Pork with watermelon, fried okra, and grits
Pork with watermelon, fried okra, and grits Credit: Alison Green

If you chose to dwell on it, the rock-meets-church decor of celebrichef Graham Elliot’s third spot, Graham Elliot Bistro, could be just as distracting as the television-and-Twitter persona of its founder. There’s a Marshall stack host stand, menus taped to discount-bin LPs, and votive candles that pay equal homage to Grant Achatz and Eddie Vedder, Julia Child and Henry Rollins. Not enough people are weary of a chef who cultivates overearnest associations with rock and roll as a branding strategy when all he really needs to do is cook something good—or direct his cooks to. Branding is Elliot’s job today, and it brings people into his restaurants.

The name of the guy in charge of the cooking at Graham Elliot Bistro isn’t even on the restaurant’s website—though it is on the menu. Jacob Saben is a four-year veteran of the G.E. organization, and you haven’t heard much about him because until recently you never heard much about any of the talent behind Elliot’s name (though plenty have gone on to make names for themselves elsewhere). Saben is given the task of presenting an ultimately straightforward menu of appetizers, pastas, and entrees supposedly incorporating no more than three ingredients each (an allusion to rock-and-roll chord progressions?). The idea is to “focus on technique, the craft of cooking . . . not artistry.” That’s in contrast to the more manipulated food now being served at the flagship (currently helmed by Andrew Brochu), and the highly manipulated food Elliot made his name with at Avenues.

Dishes are listed on the vinyl in terse three-word formulas. This reinforces the claim of simplicity, and it’s a conceit that attempts to set high expectations by diminishing all expectations. That works best in modernist fine dining situations where the chef is trying to challenge diners’ assumptions about what they’re eating—as was the case at Avenues when Elliot first rose to prominence. But I’m not so sure it builds a sense of surprise with uncomplicated things like fried calamari, skirt steak, and risotto.

Wait, so there’s only three ingredients in the “pork + watermelon + okra”? That’s nonsense, of course, and while the plate’s presentation is necessarily straightforward—coins of dense pork tenderloin strewn with cubes of luminous red fruit, creamy grits, dollops of chimichurri, and breaded and deep-fried okra—it’s a good entree, every element executed well and in balance with the others. The dish typifies much of what’s on Saben’s menu: a lemony mussel and pea shoot risotto, a thick tangle of vivid green linguine with plump little clams, a cool shrimp and avocado salad with tangy, creamy dressing garnished with Thai basil.

These dishes were so buoyant and springlike (in July) that they’re hard to reconcile with a couple of terrific flops, such as oversalted shaved asparagus with a diced hard-cooked egg whose deconstruction is among the most radical (and difficult to eat) presentations on the menu.

And of all the disappointments you can suffer when eating in an expensive restaurant, none is more sorry than biting into a terrible tomato. That’s particularly true in midsummer, when you’re beholding a beautiful bowl of heirloom wedges, shapely, bulbous, spanning all colors of the spectrum, drizzled with a cool, creamy, barely clotted fresh cheese—and you bite into a particularly pretty one and it tastes like a swollen bath sponge. I don’t know where Saben was ordering tomatoes. By the time you read this, they could be excellent. But two weeks ago it was too early in the season to be serving those tomatoes.

These missteps were exceptions, however. The calamari I mentioned? They’re marinated in buttermilk, encased in breading that’s almost feathery crisp, and served with a sriracha-like smoked-paprika ketchup. These were among the most tender renditions of this notoriously rubbery creature I’d ever encountered. There’s a square of lasagna; sheets of tissuey pasta folded over oxtail and topped with ratatouille and ricotta—more of a free-form pasta dish than a constructed lasagna, but it hardly matters. A couple of whole fried sardines are brightened with agrodolce and sprinkled with sourdough croutons, their disarticulated spines crisp and crunchy. Someone should bag these like potato chips.

It all adds up to a majority of solidly prepared dishes, and it’s hard to fault even some of the less exciting ones, such a trout fillet with dry green sorrel spaetzle and mushrooms that needed some kind of sauce to help it go down, or a grass-fed skirt steak that was lean and beefy but not distinctive enough to stand up to a simple bearnaise sauce. That makes the cost, which tops out in the low $20s for entrees, a little hard to swallow, particularly when accounting for $12 cocktails that miss just as often as they hit. There are some nicely challenging sippers—the Sarawak sling, made from mildly sweet Old Tom gin and garnished with smoked pineapple, to name one. But a tiki-like rum and coconut riff, Ghostface-Killa, tastes like iced suntan lotion.

Desserts can also be hit-or-miss: a handful of sugar-dusted chocolate-hazelnut-stuffed beignets is dry and forgettable, while a terrific corn cake topped with blueberry ice cream—with fresh berries and corn cascading off its sides—is an of-the-moment dish that will at least briefly wipe away any memories of premature tomatoes.

Another of G.E.B.’s stated goals is to highlight “the relationship between food, music, spirituality.” Oh well, whatever, never mind; on the occasions I visited, most of the crowd eschewed the darkened dining room and one of the most entertainingly in-your-face open kitchens I’ve come across for the front and rear patios. If patrons preferred the company of neighboring condo dwellers grilling in the alley to G.E.B.’s votive candles and the three-chord soundtrack inside, it’s surely more a consequence of the summer season than a reflection on the figurehead’s overreaching affectations. Or is it?