Dining review

At Elements, temptation seems an essential ingredient

CorrespondentApril 11, 2013 

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    2110 Environ Way, Chapel Hill



    Cuisine: contemporary

    Rating: * * *  1/2

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: contemporary and elegant

    Noise level: moderate

    Service: enthusiastic and attentive

    Recommended: fried oysters, catch of the day, scallops, desserts.

    Open: lunch Monday-Friday, dinner Monday-Saturday.

    Reservations: recommended

    Other: full bar; accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; patio; parking in lot (complimentary valet parking available Wednesday-Saturday).

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

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 wasn’t 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 restaurant’s name, Chuong’s 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 doesn’t get much more elemental than the “Raw & Almost Raw” selection at the top of Chuong’s 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 they’re 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 you’d pay in a Vietnamese restaurant.

Chuong earned a reputation for seafood at An, and his offering won’t disappoint fans who follow him to Chapel Hill. Gargantuan pan-seared Outer Banks scallops are a must if they’re 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 won’t lack for winning options. According to Chuong’s 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 they’ve 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, it’s 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 Chuong’s proven track record, I’m 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 I’ve 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 they’re eating in Michael Chuong’s restaurant.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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