There’s nothing “on trend” about The Elephant. There aren’t any made-to-look-old Edison bulbs (well, I did spy one in an old chandelier, but I’m pretty sure it’s original), repurposed barn wood, or dolled-up plates of Korean-fried chicken. But what they do have—despite prices that give some sticker shock—is something that will never go out of style: dinner served in an opulent space, by a doting staff, in a hushed tone that’s reminiscent of another era of dining. At a time when casual is all the rage and grabbing a sandwich and a cocktail at a food hall is considered the thing to do, a visit to The Elephant feels special.
Once home to the fabled Brass Elephant, the building’s new owners Linda Brown Rivelis and Steve Rivelis (they were married there in the ‘80s) spent 18 months fixing up the space and giving it a classic makeover; modernizing some things like the kitchen and adding a swank downstairs bar, while allowing the original features—Tiffany windows, a 30-foot marble bar upstairs, and the highly Instagrammable crystal chandeliers, to name a few—to figuratively and literally shine. It’s almost as if you’re eating dinner in the Walters Art Museum. There’s nothing else like it in Baltimore. Period. This is a place you’ll want to bring someone you really want to talk to, because there’s a feeling of intimacy here that invites good conversation.
The menu, meanwhile, is expansive though confusing. Inspired by Linda’s 60-day trip around the world, the style of food is all over the place. There’s a starters section with a slew of seemingly random assortments of small plates, a separate seafood section even though there’s seafood in every other section, and dishes that range from flatbreads and wood-stove cooked main dishes to pad thai, pastas, and additional entrees dubbed “Singles.” Overall it made for difficult navigation and, more importantly, a challenge to understand the kitchen’s identity. It would benefit them to pare down the menu and focus on what they do well instead of trying to be everything to everyone.
But executive chef Andy Thomas (formerly of Donna’s Café in Charles Village) does right by most of the options. After enjoying the complimentary house-made bread (that honey and cinnamon butter with gray sea salt needs to be packaged and sold) as a starter, I dug into a series of additional appetizers.
The ancho chile sherry-braised octopus ($16) starter remains a stunner (City Paper named it one of 2016’s top dishes) with its spicy sauce and impossibly tender tentacles. And the raw tuna carpaccio ($15), topped with black caviar and pomegranate seeds, was a lesson on contrasting textures, with the caviar adding a indulgent, salty kick.
A flatbread topped with mozzarella, black truffle shavings, and a fried egg ($20) had a nice, crisp crust—an upgrade from what I had during their soft opening, which <FZ,1,0,23>was neither flat nor good—and shows the kitchen’s willingness to make adjustments. I liked the concept of pumpkin fritters ($10), because hell yes fried things, but they could have used a bit more sweetness and overall flavor.
Of the entrees I tried, you’d be happy ordering either the seared scallops ($34) or the duck breast ($27)—they were both winners. The first—five medium-sized scallops laid atop a root vegetable puree, with wedges of blood orange draped along the side, all finished with a lush beurre blanc—brought out a good balance of sweetness from the scallops, buttery richness from the sauce, and a hit of acid from the citrus. The duck breast was served a spot-on pink medium-rare (at the chef’s recommendation) with a side of fried rice that had salty pieces of duck bacon (more the size of lardons than bacon) mixed in with a zesty, green chimichurri sauce.
The lobster carbonara ($32) didn’t quite hit the mark—too creamy and the lobster too sparse. Given the price, I shouldn’t have been asking myself, “Is this a piece of lobster or not?” It should have been the shining ingredient of the dish, but it was not.
Thankfully, the Elephant’s drinks list helped dampen the blow on the few misses that came out of the kitchen. A concise menu of wines by the glass (a bottle list is also available), a handful of local draft beers, and an accessible list of cocktails made options much easier to grasp than the food menu. The Lockwood ($12), a combination of rye, cognac, and Cynar, was the sure-fire standout.
Desserts are made in-house by pastry chef Suzanne Haug, and while the sweet potato beignets ($9) were comfort on a plate, the real hit was the peanut butter ice cream that came in the sundae ($9). Our server, who did a stellar job of guiding us through the entire menu, excitedly explained that it’s made every day, and the next time I go back I’ll definitely be ordering scoops of it on its own.
I’d go back much more often were the prices not so excessively high. Over two visits, my dining companion and I spent almost $300 before tip, and I couldn’t get over an order of mussels and frites that were marked at $30 (at other places in the city they’re around $20 or less). Most entrees hover in the mid-thirties, and while I enjoyed most of what I ate, I couldn’t help but think that the execution didn’t nearly live up to those price points.
Hopefully they’ll figure that out, because if they’re willing to tighten things up a bit, the Elephant has all the components to be another Baltimore classic.