How Elements puts “dining” back in your day

Terry Kirts

King salmon ($12.50) The power lunch. The three-martini lunch. Ladies who lunch. Despite all of the clichés and cultural references alluding to the noontime repast, it’s no secret the art of midday dining has gone the way of the shrimp fork and the finger bowl. We eat at our desks, we drive through, we seek speed and efficiency so as not to interrupt the day’s productivity. If we do go out to lunch, we almost always have some business to attend to or a friend we’re catching up with, guiltily, in a scant hour. Rarely can we distract ourselves enough to focus on the food. Not so at Elements. Stop into this Massachusetts Avenue retreat for lunch, and you’ll suddenly forget you were ever at work in the first place. Calmed by the warm, autumnal décor, gorgeous banquettes and the surprisingly airy space of this chic shotgun eatery, you’ll be tempted to call in sick for the afternoon. You’ll forsake your friend for the seasonal creations of the kitchen staff, and you’ll linger over a three-course lunch, a luxury you haven’t allowed yourself in longer than you can remember. In short, you’ll dine instead of just eating. Here’s what your lunch will look like. The menu. With just two salads, a soup and four entrées, this has to be one of the most streamlined and well-chosen lunch menus in the city. You might pine for more options, but this is part of Greg Hardesty’s genius as a chef and restaurant owner. You don’t deliver the consistently high-quality dishes he does by padding your menu with what’s available all over town. Don’t look for sandwiches or fries here. No wraps, no chicken salad in pale tomatoes, no dressed up burgers masquerading as haute cuisine. For lunch, you’ll get a real meal, balanced, in realistic portions. While you’ll see some of the same ingredients on the dinner menu, the preparations are different enough to keep you coming back. Soon enough, the entire menu will change. The soup. In an era when people heat soup in their break-room microwaves and “drink” it while they walk around the office, the phrase “soup du jour” is practically reactionary. Utterly undrinkable, the soup ($5) the day we stopped in was a playful potage marrying fancy and folksy ingredients. Shiitakes and portobellos, possibly other wild mushrooms, lent their flavor to a broth with bits of ham hock and collard greens, giving this East-meets-South concoction a light but rich finish. Seasoning was modest, but this was definitely a tasty way to start lunch. The salad. Pristine, with an interesting mix of pure flavors, the spinach salad ($6) brought together tender leaves of spinach with radicchio, crisp, thinly sliced apple and daikon, and the most gossamer of dressings flavored with ginger. Bits of meticulously cleaned jalapeños, without a single seed or bit of the spicy inner membrane, made a perfect and surprising alternative to ubiquitous cracked pepper. The seafood. Unfortunately, the Maine fluke wasn’t available. But this single fluke of the meal led us to the king salmon ($12.50), crusted with black and white sesame seeds in a “jus” of soy with Napa cabbage, more shiitakes and yet more jalapeños as a piquant garnish. The salmon was so delicately prepared — steamed? poached? — that we wondered how the kitchen got the sesame crust to stick. Again, restraint allowed us to taste everything we were eating. The schnitzel. Part Hoosier, part Viennese pub food, the pork tenderloin ($12.50) goes upscale in Hardesty’s hands. Served not with vinegary potato salad but with roasted sweet potatoes and turnips, as well as some wilted spinach, this gets finished off with an ultra-light mustard sauce with just a hint of quince, one of Hardesty’s idiosyncratic pet ingredients. While the quince flavor was subtle, this was one fried pork dish that left us without an ounce of guilt. The service. Even at lunchtime, a full team of staff members worked swiftly to make us feel comfortable. Drinks were quickly refilled, and while our entrées lagged a bit and the hostess had disappeared by the time we needed our coats again, this was one of the most well-attended lunches either of us could remember. The finish. With so much restraint and innovation all over the menu, it was almost disappointing that one of the dessert options was a gut-busting chocolate brownie with ganache and cherry ice cream. Hadn’t we come here for something different? Thankfully, the day’s second option was the most interesting dessert either of us had sunk a fork into in a long time. A delicate, crumbly, achingly restrained cake ($6.50), flavored with rosemary, came crowned with a bright oval of Granny Smith sorbet and shreds of julienned green apple. Underneath lay a tangy pool of crème fraîche, a surprising sauce that completed this daring but complementary trio of flavors. If only we could have dishes this original and dine this richly at every lunch. At Elements, perhaps we could. Elements 415 N. Alabama St. 317-634-8888 hours Tuesday-Thursday: 11 a.m.-1:30 p.m.; 5 - 9:30 p.m. Friday: 11-1:30 p.m.; 5 - 10:30 p.m. Saturday: 5 - 10:30 p.m. Food : 4.5 Stars Atmosphere : 4.5 Stars Service : 4 Stars

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