Health officials often cite oversized restaurant portions as one of many factors contributing to the oversize waistlines of American adults. Well, Elements Café, the small-plates restaurant in Haddon Heights, is here to help.
Originated in Spain, tapas, or small plate-cuisine, had begun to gain traction, mostly in major American cities, by the time Elements’ Fred Kellermann opened his own place in 2003.
“Most chefs envision this very glamorous, tasting-style restaurant you find in New York or Washington or Chicago, where you send out fourteen plates for your patrons to try,” Kellermann says. “But for most diners, this isn’t very practical. I wanted to make a place where people could create their own meals.”
Happily, a large number of diners are enthusiastic about his subtle, seasonal, sometimes whimsical food. “I have a good core of loyal customers who are willing to put up with my experiments,” says the 42-year-old, who served as head chef at Krazy Kats Restaurant at the Inn of Montchanin Village in Wilmington, Delaware, and pastry chef at the White Dog Café in Philadelphia.
The dinner menu is organized into appetizers (“In the Beginning”), $7 to $9; soups, $5 to $6; salads, $5 to $6; and entrées (“The Show”), which include about 4 ounces of the central protein, $8 to $13. Kellerman says some diners order all protein dishes, some just soups (the three-soup sampler is $7), some just salads, some just appetizers. We sampled all the categories. Among standout appetizers were mussels and chorizo in a smoky tomato, garlic, and onion broth, and goat cheese ravioli, which are boiled, then pan toasted for a pleasing crispness. Excellent brussels sprouts also undergo a two-step cooking process: blanched then pan seared, and finished with a mélange of oven-roasted pearl onions, cherry tomatoes, and wilted arugula. As spring rolled around, the brussels sprout appetizer was replaced by asparagus, lightly grilled in a toasted-garlic oil and served with orange segments, grilled radicchio, and pickled red onions in a white balsamic vinaigrette.
The ever-changing soup course offers two choices at lunch and three each evening. On our first visit, the cauliflower and shrimp “chowda” and the butternut squash soup were outstanding. The squash soup had hints of pecan and mint, while the chowder was chunky with bits of shrimp and blades of rosemary. On our second visit, the soup sampler proved a bit disappointing. Among the three bowls was the same chowder, but minus the shrimp. The others were a thick and tasty potato bacon soup and a somewhat watery asparagus soup. The real problem was that all three were lukewarm. When I pointed this out, however, both the waitress and the chef were most accommodating, reheating and refilling all three bowls.
The romaine salad borrows from the Caesar tradition with a twist—the lighter dressing uses a mix of canola, lemon, and roasted-garlic oils, while asiago cheese and white anchovies punch up the flavor. The spinach salad also varied effectively from the norm, with the spinach julienned and tossed with gorgonzola, pickled red onions, and walnuts in a balsamic vinaigrette.
Grilled ahi was soft and flakey, with a slightly crisp outer layer. It came on a bed of lentils, grilled stem-on artichokes, and kalamata olives. Firm, rich, crispy-skinned Scottish salmon with capers was also sizable. My vegetarian daughter loved her eggplant roll-up, Kellermann’s version of manicotti without the pasta. Beef short ribs wore a bit too much fat. Saddle of lamb, made with slices of lamb wrapped around lamb sausage and finished with a Vadouvan French curry, was more interesting but heavy.
Desserts, all made in-house, are traditional but pleasing—flourless chocolate cake; classic crème brûlée; bread pudding with a buttery center and chewy, browned edges. Less successful was an odd, layered brownie with sweet-potato mousse between the layers and coffee-caramel sauce on top.