Review: Chef Josh Charles Returns Element to the Must-Visit List

Jun 29, 2016 at 6:00 am
Review: Chef Josh Charles Returns Element to the Must-Visit List

Element has a Groupon?

I remember being both flabbergasted and concerned when I received an email informing me of the meal discount last winter. There's nothing wrong with Groupon per se, even if the deal site's heyday was nearly a half-dozen years ago — who doesn't like a bargain? But the fact that a restaurant that had been one of the hottest reservations in town only a year prior was now offering coupons was not a good sign. Clearly, Element had some seats to fill.

My friend confirmed my suspicions. "I could go in there any time on a Friday or Saturday night and get a table without a problem," she said. "It's just not busy anymore."

How times had changed. When it opened in August 2013, Element was at the top of the restaurant food chain. Its concept was unique: Put four chefs in an open kitchen with a flat power structure and watch what happens. Though the arrangement did not technically allow for a head chef, Brian Hardesty served as the team captain, bringing with him the impeccable technique and creative flavors he was known for at Terrene and Guerrilla Street Food.

The modern restaurant, with a sleek third-floor lounge that could have been plucked from the pages of GQ, was an overwhelming success. Critics raved. Diners flocked. And it deserved every bit of the hype.

Then Hardesty left and the buzz died down. Eventually, the concept evolved into a more traditional kitchen hierarchy, with chef Brian Coltrane at the helm until his departure in the summer of 2015. At that point, owners Stacy and Carol Hastie had a choice: Either start offering discounts for the dining room and turn the lounge into a de facto event space, or try to right the ship.

In April, they made their intentions clear when they hired Josh Charles for the executive chef job. If you're unfamiliar with Charles' name, you certainly know his former employer. Until taking the gig with Element, Charles served as chef de cuisine for James Beard-nominated chef Ben Poremba at the acclaimed Elaia and Olio. Originally tapped to be the executive chef for Poremba's new Clayton eatery Parigi, Charles left last fall to pursue other opportunities. A few weeks later, he made it official: He was taking over the kitchen at Element.

Personnel changes rarely necessitate a second review, but the ones at Element are substantial enough to make it worthy of another look. Not only is it an entirely different restaurant than when I last reviewed it, but Charles is such a rising star in the local food scene, I was curious to see what he could accomplish with his first solo venture. Had he been simply the executor of Poremba's vision? Or was he a bona fide culinary talent in his own right?

Element's new menu leaves no doubt that the answer to that second question is "yes." If the restaurant's former incarnation was hearty and rustic, the new Element has a beautiful lightness — like a delicate red Burgundy to the old menu's masculine Left Bank Bordeaux.

Consider the scallop crudo, a dish of cured, thinly sliced scallops that is so effervescent it all but dances in the mouth. Its partner is a refreshing mélange of cilantro, apples and ginger that could not be more appropriate for the searing hot summer.

The burrata is equally dazzling. Dollops of the luscious, cream-filled fresh mozzarella present as a three-dimensional painting, accented with juicy strawberry and fresh mint leaves — as much a feast for the palate as it is for the eyes.

An asparagus salad, tossed with prosciutto, watercress and celery, was liberally dressed in an acerbic vinaigrette that only toned down as you got to the garlic emulsion in the middle of the plate. Conversely, the Brussels sprouts were pleasantly roasty with a crunchy peanut accent. As you dug in toward the bottom of the bowl, however, they became overwhelmed by a salty, soy-based sauce.

These minor missteps barely registered after tasting Charles' fusion-style take on arancini, one of those brilliant new conceptions that makes you wonder why it hasn't been done a thousand times before. Creamy rice balls are mixed with black beans, breaded, fried and placed atop a cloudlike concoction that can only be described as cilantro and lime fluff.

Ribbons of housemade pappardelle, flecked with nettles and tossed in brown butter, would have been interesting enough on their own, but Charles added some pickled fiddleheads gifted to him from a local forager, infusing the dish with an exotic, herbaceous note. A drizzle of ramp oil gave just a whiff of garlicky flavor.

His other pasta dish, gnocchi, was no less successful. Pillows of the miniature potato dumplings were smothered in tomato-braised short ribs that are somewhere between a Sicilian grandma's Sunday sauce and what would happen if a Carolina pitmaster made beef stew. Slices of tart green olives cut through the richness.

Although the menu is primarily small plates, and nothing on the menu was more than $23 on my visits, Element offers a few entrée-sized plates, like tender Colorado lamb chops, cooked to a spot-on medium rare. Yellow curry warms the accompanying cauliflower salad, and couscous adds to the Moroccan feeling.

Duck confit impressed as a study in contradiction — though the underlying meat was so juicy it fell off the bone, the skin remained remarkably crisp. A slice of cinnamon-scented savory bread pudding paired perfectly with the meat.

While the bread pudding played off the duck, a barbecue sauce reminiscent of Heinz 57 covered up the perfectly cooked hanger steak. The sauce would have worked if used more judiciously, but with so much on the plate, it couldn't help but bring to mind the kind of philistine who orders a steak well-done and covers it in ketchup. This steak deserved better.

Charles could have poured a bucket of sauce over my head when I was eating the celery root ravioli, though, and I wouldn't have even noticed. This decadent pasta, topped with sous vide egg yolk, was so rich it would have been overwhelming had it not been stuffed with such an herbaceous filling. The celery root's fresh bite ripped through the decadence, while a dusting of freeze-dried pancetta provided salty crunch. Without question, this is one of the best dishes I have tried this year.

I don't envy any dessert that has to follow such perfection, but the duck fat brownie proved up for the challenge. The dense, fudge square had been fried in duck fat for a savory, nutty taste — and it proved shockingly good. Charles' take on the St. Louis staple gooey butter cake was equally impressive. Instead of the dense sugar and butter bomb you may be used to, this version was brightened with lemon and had a light, fluffy texture. His version could give some of the city's gooey butter mainstays a run for their money.

But it's not just local bakeries that should take notice of Charles. In just a few short months, this up-and-comer has placed Element squarely back in the upper echelon of the St. Louis dining scene. If he keeps cooking food this impeccable, the restaurant won't need to worry about bringing people in — instead, they'll have to figure out a way to provide extra seating.

click to enlarge Beets with romanesco, cucumber and pine nuts. - PHOTO BY MABEL SUEN
Beets with romanesco, cucumber and pine nuts.

Turn the page for more photos of Element.