Taking In The Rich Fare, Spirits, and Vibe of the Smoke-Free Tusk Lounge
This location is closed
When the Brass Elephant opened 25 years ago, the idea of fine dining in informal surroundings barely existed. Now, going to the Brass Elephant feels comparatively effortful, like something you have to think about. Located in an outrageously opulent Mount Vernon townhouse, the Brass Elephant can feel intimidating on a busy night and Twin Peaks-y on a slow one. It’s still breathtakingly beautiful, because it has been impressively kept up and tended to over the years.
The folks who run the Brass Elephant are well-regarded industry pros who aren’t giving up without a fight. They’ve introduced a $35 chef’s tasting menu, available on weeknights, to lure in dollar-conscious diners. (Various staff members gave out conflicting information about the tasting menu’s availability.) And still, always, is the second-floor Tusk Lounge, a smoke-free series of well-furnished rooms where Edith Wharton characters might gather to plot their revenge. The tasting menu is not available in the lounge, which is too bad, because it has potential to be the ideal gateway experience for the restaurant at large
The Tusk Lounge menu itself feels like a miscalculation. About half the items are reduced presentations of regular-menu items (both menus are available), and the other half is lounge-only fare. Too often, though, the lounge-act execution comes across as second-rate, and meeting the Brass Elephant’s food here for the first time doesn’t do the house any favors. The grilled hanger steak ($12, $26 in the dining room) is served weirdly, in a soup bowl, with a shredded potato cake and Swiss chard. Not much meat is expected for $12 and not much was given, but cutting into the doggie-bite-sized pieces made it look cheap. That potato cake, flavored with caramelized onions and smoked Gouda, is gorgeously tasty, but the chard was just cooked and put on the plate. All of the ingredients in a shellfish risotto ($15, lounge only) produced fresh, buttery notes, but the monochromatic composition was a problem. The shrimp and crabmeat looked tired sitting on pale white rice. A sprinkling of parsley would have helped immensely.
The printed lounge menu was far too reticent about its house pâté ($7), coarse slices of a duck- and goose-liver concoction, the oddly sweet taste of which turned out to be dried cranberries--something you’d want to be warned about. Bright dabs of tomato jam and grainy mustard helped, but the whole thing was sabotaged by a defeated mesclun mix and discolored and raggedy endive leaves. A lounge-only crab cake ($15) suffered from a clumsy presentation, too, a decently sized cake perched on the side of a nearly same-colored cake of corn-bread pudding. The crab cake was underseasoned, and the bread pudding completely flavorless and dry.
Color blindness hobbled a calamari appetizer ($8), too. Homemade tortilla chips were layered with sesame flour-dusted squid, which made the portion look more generous than it was while adding no complementary color or essential flavor. Too bad, because the calamari itself was well done, nicely matched with a roasted jalapeńo-honey aioli.
A cider-braised rabbit ($7) is truly special, its tender and juicy meat mixed with mushrooms and Gala apples and placed in the hollow of a slice of roasted acorn squash. Every bite crackled with the possibilities of a beautiful fall, and it showcased real potential for drama and precision from this kitchen. Ditto the roasted cauliflower soup ($7), garnished with crispy prosciutto, its flavors revealing themselves slowly, growing in intensity spoonful by spoonful, until the essence of pure cauliflower is present. A Caesar salad ($8) was nearly perfect, its crisp romaine leaves evenly coated with an impressively garlicky dressing and garnished with a specimen white anchovy. Only the redundancy of croutons and a fried crisp detracted from it.
The best Tusk Lounge discovery is its burger ($8)--seasoned meat topped with a choice of cheddar, Swiss, or blue cheese. Onion on top gets chopped rather than sliced, the roll gets toasted, and the accompanying hand-cut fries are warm and real.
The mood in the Tusk Lounge depends on who’s tending it. On one visit lights were dimmed, candles were lit, and a real pride of place came through. The menu can work much better, though--perhaps, start with the burger and build out.