Checked Ambition at Blue Elm
Blue Elm is a classic case of hyped fusion gone awry. The newcomer to the Lower East Side has enjoyed significant hype from critics, bloggers, and food writers alike since its opening not so long ago. Chef Malik Fall, formerly of Boucarou, Asia de Cuba, and China Grill, blends his Senegalese background with Asian and French influences in a menu that brings the classic Asian fusion model made famous by Nobu Matsuhisa into a new dimension.
The result is partially successful. Here’s the story: my boyfriend and I checked out Blue Elm on a Saturday night. We had no problem getting a reservation and a table was ready for us when we arrived. The seating is very cramped. Too many tables have been stuffed into a narrow and dark space. We were squished up against the bar, faced with an awkward marble corner jutting into our space, and only about 6 inches from our neighbors. The decor is…lacking. Dark distressed wood walls, dark laquer tables, a dark black bar, low lighting, and large paintings of flower blooms all lend to an unshakeably somber vibe (which, I believe, is entirely unintentional.)
The crowd was suitably eclectic for the Lower East Side: couples, families, old, young, trendy, preppy, etc. Everyone (except for the large family that left just before we sat down) seemed to be there for the same reason: New York foodies looking to scope out the new ‘hotspot’ South of Houston.
Blue Elm suffers some from a few telltale signs of a new establishment: newly-washed water glasses that smell strongly of Clorox bleach, a slightly awkward and over-zealous hostess, paper menus smudged with fingerprints and stains, and dishes that have the potential to morph into truly delicious food.
The menu is overwhelming – appetizers, seafood, poultry, meat, sushi and desserts. There is a plethora of options, all of which skip from seeming very African in make-up to being straight out of Tokyo. The sushi menu seems disjointed and disconnected from the rest of the cuisine, offering up creative and tasty rolls that have absolutely no culinary association with the hot dishes.
All in all, the food is good. It is by no means astonishing or revelatory, but it is good. John and I started with the Spicy Tuna Crunch roll – a twist on spicy crunchy tuna with asparagus in the center. The tuna was fresh and the roll satisfying. It was a refreshing starter to the meal. We then split a seafood dish and a meat dish as the whole philosophy of Blue Elm is to replicate the family-style dining of Fall’s hometown in Senegal. The Avocat aux Crevettes Senegalaises or grilled shrimp was a sharp and crispy dish with about 6 shrimp over a blend of avocado, hummus, onions, tomatoes, and hard-boiled eggs. The shrimp were well-cooked and very well-seasoned, but the accompanying garnishes were bland and didn’t add a whole lot. The Kobe Beef Mafe aux Legumes Arachides was a thick peanut butter stew with potatoes, tender kobe slices, peas, yams, and turnips over sticky jasmine rice. The texture was divine – the tender and decadent kobe beef blended with a rich thick stew and delightfully sticky rice worked incredibly well together. Unfortunately, the stew itself lacked punch. John and I both agreed that we wanted more from it – more spice, more flavor, more complexity.
I give the chef props for taking a stab at truly creative and ‘out-there’ dishes; however, the actual success was very hit-or-miss. Blue Elm is definitely worth a try, as I expect that once all the opening kinks are worked out, it will settle down into a very solid fusion spot, popular with hipsters and trendsters alike.