American Elm

2.5 Stars

The Draw:
Unassuming neighborhood spot delivering admirable comfort food and quality drinks.
The Drawback:
A few missteps from the kitchen.
Noise Level:
Low to moderate.
Don’t Miss:
Anything fried, scallops, deviled egg toast, shrimp and grits, cocktails.

American Elm is a decidedly local joint with destination aspirations. Owner Bob Reiter moved to Denver from Brooklyn this past year and this is, in fact, his first restaurant—yet American Elm exhibits a surefootedness not typical of a new restaurateur. Part of its success comes from the experience of the wonderfully named executive chef, Brent Turnipseede, and sous chef Nick Duree, who both cooked at downtown’s upscale Guard and Grace.

Reiter clearly also set a high bar for American Elm, one based, he says, on the quality of the neighborhood bistros he frequented when living in Brooklyn. I, too, lived there, for almost 15 years, and watched the rise of the sort of restaurants that inspire Reiter, like Frankies 457 Spuntino and the now-closed Franny’s, where I must have eaten the clam pizza at least 300 times. Those restaurants follow a simple formula: modest scale plus reasonable pricing and comfy decor, with well-crafted cocktails, too. The anchor, though, was thoughtful cooking with an urban American accent that avoided Manhattan filigree, exhibiting the culinary care and technique Brooklynites previously had to travel for.

Of course, those attributes describe the aspirations of many new restaurants these days. But care and technique remain a difficult reach. And if American Elm is not yet as sublime and focused as the Brooklyn joints I mentioned, it nonetheless surprises and delights, like a Nashville bar band manned by local session pros.

Situated in the building formerly occupied by the Way Back (now relocated to Tennyson Street), American Elm is narrow, long, and warmly utilitarian rather than cozy. It’s got painted cinderblock walls and metal pendant lamps hanging from the usual dark-hued open ductwork ceiling, with tables and high-tops running alongside a substantial bar. You’ll want to sit near or at that bar, where backlit bottles and shiny subway tiles create a welcoming vibe; the tables-only area at the rear of the restaurant feels removed from the fun.

American Elm’s Naked and Famous cocktail. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Reiter and Jesse Torres, the talented bar manager (who has Tavernetta and Poka Lola Social Club on his resumé), have made American Elm very cocktail-forward, even for this cocktail-obsessed town, with pages of appealing drinks grouped into categories: Boozy & Alluring, Fresh & Lively, etc. If most of Torres’ drinks are not as arcane as you might find in a downtown mixology temple, there’s none of the cant, ritual, and Advanced Grooming of those places, either.

I like the economy/top-shelf dialectic of some of his drink listings, where you can choose a basic spirit or a pricey alternative. The $12 Naked and Famous, for example, consists of Cuentacuentos mezcal, Aperol, Chartreuse, and fresh lime, while the $17 reserve version swaps in a Rey Campero Espadín mezcal. Both drinks were properly bitter and smoky, with a strong throughline of citrus. Meanwhile, the premium Negroni ($18, with Sipsmith V.J.O.P. gin) was precise and delicious, with ultra-clear, perfectly square ice to set off its jewel tones. (The bar staff was enthusiastic about making a very good nonalcoholic version of its Pimm’s Cup for my friend, too.)

The fare at American Elm can be categorized as Refined American Comfort Food. Exhibit A was an appetizer of country-fried mushrooms, which sounds like a special at TGI Fridays. It was terrific. Meaty but supple pieces of hen of the wood mushrooms, battered and fried to a robust deep brown, sat under pickled mustard seeds and slices of radish, resting on a pool of creamy fontina fondue. Relieving the richness were vivid high notes from lemon and dabs of tangy hazelnut pistou. The same tension between fat and acid characterizes a lot of Turnipseede’s dishes, including a brunch serving of his deviled egg toast, in which a layer of creamed yolk is spread over oiled and grilled ciabatta and topped with arugula, mustard seeds, radish, and pickled red onion.

We demolished the Animal Crackers appetizer: chicharrones and deep-fried bits of beef tendon, which were puffy, delicate cellular matrices that vanished on the tongue without a trace of grease. They came with a house-made hot sauce, a sort of emulsified Sriracha, all smoothed out and lovely. Hushpuppylike crab fritters further confirmed the kitchen’s Southern confidence with the deep fryer. The Old Bay tartar sauce that came with them was fine, but I would have liked a bit more flavor imagination—perhaps from some smoked pimiento or a stab of sharp pickle.

Deviled egg toast is a brunchtime must-order. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Other highlights included a wintertime plate of seared scallops served on a butter bean succotash with crunchy crumbs of cornbread gremolata. Charred okra crowned the plate and were remarkably slime-free. The sauce was a beurre blanc that would have made a French chef proud. That entrée was a tour de force. Equally good and even trickier to pull off: a seasonal “linguine” made from strings of summer squash and served with crisp tofu, roasted cashews, and herbs. That’s the sort of vegetarian dish that can bore me to murderous tears if it’s bland, overcooked, or too virtuous. But Turnipseede imbued the snappy, al dente squash with a confident lemony tang and deep umami character from Parmesan.

Not every dish succeeded so well. The fries on a plate of steak frites were leathery, though the rib-eye cap was righteous. A roasted half chicken was, in its breast portion, a bit overcooked, the skin not quite reaching the Platonic crispy ideal. A formally composed Caesar salad had a legitimate anchovy-rich dressing but was marred by the addition of flavorless blistered tomatoes. These are mostly small complaints, though, and there was only one real fail over my three meals there: a roasted apple Napoleon dessert that was rushed to the table while its puff pastry was still wan and limp, a patient that had died on the gurney. On one busy night the kitchen also lost its rhythm a bit—long gaps between courses—yet kept the quality high, so I didn’t really mind.

In the end, what I found so agreeable about American Elm was the straightforward intentionality of the cooking. Brunchtime banana pancakes were exceptionally fluffy, with butter-crisped edges. Shrimp and grits (also for brunch) involved a heap of shrimp on grits that might have come from an Alabama or South Carolina kitchen. The charred salsa verde that came with a pork belly appetizer had terrific zing.

Bar star Jesse Torres (left) and chef Brent Turnipseede. Photo by Sarah Boyum

Complementing all this was the service, which was prompt and friendly without dissertations on dishes succinctly described on the menu. If I have a complaint, it concerns the massive portions. American Elm is as far from a “small plates for sharing” restaurant as you’re likely to find, but there’s a line between generosity and waste, and the kitchen often crosses it.

I have a lingering fear of overpraising American Elm. It’s not an astonishing restaurant. But it’s pleasing and unpretentious and good—which is exactly what you want in a place of this type. I wish it were in my neighborhood, but based on meals so far, I’ll happily make the drive.