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Impeccable Element Is Lafayette Square's Newest Jewel 

Element's hamburger is served on a brioche bun with cheddar, bacon and egg. See more photos: Element Restaurant Serves Style Atop Lafayette Square

Corey Woodruff

Element's hamburger is served on a brioche bun with cheddar, bacon and egg. See more photos: Element Restaurant Serves Style Atop Lafayette Square

Housed in the newly renovated City Hospital power plant building, Element drips with industrial-inspired luxe. Polished concrete floors greet patrons in the lobby before they are whisked up the elevator to the restaurant and lounge spaces. Bartenders mix predinner craft cocktails at the third-floor bar, a loft space that looks straight out of Esquire. Rich leather couches and exposed brick warm the area, while large windows frame a postcard view of the city skyline. On the west side of the building is a magnificent outdoor terrace, appointed with chic furniture and strung with white lights.

The vibe is carried through into the second-floor restaurant, where bamboo light fixtures and sleek tables surround the centerpiece of the dining room: the open kitchen. Unlike many places whose "open kitchens" offer a mere one-sided peek, Element's sits in the middle of the room, open on three sides. This gives the space a buzzing energy and makes every diner feel as though they're seated at a chef's table.

Restaurants with such an acute attention to design can go one of two ways: Either they focus so much on the way things look that food becomes an afterthought, or they produce dishes that surpass the expectations set by the exquisite setting. Without question, Element falls into the latter category. Really, this should be no surprise. It's captained by executive chef Brian Hardesty, famed for Guerrilla Street Food and Terrene, two pioneering concepts that propelled the reinvention of the St. Louis dining scene. Hardesty isn't the only one responsible for Element's magnificence, though. Instead of the traditional kitchen hierarchy, Hardesty and three other chefs — Jerrid Scholten, Chris DiMercurio and Sam Boettler — work in a flat power structure that allows for creative collaboration.

The result of these efforts is an impeccably executed menu of large and small plates that is imbued with seasonal American rusticism. The dish that best embodies Element's philosophy is the pork-belly small plate, with plums and French prunes providing a sticky-sweet accompaniment to the salty meat. The addition of walnuts gave the plate texture, and a decadent blue cheese mousse dazzled with its rich, earthy tang. I couldn't get over the pork belly itself, however — so soft and creamy, almost spreadable. It was spot-on spectacular.

Eschewing political correctness, we chose the foie gras for our second appetizer. It was seared perfectly, glistening atop a griddled piece of brioche. Dried cherries and Cape gooseberries provided the right amount of sweet tang to cut through the decadence of the liver, while watercress added a touch of refreshment. This was luxury on a plate.

There was nothing "small" about the scallops small plate — I've never seen such monstrous mollusks. They were cooked to the perfect medium-medium rare so as to retain a quivering, buttery texture and plated with pumpkin and mole that gave the dish the autumn-spiced accents of a pumpkin pie. A sprinkling of cocoa nibs and pepitas, or pumpkin seeds, rounded out the plate with a welcome crunch — the folks at Element pay close attention to layering texture.

The large plates were a study in perfection. The short ribs were perhaps the most tender I have ever had, falling apart with just the slightest prodding from the fork. They were dressed in a rich combination of cooking jus and sweet-potato ale, and plated with vibrant Swiss chard and rutabaga, a fun stand-in for the potato. The bone rested next to the ribs on the plate and seemed to emit a charred beefy radiance. It doesn't get much better than this on a cold autumn night.

See more photos: Element Restaurant Serves Style Atop Lafayette Square

I was a little worried when I wasn't asked for a temperature on the duck breast, but I shouldn't have been. Not only was it cooked to a perfect medium rare, but it was also sliced and fanned out, with each piece maintaining the appropriate temperature. On a busy Friday night, the restraint required to rest the duck is impressive. A spiced apple butter paired perfectly, and the accompaniment of duck scrapple was a cool play on the Pennsylvania Dutch staple.

Thinking about it now, I'm almost haunted by the fish stew — so delicate and warm that it was the culinary equivalent of a cashmere blanket. The stock was superbly seasoned and infused with just a whisper of fennel bulb. A few root vegetables and a mild sausage that was evocative of a Spanish andouille filled the dish upon which the expertly seared black bass rested. They cooked the fish skin-on, and I could not get over how it remained crispy, even though it was sitting in a bowl of broth. There are miracle workers here.

There was one dish that didn't wow us — the beet pappardelle pasta. It wasn't bad, just a little one-dimensional, as the almond gremolata eclipsed all other flavors. If they were looking for the pecorino cheese to serve as the salt element, it needed more, as it was a bit underseasoned. Notably, there wasn't much flavor of beet in the pasta, and the choice to present it free-form on a plate rather than in a bowl made the dish get cold very fast.

If the blondie is a gauge of the pastry program at Element, then the chefs are masters of their craft. Although the dessert menu is small (on my visits, they were only offering two selections, plus housemade ice creams), it makes up for in flavor what it is lacking in breadth. The blondie itself was a crunchy, buttery dream, crumbling apart into the caramel sauce that decorated the plate. Served à la mode with housemade pumpkin ice cream, it hit all of the notes one wants with dessert — a little bit sweet, a nice touch of cream and a hint of salty crunch. It was one of those food moments when the entire table goes silent except for the occasional eyes-closed moan.

I was blown away with just about every aspect of Element, in love with it not only for its beauty, but, most importantly, for its substance. This is a table I hope to dine at more than periodically.

See more photos: Element Restaurant Serves Style Atop Lafayette Square

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