Our fascination with new and shiny things starts at a young age. Like Ralphie going for the elusive Red Ryder BB Gun, or when we were kids we had to have that new, cool thing like the Easy Bake Oven or an RC Monster Truck. Well, some things never change: we still can’t help ourselves…but now, instead of toys, it’s new, fancy restaurants.
This time around, the new, fancy restaurant was Primary Food & Drink by Chef Graham Elliot, owner of Graham Elliot Bistro and the now-closed Graham Elliot in Chicago, and judge on MasterChef. As we shared with you back in December, Elliot took over Thataway Cafe in Greenwich and gave the culinary reins to his long time Director of Operations, Executive Chef Merlin Verrier. Needless to say, we loved the idea behind Primary: creative culinary spins on classic American dishes.
Well, we finally had our chance to get our hands on their new, fancy food and brought along our friends Mike and Kelley (who came with us to Nola, also). We met them at the bar on a snowy night (parking and the roads sucked) and Kelley had already ordered Primary’s version of a Toddy, which had Kelley OMG’ng all over the place. A few minutes past our reservation, the hostess came over and told Mike that the table was ready and that we’d need to be seated right away and get started because the restaurant was fully booked the entire night so they’d need the table. That attitude set the mood off a little negatively, but the rest of the staff seemed friendly so we brushed it off as just a rude hostess.
The cocktails, priced at $14 each, looked great, so we weren’t sure what to try first. We finally decided, though, and Kristien went with the Escape Route: Alipus San Juan del Rio Mezcal, cinnamon simple syrup, fresh cherries, Fonseca Ruby Port, and Angostura bitters. The mezcal really came through with the drink, but it wasn’t too overwhelming and actually went down pretty easily. It wasn’t too sweet despite the cherries, syrup and port. Dan and Mike both had the Road to Manhattan, a cocktail with Persimmon infused bourbon, maple syrup, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, cloves, and fresh lemon juice. Like Kristien’s drink, it was well-balanced, and wasn’t too sweet. The drink was very warming on a cold winter night and had a great, orange/zesty finish. Also, it’s worth noting that they had four local brews on tap including Half Full Bright Ale, Ithaca Flower Power, Captain Lawrence Winter Ale, and the Brooklyn Lager as well as a good variety of bottles and cans. In addition, they have a decent selection of wine by the glass and bottle.
Raw, Warm, and Cold
The top section of the menu highlights small plates, so we decided to try the dishes that stood out to us the most. While noming on the tasty Parmesan and Chives popcorn given to us at the table, we put our orders in for the Deconstructed Caesar salad, the Steak Tartare, the Cheddar Risotto, and the Toasted Gnocchi. All four dishes arrived at the same time, so we dug in. First we tried the Toasted Gnocchi which was perfectly crispy on the outside, but oh so delicate and silky on the inside because of the ricotta. The foraged mushrooms added a nice earthiness to the dish and the brown butter sauce brought in a slight, warm sweetness.
Next up is what we were most excited about: the Deconstructed Caesar that comes with a brioche twinkie. Well, ladies and gents, it was everything that we had dreamed of and more. The brioche was buttery, light, and crispy on the inside, then filled with a beautifully rich marscapone cheese. This played off of the Gem lettuce very well when you took a bite of each, just as if it was a crouton. And, the dressing was perfect with just the right amount of saltiness and the perfect thickness. Even the Spanish anchovies on top weren’t bad, adding that nice fishy/saltiness to the dish that you come to expect from a classic Caesar salad.
So, while the last dish was the stuff of dreams, the Steak Tartare was on the opposite end of the spectrum. Yes, the steak seemed fresh, but the dish as a whole simply did not work. The main reason is that there wasn’t any hint of seasoning at all (though on the menu it says there is creamy Dijon and cracked peppercorn). Instead, all you got was the taste of beef which became very overwhelming after two bites. The quail eggs on top did add a bit to the dish, but they were so small that you couldn’t have it with more than two bites of the tartare. Sad to say, but this was definitely the worst tartare that we’ve ever had.
And then there was the Cheddar Risotto, playfully topped with some Cheez-Its (yes, you read that right). The risotto itself was rich, cheesy, and was even more delicious because of nice chunks of smoky bacon. Also, there was a nice crisp and bright flavor that came out from thin slivers of green apple. But, we were disappointed to see that the rice was underdone, making each grain a bit too chewy and not fully enjoyable. Kristien also felt it was a bit too salty.
Foie Gras Lollipops
While you can’t find these on the menu, you might be treated to these like we were by Chef Verrier. The foie gras was delicate, silky, a bit salty and melted right on your tongue. The fun part? The layer of Pop Rocks around the foie gras lollipop was very fun and very creative. It’s definitely not for everyone, but if you keep an open mind, it was actually interestingly good.
