Despite a lot of effort to obscure the fact, this is the former location of El Phoenix Room, where generations ate canned Mexican food and drank cheap beer. New owners ripped out the walls to make a larger, two-level room with exposed brick and pipes, painted it black for elegance, set up two TVs tuned to sports, and hung this í50s-alcoholic name on it. If they wanted camp, they could have stuck with El Phoenix and the canned Mexican food ó nostalgia for that will be back any day now. Instead, they took this dumb name and hid a pretty good little restaurant inside.
The food at the Elbow Room ranges from bar snacks to bistro, with hits and misses at all levels. Chef Stephen Sherman apprenticed at Union Square Café and River Café in New York, and this experience shows more in something like meatloaf with whipped potatoes, or grilled vegetables with garlicky hummus appetizer, than in the more pretentious roasted-beet salad or seafood entrées. No dish at the Elbow Room is bad, and a hit-or-bunt menu at these prices is pretty good. But youíll likely be reading some funny reviews of the place, because it isnít even clear that you should always order the expensive dish or the cheap one.
The breadbasket suggests Italian food to come, with some fine focaccia and oily Tuscan loaf. Sweet butter is good, but ask for olive oil, and you may get some excellent, fruity, extra-virgin olive oil. My pick of the appetizers is the fried calamari with chipotle mayonnaise ($6), even on a night when the mayonnaise lacked zip. The squid were fresher and drier fried than Iíve had in about a year. That garlicky hummus ($6) has a fresh-bean flavor under the super-sufficient garlic, but the platter is stolen by the olives, grilled mushrooms, peppers, and eggplant. Steamed mussels ($7) are another winner, featuring very plump mussels in a tomato sauce with lots of red pepper.
My choice of the five grilled pizzas ó spinach, ricotta, and toasted garlic ($7) ó was the thinnest, crispest pizza Iíve ever eaten. It was, in fact, overdone to the point of rigidity. The slices of garlic were as crunchy as almonds. Miraculously, the spinach and cheese were edible, and some guests rather liked their pizza well done. I should add that this pizza, ordered " medium-rare, " would work as an appetizer for about four people. All the appetizers at the Elbow Room are large.
My complaint about the roasted-beet salad ($7) was that the beets werenít concentrated enough, and the salad was the sum of its parts: walnuts, goat cheese, frisée, and cubes of beet. Caesar salad ($6) is less than the sum of its parts, a dull romaine salad with cheese and all the anchovy flavor spread on two large toasted croutons.
So, order the mussels, hummus, and calamari, and youíve discovered this great, cheap bistro that serves large portions of good, if familiar, food. Order the pizza, caesar salad, and roast-beet salad, and youíre well fed.
Get to entrées, and the batting average is better, but the cheapest ó the meatloaf ($10) ó is the best. Itís full of flavor, wrapped in bacon for even more, napped with wild-mushroom gravy as contrast, plopped next to very good mashed potatoes, and served with a bonus of garlicky green beans. Pan-roasted chicken breast ($13) is close, and perhaps even better, since it cleverly coats a juicy piece of roast chicken with a maple glaze and pecans, so you think youíre eating roast duck. A nice side of spinach, a nicer side of potatoes Anna, and this could be a signature dish.
I also enjoyed the forthright flavor of pan-roasted sea bass ($13), although I thought the undercooked Brussels sprouts played a lot better than the slightly undercooked cubes of sweet potato. Grilled-Atlantic-salmon fillet is a bigger portion, another very tasty piece of fish, and the platter is stolen by the grilled squash and eggplant from the hummus appetizer.
Seafood fra diavolo ($12) on linguine comes at a terrific price, but everything was cold. The mussels are as good as the appetizer mussels, the squid rings ó though not deep-fried ó are as good as the calamari, and the shrimp are very good, but the tomato sauce lacks the zip of the sauce on the mussels. If a dish is " fra diavolo, " I identify the devil with heat and red pepper. A grilled Cuban sandwich ($8) is a failure of good intentions. The ham is right, the roast pork is close, and the pickle and cheese are fine. But the roll is too good, thereís too much of everything, and itís not buttered and grilled like a real Cuban sandwich. The flavor exchanges in a proper Cuban sandwich are mediated by hot grease. In this overstuffed sandwich of excellent ingredients, you might as well have some chutney. The French fries are very good, and authenticity is not always a problem when youíre paying $8 for dinner. So again, the worst you can do is get filled up, while the best you can do is quite well indeed.
The wine list is more consistent. A bottle of Salena Estateís 1999 " Ellen Landing " Shiraz ($33) is as smooth and aromatic a young Australian shiraz as there ever was. Of course, many of the patrons are more interested in things like Belvedere martinis or beer. But they should stay for dessert. We tried all three, and each was amazing in its own way. The crème brûlée ($5) is amazing for being perfect for the price. The apple crisp ($5) is amazingly large and delicious. Itís more like a giant square of torte than a crisp or cobbler. It comes off in neat chunks or slices, but itís a very good apple whatever, and has the perfect scoop of ice cream with it. The brownie sundae ($5) is amazingly large and chocolaty. This is a brownie on its way to flourless chocolate cake, but served warm and fudgy under another significant scoop of vanilla ice cream.
Service at the Elbow Room was excellent early on a quiet weeknight. Some of our dishes might have been held for others; one senses that the overdone pizza or the cold seafood fra diavolo might not have happened to a table for two instead of our party of six. If so, the flat-out production for a roomful of hungry people ordering lots of everything might actually improve things. It looks like itís going to be a loud restaurant, especially if the students and young professionals in the neighborhood can stand each otherís company. There are lots of both, and the good, plentiful, inexpensive food makes no enemies. The only real problem is that while the Elbow Room is right on the Tís Green B Line, you can hardly park for blocks and blocks.
Robert Nadeau can be reached at RobtNadeau@aol.com