403 West 43rd Street, New York NY 10036 (at Ninth Avenue; map); 212-315-2121; elsewherenyc.com
Service: Friendly and well-trained, if not quite polished
Setting: Airy, light-filled, exceedingly pleasant space that feels miles away from Times Square
Must-Haves: Bacon popcorn, octopus salad, Dutch Baby
Cost: Apps $8-15, entrees $17-30
Grade: B; some outstanding dishes, some less so. (At least an A-, as a Theater District option.)
As many times as I'm asked where to eat a pre-theater dinner that won't cost a fortune, a good answer often eludes me. There's Esca, say, Dave Pasternack's superlative seafood restaurant; but I can't pretend it's a particularly affordable dinner, remarkable though it may be. There are any number of Thai or Afghan or, well, Druse Israeli places up and down Ninth Avenue, but they're often more casual than an out-of-town visitor wants before a Broadway show. The holy grail is a comfortable, neighborhood-y restaurant that won't empty your wallet; not cramped or tacky, with a menu broad enough to please anyone but interesting enough to please those looking for something exciting from their one city meal.
And while Elsewhere, the new restaurant from the folks behind excellent Hell's Kitchen wine-and-cheese bar Casellula, isn't perfect, it's more than good enough to become my new recommendation. That's not a blanket endorsement of its menu, which ranges from excellent to confusing, though a quite a bit is genuinely delicious. But an enjoyable menu combined with friendly service, an extensive wine list, and a sunny, spacious interior that feels light years from Times Square—that's a restaurant worth remembering.
Earlier this year, Brian Keyser, owner of Casellula, took over the 43rd Street space from the former Le Madeleine, bringing Casellula chef Megan Johnson with him. Elsewhere's menu has the same sense of whimsy as their wine bar, though, as a full-fledged restaurant, a much more expansive scope. Casellula has a great sense of what a limited menu can do; it's tightly focused around dishes that are craveable, the kind of thing a person comes back for. And several of Elsewhere's plates hit exactly that mark.
It's little surprise, then, that some of the best dishes are in the "Snacks" section of the menu. Bacon Butter Popcorn ($5) was a no-brainer of an order, and was as good as it sounded; every bite was laced in bacon flavor, amped up by a crumble of Maldon sea salt; yet despite the bacon drenching, it didn't seem greasy in the slightest. Lavender is a tricky ingredient to work with, but Lavender-Rosemary Popcorn ($5) had enough of the latter to play up the flower's herbal aspects; it was elusively floral, predominantly herbal, not soapy or perfumey. Both in generous bowls, we'd order either again in a minute.
The cheese selection is put together by Casellula fromager Dimitri Saad, so it's little surprise that its service is taken very seriously—presented with obvious detail to style, temperature, and condiment pairing. From their entirely domestic (and largely local) list, we particularly enjoyed the appealingly funky, scoopable raw cow's milk Winnemere (with a beer-washed bark) from Vermont's Jasper Hill Cellars, paired with wine cherries; and the Ascutney Mountain from the same state's Cobb Hill Cheese, whose sweet, nutty notes were a brilliant pairing with pecan brittle.
Biscuits with Brown Butter and Crushed Black Pepper ($5) weren't the flaky, crumbly-edged sort of biscuits we expected; nonetheless, as a bready starter, no complaints. They were yeasty and buttery, but in the best of ways, the bottoms almost saturated in brown butter—and that's a good thing. And while we spent awhile trying to decide just what they meant by Ménage-à-Trois ($10; is it because there are three dates? three elements in them?), there was nothing we doubted about how good the stuffed dates were, with a salty pancetta and an aggressively funky Roaring Forties Blue that countered the jammy stickiness of the dates. Make sure you get it all in one bite.
The appetizer menu read equally well, though the results varied wildly. The Grilled Octopus Salad with fennel, spinach, avocado, orange, and a dill mustard vinaigrette ($13) nailed the hardest part of a good octopus dish; namely, the octopus. Here, it's both tender and charred in a way that many versions don't achieve. And it's an enormous salad; a small meal in itself. We loved the fennel and the buttery avocado, but in the end, there may have been a few too many elements here; we wanted a little more acid in the dressing, rather than from the lonely-looking orange slices on the side.
Still, we'd order it again, unlike the Bay Scallops with celery root puree and fava beans ($13). Yes, bay scallops are an expensive ingredient, but four tiny dots on the plate border on silly; moreover, with so few of them, one expects them to be perfectly prepared, and these were a bit chewy—not the tender, delicate creatures they can be. We enjoyed the other elements on the plate, particularly an earthy, smooth celery root puree, but when the scallops didn't go right, the dish didn't do it for us. We also wanted a little more from the Duck Confit Rillette with Pickled Miso Eggs and Toast ($11); which was a bit dry, without the silky, indulgent fattiness we want from our duck.
Of the entrees, we enjoyed the Chorizo-Encrusted Pork Chop ($24), particularly given the Flinstonian portion; the edges were the best, where fat meets meat; the vinegary sauce livens up the less exciting interior. It's a much better bet than the Large Raviolo with ricotta, ramp pesto and pistachio oil ($22), which sounded excellent on the menu but didn't come together; pasta not quite delicate, ricotta undersalted, pesto almost inedibly salted.
Then there's the Roasted Bone Marrow with French fries ($17), a dish that's already gotten a lot of talk. The slippery-soft marrow itself is as good as it should be, particularly the edges; we were dying for some bread to spread it on, though. The skin-on fries themselves were excellent, deliciously crisp and salty, but add another salty, fatty element and it's all a bit overwhelming. (It's also impossible to imagine eating the whole plate.) If anything, we'd recommend getting it as an appetizer for four or more to share; bone marrow is a good thing, but this level is daunting—unless you are of much stronger resolution than we.
The 5-Spoke Tumbleweed Poutine ($14) also featured those fries, though poutine seemed a bit of a stretch; they weren't as gravy-soaked or melty-curded as that name would imply. They're great as cheese fries, and the Tumbleweed from New York's 5 Spoke Creamery is excellent, somewhere between a Cheddar and something softer, certainly creamy when melted; that said, any subtlety in its flavor is somewhat lost in the (delicious) savory mass of gravy and fries. Get a particularly cheesey bite, though, and you'll be quite happy.
Pastry Chef Leigh Friend's desserts were a highlight as they are Casellula, and they're similarly enticing at Elsewhere, walking a nice line of homey and sophisticated. We loved a Chocolate Bourbon Icebox Cake ($8); its lightness is remarkable, the fork sliding right through layers of cake and icing, pairing nicely with a bourbon vanilla ice cream and a swipe of intense chocolate ganache across the plate. It's not quite Casellula's cream-drenched chocolate cake, but nothing is, really. The star of this dessert menu would have to be the Dutch Baby ($10), a skillet-baked pancake that's eggy and delicate with a great outside crisp, served so hot it's steaming in the middle, melting the freshly whipped cream so that it soakes into every squishy pour; with an apple compote, it's somewhat autumnal, somewhat breakfast-reminiscient, but absolutely good enough to enjoy any time of day or year.
And as good as some of the snacks and desserts, in particular, are, it'd be unfair to discount the place itself—the central enclosed sunlit garden, a tree stretching up through it; the airy, light-filled interior; the affable, charming servers. There's certainly enough we liked on the menu to recommend Elsewhere as a restaurant. But as a pleasant place to dine in the often exceedingly unpleasant world of Times Square, we'd recommend it ten times over.