Do not enter Elia, a new Greek restaurant in East Rutherford, expecting to order spanakopita or moussaka—although, if Elia made them, I’m sure they’d be delicious. Chef José Luis Falcón, who worked at New York restaurants including Nobu, Café des Artistes and Windows on the World, brings an inventive and exciting approach to Greek and Mediterranean food.
Falcón grew up in Mexico City. His mother taught culinary arts there, and his uncle ran large restaurants, where Falcón worked on the line. At Elia (Greek for olive), the chef’s ease with a range of flavors and techniques can be seen in every course.
Elia is Falcón’s first New Jersey job. He arrives here having worked for Elia’s owner and general manager, Tim Salouros, at the latter’s Trata restaurants in New York City and the Hamptons. Elia is also the first New Jersey venture for Salouros.
Elia, which opened in December, occupies the space inhabited for almost 40 years by Park & Orchard. Once the only fine-dining establishment in the area, it was known for its vegetable-forward menu and Burgundian wine list. A 2015 sale and redesign failed to revive its sagging fortunes.
“When we heard that Park & Orchard was closing,” says Salouros, “we spoke with Ken and Buddy Gebhardt, the owners of the original Park & Orchard, and that was it.” The space happens to be minutes from Salouros’s fiancé’s hometown of Rutherford. Salouros’s partners are his wife-to-be, Annamaria Adinolfi, and—hold your jokes—his future mother-in-law, Anna Rosati.
It appears passion isn’t limited to the happy couple. In fact, a devotion to good ingredients shows in everything from cocktails made with fresh-squeezed juices to fish caught off the coast of Greece by fishermen whom Salouros, the son of Greek immigrants, knows by name.
What is essentially a very large cement box minutes from MetLife Stadium has been given a Greek-island feel. Heavy wooden furniture, handcrafted at a mom-and-pop factory in Santorini, brings an outdoor mood indoors. At the far end, an oblong window offers a view into the kitchen; under the window sprawls a grand display of seafood on ice.
We eased into our well-cushioned seats and tucked into impressive cocktails. The cocktail menu reads cute (and needs a copy editor), with drinks named after famous Greek movies, but the drinks themselves are serious and well-balanced, thanks to fresh ingredients. Consider the My Big Fat Greek Wedding Sour, made with bourbon, a Greek almond liqueur called soumouda, lemon and lime juice, and garnished with a candied black cherry cured and jarred for the restaurant at a monastery in Greece.
My problems over two visits were mostly with service, which was cheerful but unsure. On our second visit, our main courses arrived when we were only 85 percent of the way through our appetizers. The waiters offered little more than an, “Oops. Sorry!” and a smile as they placed the new dishes on the table and whisked away our starters.
We hated to see the appetizers vanish before we could sop up the tomato sauce from the mussels, the sauce richer (and more Greek) for the addition of house-made lamb sausage. We had bites left of the vivid orange and red ouzo-cured salmon, the color of a Mykonos sunset and as captivating, with its layers of fennel, chilies, yogurt crema and citrus oil. We wanted to savor the batons of salty saganaki fried in a feather-light coating of corn flour and potato starch. Stacked atop watermelon and drizzled in spicy honey, this was a grown-up version of mozzarella sticks that made me glad to be an adult.
Normally, I’m wary of dishes with many components, but here they work in harmony. A cowboy steak special was beefy in flavor, with a worthy char. Accompaniments were just as good: balsamic roasted portobellos; grilled asparagus with a frizzle of flash-fried onions; and a tapenade of black olives and oven-dried tomatoes making a tangy, briny counterpart.
A generous portion of lamb chops (most dishes can easily be shared) came with a clever pumpkin-seed purée with roasted tomatoes, peppers and garlic—the pumpkin seeds a nod to Falcón’s birthplace.
Sesame-crusted tuna is a menu standard I typically avoid, having been bored by too many dry hunks of fish. This tuna, seared and bespeckled in black and white sesame seeds, came with a spicy mango-tahini sauce and remained interesting bite after bite. Sister, this is the kind of hunk you marry.
The menu also offers simple dishes that let the fresh fish shine. We ordered tsipoura, a white-fleshed fish imported from Greece (known here as dorade or sea bream). It was charcoal-grilled and served filleted, the pieces flaky and tender and served with lemony wedges of roasted potato.
The homespun desserts were at once comforting yet nuanced and well executed—as if your grandma in the old country were a trained pastry chef.
The baklava crackled as the side of my fork pierced the first bronzed layer, coming to rest in the dense, honeyed, nut-studded bottom. The phyllo is layered with a mixture of cow and goat butters; the walnuts are toasted with cinnamon and nutmeg to bring out their woodsy flavors.
We feasted on warm loukomades (similar to beignets), which smelled of fresh yeast and were drizzled with honey. We delighted in spoonfuls of ekmek kataifi, a traditional Greek dessert made of layered shreds of phyllo intermingled with custard bumped up by lemon, mastic (a floral-tasting Greek resin), pistachios and whipped cream.
The quiet star of dessert was a warm walnut cake known as karidopita. One might easily overlook it in favor of, say, the oozing chocolate lava cake. Elia makes a good lava cake, but the karidopita, served with house-made cinnamon ice cream, deserves the spotlight.
If lava cake is the Harley-Davidson of desserts, all noise and flash, the walnut cake is a black Aston Martin, sleek and sophisticated. The chef lightened the traditional recipe and transformed a typically dense cake into a delicate, French-style genoise, a technique he learned from the pastry chef at La Caravelle in Manhattan. Salouros says his Greek mother freely admits his version is better than her own.
Elia reinvents both the vaunted Park & Orchard space and its culinary legacy. Its Mediterranean food is elegant and dynamic, yet approachable and full of love. Unless your heart is set on spanakopita and moussaka, odds are you will love it, too.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Appetizers, $8-$22; entrées, $28-$40; desserts, $10
Ambience:Relaxed and welcoming
Service:Well-intended but unpolished; better coordination between kitchen and servers would help
Wine list:10 signature cocktails; 6 beers on tap; Greek, Italian, and California wines by the glass and bottle