This playfulness and creativity is definitely a strength of the menu overall, although at times we found that the complexity of dishes actually made it a weakness…which brings us to Entrees.
Divided into Sea, Land, and Sides, this part of the menu brings you the bigger portions. Based on the waiter’s recommendation, Dan ordered the Scottish Salmon that came with organic freekah, Brussels Sprouts, d’Anjou pear, and grainy mustard. Starting off, the salmon was delicate and moist. Our waiter had suggested to order it Medium Rare because that is what Chef Verrier recommends. Never one to argue, Dan ordered it that way, though it came out closer to Medium, maybe even Medium Well. Still, it tasted great, especially with all the complements to the dish like the rice-like freekah cereal and the fried crispy Brussels sprouts leaves. The grainy mustard also added a nice contrast to the textures going on in the dish, though the salmon was covered in it. And, the pear added just a little bit of fruitiness to balance out the earthiness of the freekah.
Kristien always finds it hard to resist lamb when she sees it on the menu, so you better believe she ordered the Moroccan Lamb. Starting off, Kristien really enjoyed the rich and exotic flavors of this dish, balancing out the yogurt curry and sweetness from the orange gremolata. And, while the lamb tasted great from the spices and sauces in the dish, it was very overcooked and dried out…you might even say ropy. The chickpeas underneath the lamb were lemony and a bit sweet, but were too undercooked, giving you that grainy/powdery texture when you bit down. Finally, all of it was topped with dried out and overcooked eggplant fries, making this a dish with lots of potential, but sadly disappointing.
We all shared a dish of Brussels sprouts, too, which came out almost yellow in color. I guess we’re spoiled in terms of ordering Brussels sprouts and getting amazing variations because we were disappointed in how simple these were. They were just boiled and seared a bit. Nothing else. Decent? As Brussels sprouts are, yes. Great? Certainly not. Both Kelley and Mike, though, were happy with their dishes: Beef Stroganoff and the Berkshire Pork Chop that Dan had his eyes on.
We couldn’t decide which desserts to get, so we just decided to order all four. Yeah, that’s how we roll. First up was the Crème Brûlée that came with caramelized banana and was made with Jamaican rum and muscovado sugar. The Crème Brûlée had a great consistency, the Crème Anglaise added a nice touch, and the delicious crunchy granola/brittle-like bits added a great contrast to the silkiness of the dish.
Then there was the carrot cake which was, arguably, one of the best slices that we’ve ever had. It was moist and full of flavor, pairing nicely with pineapple roe and crunchy and beautiful walnut brittle. All of this was served with a Neuchâtel gelato that was creamy, silky, and added a nice fatty balance to the flavors of the carrot cake.
We also had the Chocolate Quartet which wasn’t really a visually appealing dessert. The four portions of this dish were a chocolate doughnut, chocolate cream, chocolate mousse, and chocolate ganache. While the chocolate cream, mousse, and ganache were good, the chocolate donut was incredibly disappointing. In fact, because it was so salty, it dulled the other flavors. This was everyone’s least favorite dessert and we agreed that we wouldn’t order it again.
Finally, we had the Mixed Berries which had piles of lavender shortcake, and was made with green cardamom, blueberry compote, and raspberry curd. Again, like the Chocolate Quartet, this dish seemed to be a mess and appeared to be crudely put together. The flavors, though, were spot on. Starting off, the raspberry curds were in the form of thin flakes that burst with flavor and melted away on your tongue. And, how can you really go wrong with sweet blueberries? We thought that the lavender cake was great because it was moist and that distinct flavor was very nicely balanced. Finishing things up, the cream cheese gelato that came with this was a great choice, adding a richness and making the berry flavors on the dish come alive.
We were excited to talk with Chef Verrier about Primary Food & Drink right before they opened and from what he told us, we imagined a beautiful present for Greenwich. What, with the guidance of twice-Michelin-starred Graham Elliot and Chef Verrier cooking, it would seem like an instant mark of success. Some of the dishes we had definitely illustrated the brilliance we expected from this dynamic duo. But, when you look at the experience holistically, we left with a bad taste in our mouths. It started with the hostess rushing us along, continued with disappointing dishes like the beef tartare, cheddar risotto, lamb, and the chocolate quartet, then ended when we got the bill. Now, while we have no problem paying lots of money for a great meal, paying in excess of $120 per person for so-so food left us borderline angry. We all agreed that we’d probably not come back to Primary again.
So much for that fancy schmancy shiny gift waiting for us and all of Greenwich…unfortunately, you can’t return this gift.
Primary Food & Drink
Address: 409 Greenwich Avenue
Phone: (203) 861-2400