General Tso's sweetbreads ($17) start out very sweetly, then slash you with vinegar, citrus and smoke. You used to be able to find a dish like this at Chanterelle, where chef David Waltuck first brought serious, white tablecloth fine dining to Downtown NYC in the mid 1980s.
"Back then, we very soberly named it something like 'crisp sweetbreads with caramelized leeks and oranges,'" Waltuck explains. At élan, his new restaurant with partner George Stinson in Flatiron, Waltuck cuts loose a little. He celebrates his dish's roots in comforting Chinese takeout and pushes the flavors out a little farther with more heat, more acidity.
General Tso's sweetbreads | Stuffed zucchini blossoms
The dining room is very simple, just plain whitewashed brick and gray banquettes, and a trio of giant Chuck Close self-portraits hanging along the hall that connects to the bar. On a recent evening, I was surrounded by elegant women in shift dresses and cocktail rings who could remember the original seafood sausage Waltuck used to make. The newfangled one at élan is served on a quirky bed of beurre blanc dosed with sauerkraut juice ($18).
"I'm trying to be a little more whimsical," Waltuck says. That means no tasting menu, though you can build your own if you choose a few of the tiny bites from the top of the menu, like the foie gras pops ($4 each), which look devastatingly 90s but taste perfectly delicious—a bite of smooth, cold foie on a stick, under a lace of crushed pistachios, hiding a figgy core. And fried oysters ($3.50 each) with a shining black cap of caviar, which never go out of style.
Chef David Waltuck | Pastry chef Diana Valenzuela and her fabulous cherry sundae
Chanterelle and its see-through slices of beef showered in petals of fresh black truffle are long gone, but those who loved Waltuck's rich, elegant cooking are in luck. There's a dish of sake-cured beef in thin, dark slices with a wee pile of slivered king oyster mushrooms ($16). The soy-washed meat doesn't have the bright red blush of a traditional carpaccio, but its flavors go deeper. And more to the point, Waltuck proves he doesn't need an endless supply of truffles to impress.
In fact, the best dish to eat right now might be the least fancy: the delightful stuffed zucchini blossoms ($17), so vibrantly orange it's as if they're still flowering on the plant. Waltuck picked them up at the Union Square Greenmarket, a few blocks away from the restaurant. He used to steam the flowers with a chicken and truffle mousse, inspired by something from chef Jacques Maximin's repertoire. Now, they're plump with a tender, dumpling-like mix of breadcrumbs and zucchini, set in a bowl of lemony crème fraîche with small skin-on tomatoes.
It's just a bit of lovely summery cooking, and vegetarian to boot, but somehow Waltuck makes it feel like such a treat.
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