Wednesday, February 14, 2001

Essential elegance

Posted By on Wed, Feb 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM

In planning the menu for Essence, executive chef Mike Trombley says he tried to create dishes that couldn't be found elsewhere. To illustrate, he mentioned an appetizer called "Pillows of Smoked Salmon."

We tried it that night, and it was delicious. Thin slices of smoky salmon were wrapped around Boursin cheese. Served with slivers of red onion and baby greens with a sharp citron sauce dotted with capers, it was a notched-up version of lox and cream cheese.

Trombley says: "We're trying to be upscale, but not too upscale. We don't want to be stuffy."

With a menu pared down to 14 entrées, Essence has a spare but lavish approach to dining. Fresh seasonal ingredients are used, and Trombley prefers to do things "the old way, producing just about everything in-house." This includes butchering his own beef.

In keeping with this philosophy, the dining room is simple but nicely appointed with white linens and oversized wine glasses. A fireplace makes it a cozy place to sit on a winter night, even though the view is of a parking lot.

The waitstaff is casually elegant with black vests and butchers' aprons, and the service is finely tuned. I eavesdropped as a couple presented the waitperson with what sounded like a simple problem: an allergy to wine and vinegar. The server made numerous trips to the kitchen trying to find a salad prepared without vinegar, to no avail. Finally she suggested the lobster bisque, but had to take it back when one of the chefs mentioned that there might be wine in the stock. (A shame, it was wonderful.)

"Surprisingly, rice-wine vinegar doesn't bother her!" the male half of the couple said brightly at the conclusion of this exercise. Here's hoping they left a big tip.

It is worth noting that the entrées aren't overwhelmed by accessories. The stuffed beef tenderloin ($30), case in point, was filled with wild mushrooms (we'll have to take the restaurant's word as the fungi were minced past recognition) and served in a reduced Cabernet with green beans and potatoes (very) subtly flavored with chevre.

Pan-seared scallops was another dish that worked well. The scallops were big and succulent, served with braised savoy cabbage and leeks, nicely accented by walnuts and accompanied by basmati rice.

On another evening, our party ordered three of the four pasta dishes ($16-$20). Mine included shrimp and scallops, but I found the lemon-pepper linguine overwhelmed by a plethora of sun-dried tomatoes.

An order of beef tenderloin with fusilli was complemented by bacon crumbles, but my friend did not like the beefy sauce.

Our favorite was roasted chicken with angel hair pasta, which was simply dressed with olive oil, lemon and garlic, with the addition of barely cooked spinach. The shards of chicken really did seem to come from a roast chicken, as there was a flavorful mix of dark and white meat.

The front room at Essence is dominated by a bar, where high-top tables that look out on the picturesque street are available for diners. As we walked by, my co-diner noted a cooking show on the TV; must be a different kind of bar crowd.

The specialty is martinis; 41 varieties are served, many far removed from a simple gin and vermouth. The wine list is impressive, with a good selection available by the glass. On Wednesdays and weekends, there is live music.

Elissa Karg dines for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

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