Dining review

The Elephant proves to be worthy revival of Baltimore dining landmark

For The Baltimore Sun
The Elephant has a storied past, but it's poised to become a Baltimore dining landmark in its own right.

My husband, the teacher, often tells his overwhelmed students: "Take one bite of the elephant at a time."

You could say that's what The Elephant owners Steven Rivelis and Linda Brown Rivelis did to achieve their goal of running a restaurant, especially one where they celebrated their wedding 30 years earlier.

In 1988, the couple was thinking about opening their own place — until a friend explained the importance of trusting and loving the staff who will be cooking the food, taking care of the front of the house and handling the business part.

They didn't know such people at the time, Steven Rivelis said. Jump ahead to a year and a half ago; with several successful businesses under their belts and decades of restaurant contacts, the Rivelises were ready to try again.

"Maybe now's the time to do our dream," Steven Rivelis said.

And what a dream. The former storied Brass Elephant, where the couple said their vows, is now Baltimore's newest, showiest restaurant.

"It isn't Grandma's house anymore," Rivelis said.

The couple managed to keep the architectural integrity of the majestic 1850s townhouse while incorporating modern sensibilities like the New York-vibe white lounges on the second floor and the stylized pearlescent-pink walls in the main dining room.

"We were not re-creating what was," Rivelis said. "At the same time, there was such good will and memories that to not honor those things seemed wrong."

That's one of the reasons they decided to keep part of the original name. The Mount Vernon restaurant officially opened July 28.

The Elephant menu is also different from the days when Northern Italian fare was served by a waitstaff in tuxedos. (Today, the servers wear untied bow ties draped around their shirts. It's an odd look.)

In the kitchen, chef Andy Thomas — a veteran of restaurants like Donna's in Charles Village, Gertrude's at the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Wine Market — is turning out market-driven cuisine with global influences.

You can start your evening at the new bar on the first floor or at the upstairs oyster bar — or plant yourself there for the night.

Interesting wines and beers are offered, as well as specialty cocktails like the Lockwood, made with rye, cognac, dry curacao and orange bitters. It's named after Lockwood de Forest, the 19th-century designer who crafted the building's detailed woodwork.

We were escorted to the first-floor pink room. It may sound like an unusual shade for a sophisticated dining room, but the color works well with its pale reserve.

There are many ways to eat at The Elephant. The menu is divided into starters and small plates, oysters and seafood bar, singles, noodles, shares (one dish, a lamb tagine) and "from the wood stone oven."

For the most part, our meal was delicious. One of our favorites was the duck bacon flatbread with caramelized onions and goat cheese cooked in the aforementioned oven. Everything about it was terrific.

We started our dinner with the tandoori-style chicken kebabs served with a raita yogurt sauce that balanced the meat's Indian spices. Skewered zucchini cubes and red onion wedges were good sidekicks.

We also had an amazing sherry-braised grilled octopus, glazed with an ancho chile pepper sauce, whose tentacles were as supple and pliant as soft butter.

Another appetizer, the scallop seviche, was excellent, with lime-tinged, milky slices of the mollusk sharing space with orange segments and chopped red onion. A drizzle of olive oil added sheen and polish.

For our entrees, we enjoyed a bountiful bowl of fisherman's stew, full of scallops, mussels, clams, salmon, shrimp and crab, interspersed with chopped tomatoes in a seafood broth laced with saffron.

Our request for more grilled bread was happily met. We didn't want to miss a drop of the liquid.

The only main dish misstep we had was the five-spice St. Louis-style ribs. The inner rib meat was as chewy as jerky, and the heavy sauce — thick as molasses — tasted like it had been overpowered with coffee. But we liked that the kitchen was trying to re-create a carefree summer picnic with sides like the well-prepared warm potato salad and crisp green-apple slaw.

We again appreciated the chef's playful nature with the free-form lasagna. Add "Andy's Bolognese" for an extra $4 to make it an even better dish The tender, wide noodles were folded as a base for the flavorful meat sauce, which was topped with a mound of creamy ricotta as big as a fist.

Pastry chef Suzanne Haug does her part to end the meal on a high note, though her local berry crisp was too dense and jammy for us.

But we were smitten with the chocolate mousse bombe, a baseball-size round of addictive Valrhona chocolate ganache perched on a crispy hazelnut feuilletine biscuit.

The two honey-peach beignets, powdered with confectioners' sugar, got a pleasant flavor boost from the dips served with them: red berry, white chocolate and caramel.

Throughout our meal, the Rivelises — whom I haven't met in person — circulated through the two-story space, checking on diners, or "table touching" as restaurant insiders call it.

When I contacted them later, they seem delighted with their long-awaited aspiration. Diners should be, too.

The Rivelises have reinvigorated a landmark Baltimore restaurant, where once again memories and good meals can be shared.

As Linda Brown Rivelis said to me in an email: "Life is an amazing journey." One bite at a time.

The Elephant

Rating: ✭✭✭✭ 1/2

Where: 924 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon

Contact: 443-447-7878, theelephantbaltimore.com

Open: 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $10-$16; entrees, $18-$36

Food: A revolving menu with global influences.

Noise/TVs: The tables are nicely spaced, allowing easy conversation at each table; two TVs — one in the second-floor bar, another in the lounge — to be used for "world events," not everyday games, Steven Rivelis said.

Service: Our server was attentive, and though she was unsure about some menu items, she sought out the answers quickly.

Parking: Valet ($10), paid parking lot and metered street parking.

Special diets: Can accommodate

Reservation policy: Does accept.

[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]

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