Food With a Funny Bone
American classics with a twist that’s the theme at The Elbow Room in West Hartford. The logo on the menu shows a picture-book house whose sides are a little askew and sort of rhomboid, the idea being perhaps that the comfort foods of home are what you’ll find, if a little off kilter. That was the sense that Lisa and I had when we stopped into the bustling Restaurants Rancho Mirage. That’s pretty much what we found too. The Elbow Room does a better job of not messing up the old familiar favorites than many other places tinkering with the Classic American style. In fact, the secret seems to be to pretend like you are fiddling with Betty Crocker and Fanny Farmer’s turf but to simply serve good solid American favorites. No, you don’t need to throw any chipotle in my mac and cheese, but thanks. That’s not to say that The Elbow Room toes the no-nonsense line completely — the chefs break out the goat cheese and the balsamic vinegar glaze when the spirit moves them. But The Elbow Room sticks to the pleasing regularity of the meat-and-potatoes meal.
Straightaway, Lisa and I ordered the fried oysters, and arugula salad and a pair of Stella Artois on draft. A roasted beet and goat cheese salad also looked nice. While we drank our drafts, I noticed that I felt a draft. But if our seats were a tad nippy, the atmosphere was warm. The medium light inside The Elbow Room is inviting. Inside there are tilted mirrors hanging off the walls, providing infinite reflections for people-watching, and lopsided shapes give character to the little nooks. Model helicopters and airplanes hang from the ceiling in the larger area toward the front. For two-person dining, there are a series of small stalls along one wall, with thin partitions adding a sense of privacy but reducing the sense of space.
Our oysters were served with a stainless steel ramekin of mild remoulade sauce. There were five fried oysters and a faux-folksy folded wax paper bag. The oysters were fried with an expert’s touch an outer crispness giving way to a little substance, then to the almost nonexistent resilience of the oyster. The oysters were served beside a small mixed green salad tossed with a lemony dressing.
With the arugula salad, our waiter was kind enough to split the whole onto two plates, each still pretty big. The salad was basically arugula, walnuts, and a warmed cheese dressing that the menu called a “goat cheese fondue.” It was simple and good. The nutty flavor of the arugula was well matched with the robust goat cheese.
We were debating the merits of trying steak gorgonzola cheese and pears, or a grilled striped sea bass on a scallion and potato pancake, among other things, but, in the context, we decided to exercise a little restraint. Lisa ordered “TV dinner” with meat loaf, and I chose the cornmeal encrusted roasted chicken.
Lisa’s dinner was more like an elegant Japanese bento box than a dinky tin foil tray. The TV dinner came served on a handsome lacquer platter, with separate little partitions for each item. There was a slab of meat loaf, a drop biscuit flecked with cheese, a moist cube of dark gingerbread topped with real whipped cream, some sauteed green beans, and mashed potatoes. This was a full meal. Some in the make-it-new camp get carried away with meat loaf, doctoring it up with roasted peppers and pine nuts, but the meat loaf at The Elbow Room didn’t flaunt its components. It was firm and short on filler, with a hint of what tasted like sage. Read more
The chicken was steaming hot, right out of the roasting pan. Two golden boned breasts, leaned against each other on top of a base of mashed potatoes, with a layer of peas and red peppers between. The chicken was tender, with the cornmeal crust adding an earthy flavor, and the mashed potatoes were creamy but not without substance. This too was a significant portion.