The eccentric foodies I roam around with often sit and hatch out theories behind obscure culinary trends. Why, for example, is the poor portabello embraced as "the other meat" for vegetarians? Who fanned the flame behind "tall food"--really, who needs to eat anything that threatens to poke them in the eye? Who decided to name the thymus gland "sweet breads," and why do people persist in chortling them down?
One of our favorite musings is the "X" factor behind a successful restaurant, that elusive extra something that marks a restaurant as a worthy destination. We have tried out various ideas: the combination of the right chef in the right location, the correct ambiance hinged with a dynamic menu, but these have failed us. We have run right through the list ... exceptional service, dramatic lighting, a kicky name, comfortable seating, the perfect soundtrack. For a while we had a theory about bathrooms, but it, too, was proven wrong.
We were curious about Elle. A longstanding local restaurant that has survived many incarnations (AzStixx, Olsens, Scordato's), Elle has quietly established itself as a worthy dining venue, but it seems to perform silently, without a great deal of fanfare.
Chef Richard Koby's menu is certainly worth reflection. Classically trained at the California Culinary Academy, and doing a stint at the Sonoma Mission Inn, Koby is perhaps best known in Tucson for his tenure as the executive chef at the Ventana Room. Regardless of Koby's impressive training grounds, Elle's menu is a sure hit that showcases a talented hand. Whether you choose to begin your meal with the voluptuous baked oysters with roasted shallot cream ($10.50) or the steamed mussels with a heady white wine brodo ($8.95), the quality of the ingredients and the gentle hand that coaxes out pure flavors are sure to leave you swooning with delight.
Even a simple dish like arugula salad with goat cheese, dried cranberries and pine nuts ($5) was an elegant study in pure flavors, brought together in a gratifying unison by a bright orange vinaigrette. Though it was a smaller offering, care was given to every ingredient on the plate. This speaks of a kitchen that is paying close attention.
Careful attention is paid to all aspects of the meal, from the fluffy, generous servings of ciabatta (from Beyond Bread) and quality extra virgin olive oil, to the excellent service we received. The server we had for the evening was attentive without being obtrusive. She was informed about the origins of ingredients (the mussels were from Prince Edward Island, the oysters had been farmed), and answers she didn't know she was swift to find. Courses were paced evenly and with a sense of when to linger, when to clear a plate, when to suggest the forward motion for another course. We were impressed.
The range of entrées was so appealing, it was difficult to choose. True to the concept of "foods from wine country areas" (note: Elle doesn't call itself a California wine country restaurant, lest you suffer from any form of ethnocentrism about where Wine Country is) the menu offers many selections that feature pasta, peasant-cut meats, fresh produce and simple flavors geared toward pairings with wine. This celebrates, one assumes, the unifying features found in any wine country, whether in Italy, France, Australia or California.
One in our party chose to be difficult, and tried the grilled venison medallions ($18.95). True, we all held our breath, wanting to see the chef's paces, and we were brought to a humbling silence by the plate, a lovely study in simplicity. The venison was cut-with-a-fork tender, and the medallions had a wild, savory high flavor grounded by a heady roasted garlic sauce. A fragrant rosemary polenta chimed in with an earthy note, and our hearty diner's eyes fluttered in ecstasy.
Not to be outdone, nor inclined to partake of Bambi, another member of the troop decided to try the grilled ahi tuna with saffron couscous and mushroom salsa ($18.95). The Israeli couscous was a pleasant surprise with its large, fluffy kernels, and it was suffused with saffron. Cooked until just medium-rare, the moist and flaky tuna was offset nicely with the saffron couscous. The mushroom salsa took the dish in a surprising direction. Instead of the more typical fruit or chile salsa, this warm earthy mushroom salsa grounded the fish and accented its meaty flavors.
The butternut squash ravioli with spinach and mushrooms and sage brown butter ($11.95) shouldn't be missed. Served in homemade crockery, this is a dish that alone could make a happy, fulfilling meal. Really, it should be consumed alone, so you won't have to share. The sunny ravioli are bursting with the bright, warm flavor of butternut squash. Again, the mushrooms add an earthy flavor, and the sage brown butter is a comforting and intensely rich foil for the sweet squash.
Risotto Man was with us, and he had to try the risotto with mushrooms, mascarpone and fried leeks ($10.95). Although the arborio was of an excellent quality, perhaps we had tried one too many dishes with mushrooms in them, since this one tasted slightly salty. Perhaps a salted butter had been used, or the mushrooms lent their dark, earthy flavor over to salt, but a little risotto went a long way.
Desserts are all made in-house and are impressive. Our server recommended the apple tart, and we were not disappointed by the enormous crown of pastry and apples, served in a pool of caramel sauce. The bread pudding was the real winner, however; made with the ciabatta, sliced thin with an egg custard and golden raisins, served in a brandy-cream sauce, this reminded us again of what makes Koby's menu such a success: He trusts simple flavors and straightforward presentations.
Should you choose to experience the wild card Elle has up its sleeve for yourself, we recommend the summer special. Every Tuesday is "Date Night." For only $39.95, you and your date will each receive a salad, entrée, dessert and a bottle of wine to share. Perhaps this is the ever elusive "X" factor: Give the restaurant away! Or perhaps, in the end, the ever elusive "X" factor might just be that a place kept a quiet secret builds an exclusive buzz, supported by its converted clientele. Buoyed up by a local following, it blossoms into its own.
But I'm not making any promises; it's just a theory.