When Michael Chuong opened Elements last summer in Chapel Hill, he realized a dream he had nurtured for decades, since fleeing Vietnam as a 15-year-old: Chuong wanted to open a restaurant of his own and run it with his family.
But it wasnt the stereotypical mom-and-pop ethnic eatery he had in mind. His aim was much higher.
Upon arriving in America, Chuong embarked on a culinary career that took him from fine dining restaurants in New Orleans to Cary, where he was executive chef at Prestonwood Country Club and chef-partner at An.
The inevitable next step came when the chef traded the partner half of his title for proprietor of Elements.
Like his restaurants name, Chuongs menu a contemporary marriage of his Asian heritage and his classical training is at once sophisticated and simple. Presentations never become so elaborate as to lose sight of his goal of showcasing the essential components the elements, you might say of a dish.
Certainly, food doesnt get much more elemental than the Raw & Almost Raw selection at the top of Chuongs seasonally evolving menu. Half a dozen oysters (recently Hog Island Salts from Virginia), say, set on a bed of ice with a kiwi-wasabi mignonette.
Or sashimi: a mere handful of choices, but typically including at least one catch from North Carolina waters such as the Outer Banks scallops that have been showing up of late. If the prices ($5-$7 a pair) seem high by local sushi bar standards, rest assured theyre justified by the generous cut.
If you prefer your oysters fried, they might arrive as they did recently strewn across a rectangular plate, interlaced with a tangle of baby greens, crunchy bits of bacon and a judicious drizzle of spicy mayo.
Crisp Vietnamese spring rolls contain a bonus of crabmeat and jicama along with the traditional roast pork, shrimp and cellophane noodles. Unlike with the sashimi, though, I found myself questioning whether the spring rolls are worth the $9 tariff roughly twice what youd pay in a Vietnamese restaurant.
Chuong earned a reputation for seafood at An, and his offering wont disappoint fans who follow him to Chapel Hill. Gargantuan pan-seared Outer Banks scallops are a must if theyre available, even if the presentation no longer includes the textbook risotto with young peas and orange segments it did in early April.
Even if the scallops have disappeared entirely from the menu, seafood lovers wont lack for winning options. According to Chuongs daughter, restaurant manager Van Chuong, walnut prawns crisp under a spicy honey glaze, garnished with candied walnuts are one of two dishes that are so popular that theyve become menu staples.
The other is the catch of the day, which typically showcases North Carolina fish in presentations such as triggerfish and shrimp tempura over butternut squash hash with a red curry beurre blanc.
Judging by the irreproachably fresh macadamia-crusted flounder I scored recently, its easy to understand the popularity of the catch of the day.
All of which is not to say that landlubbers are left high and dry. Choosing is nearly as difficult as it is for seafood lovers, in fact, with temptations such as roasted duck breast with port-soaked dark cherries and Szechwan pepper sauce, or the heritage pork porterhouse that recently turned up as a special.
In light of Chuongs proven track record, Im even inclined to give a mulligan to the rib-eye that I ordered medium-rare and was cooked closer to medium-well.
Desserts, from deconstructed Black Forest cherry cake to Vietnamese black-eyed pea rice pudding, live up to the standard set by the savory fare. So does the bar, whose liquid assets include a thoughtfully chosen wine list and a selection of well-crafted specialty cocktails that, like the menu, evolves with the seasons.
Also taking its cue from the menu, Elements decor is at once elegant and warmly inviting. Highlights include modern sculptures set into alcoves in apricot walls, sleek honey-toned wood paneling and a local rarity comfortable upholstered chairs.
Those chairs have all been occupied both times Ive visited, a sure sign that Michael Chuong has found a strong following in Chapel Hill. No doubt plenty of loyal fans make the drive from Cary, too. But now theyre eating in Michael Chuongs restaurant.
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