Sherman's Food Adventures: Elephant


I've been a fan of Chef Justin Lee (known as Justin Ell as well) since his days at Crowbar.  His eclectic and sometimes vegetable-forward food is heavily influenced by creating flavours by employing fermentation, aging and rendered animal fats.  He had a brief stint at Superflux and then moved into some fancy digs at Miantiao in the Shangri-La.  However, I've always found his food to be accessible with little fuss.  Hence, it was completely out-of-its-natural-element in Downtown.  I was truly pleased to see him head the compact restaurant, Elephant, steps away from another favourite of mine - Straight & Marrow.  It is almost like the prodigal son has returned home.  Now sporting a well-deserved status of being a Michelin-Recommended restaurant, it was a matter of time I had to visit the place.

Beyond the "must-have" Cabbage Bolognese, the Omakase menu is the thing to get here.  You can actually ensure you get the aforementioned dish if you add a supplement.  To start our meal we has some snacks including the roasted Seiglinde Potato with tofu aged in cannellini miso, preserved beans, pickled onion and peanuts.  Essentially a fancy potato salad, this was packed with umami.  Beyond the firm, yet tender potatoes, there was a thick creaminess that had a nice mouth feel.  The crunch from the tangy beans as well as the acidic onions added texture and brightness.

We went from subtle umaminess to absolute flavour bomb with the Rutabaga with dangerous crab seasoning and peanuts.   The first thing to hit was the spice, then I got the aroma of the peanuts and then at the tail end, there was sweet brininess from the crab. Again, umami strikes again where flavours were not reliant on the usual ingredients.  The crunch of the rutabaga was appealing and appetizing.  I could've eaten a whole bowl of this.

Our last snack was the Roasted Radish with Southern Thai curry with fermented spot prawns.  We loved the burst of sweet juices from the turnips upon our first bites.  The curry was full of body and depth.  Once again, fermentation struck again where the richness of the curry was thanks to the excellent balance between spice, sweetness and aromatics.  Similar to the last dish, the brininess from the fermented spot prawns made this curry.

Onto another genius creation by Chef Justin was the Cloudy 2 Kinds of Turnip Soup.  Although there was no dairy in this, it was so rich and creamy thanks to the aged pork fat.  The collagen from the pork fat created a nice silky viscosity as well as offering a meatiness to compliment the sweetness and earthiness of the turnips.  I found the aroma to be intoxicating with every sip as my nose was in direct line with the warm vapours.

On the topic of using animal fats to bring out textures and flavours, we had the Chicories & Daikon with tarragon, apple, walnut and roast beef dressing.  One bite and it was rather obvious we weren't not dealing with olive oil.  The creaminess and fattiness of the dressing was full of body and bite.  It was nicely balanced by the equal parts of acidity and sweetness.  Lots of crunch from the ingredients and hidden underneath, delicious juicy roast nuggets of daikon.

Other than the rutabaga, our favourite dish was the Kohlrabi with smoked pig's head and egg.  This featured tender slices of kohlrabi that still maintained a bite.  The smokiness from the meat was definitely there as well as the creamy fattiness that had been rendered.  Again, full of umami and further amped by the ample amount of clothbound aged cheddar.  With just enough fresh cracked pepper, there was a little bit of cacio e pepe vibes in this dish.

Moving onto the Risotto, it was made with cabbage and potato as well as super aged 5-year toma.  This was expertly prepared where the rice was cooked through while still being chewy.  Furthermore, the risotto spread on the plate evenly.  It was plenty cheesy and rich, but the cabbage did provide interludes of juicy vegetableness.  Now with the aged toma, it was nutty, a bit salty and plenty sharp.  Loved this dish.

For dessert, we were served Preserved and Fermented Peaches with milk and topped with olive oil.  This was whipped and served much like a Melona bar.  Hence it was creamy, sweet and tang with the a "semi-freddo" form of texture.  This was a nice little bite to end a very Chef Justin meal.  His methods of creating flavour are thoughtful and creative.  The food is where it belongs - in a small restaurant on the East Side where it is both accessible and delicious.  Bravo.

The Good:
- One word: Umami
- Well-priced
- No fuss

The Bad:
- Limited space, so make a reso or you will be out-of-luck
- Be patient, it is a one man show in the kitchen, however, Chef Justin Lee is very efficient


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