab. The portion was very generous, but the batter was thick and heavy, completely obscuring the subtle combination of textures that makes soft-shell crab so interesting. Just a couple of weeks ago my wife and I had a very similar dish at Babbo in New York. The difference between the two dishes is like the difference between the Major Leagues and Triple A.

We also tried the foie gras with some kind of balsamic reduction and blackberries. A couple of complaints here: the portion was extremely small even by foie gras standards, 2) the reduction was overpowering (this is my usual complaint about foie gras presentions), and 3) the piece of corn cob over which the foie gras was draped was misguided in concept. Of course one tried to cut into the cob without realizing what it was, making one's first response to the dish one of distraction and bafflement ("What in god's name is under there?"). There is a psychology to cuisine that I think this dish did not quite heed.

For dinner I had the beef tenderloin, which was straightforward and good, while my wife had the tuna crusted in pepper and garnished with pieces of sushi. The tuna was excellent, but the sushi was...well, pathetic. The rice was a dense mushy mass and there were completely uncooked grains in there that lent an unwelcome crunch. As my wife said, "They should get themselves a good Japanese cookbook and learn how to make sushi rice" -- just as we have done without too much trouble, I might add.

We had four desserts between us: the cholate mint marquise and apricot prosecco soup were both very flavorful and appealing; the berry pudding was pleasant enough, but heavy and blunt. A good hearty peasant desert -- a great pub dessert -- but not I suspect the kind of dessert the kitchen was aiming for. Finally we had the crepes with fromage blanc and sour cherries. This, like the sushi, was terrible. The crepes were thick and weirdly rubbery and there were too few cherries to impose any real taste on the crepes. I would have been a bit embarassed to serve this dessert in my home.

Elaine's is certainly a pleasant dining experience -- a good enough place to have a birthday or anniversary dinner -- but it has some work to do around the edges before it can be called a really fine restaurant.

While waiting to go in, by the way, we had a look at the menu of Lantern across the street. It struck us as pretentious and expensive. Has anyone been?

David A.

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