Story and photographs by Andrea Kennedy
Cloaked couscous, naughty gnocchi and the flower child of desserts – open your minds and mouths, Greenwich. Progressive city dining is gaining traction on The Avenue thanks to a spark from out West.
When Chef Graham Elliot opened his Primary Food & Drink on Greenwich Avenue last December, he brought the high-end block a taste of the high-rises of Chi-town. Style gone metropolitan, patrons dine among navy-lacquered industrial mesh and caramel leather. They sip low-ball cocktails with celery-salted rims at a marble bar that are as stark white as the famed chef’s bleached frames.
Percolating within the refined aesthetic are dishes designed in his signature against-the-grain sensibility – the same that earned him judge cred on Fox’s “MasterChef.” (Season 5 premiered May 26.) And the man piloting menu ingenuity into overdrive is Executive Chef Merlin Verrier.
WHAT A TRIP
Verrier’s not from around here. He most recently landed in Greenwich via Chicago, where at Graham Elliot Bistro his menu earned six Michelin Stars in four years. He linked with Elliot in Chicago after stints in Denver with two other TV personalities whom you may recognize from Season 5 of “Top Chef Masters,” James Beard Award-winner Jennifer Jasinski and global restaurateur Richard Sandoval.
“Chef Merlin and I hit it off from day one and nearly seven years later, continue to bring out the best in each other,” says Elliot. “There is nobody that I trust more to help carry out our collective vision for food and hospitality.”
In other words, says Verrier, “We’re brothers from another mother.”
Simpatico in creative passions from food to music, they’ve cooked backstage for bands like Foo Fighters and Mumford & Sons and grew Lollapalooza’s Chow Town to the gold standard of music festival fare. Eminem requested his first taste of lobster come from their now iconic lobster corn dog.
Mainstream, you may gather, has never been their mojo.
“I always say if it’s not broken, then break it,” says Elliot, whose playful riffs include a deconstructed Caesar with “brioche twinkie” and cheddar risotto topped with Cheez-Its. Both appear on Primary’s menu, meaning I’ll never look at a crouton or Cheez-It the same way again.
If you notice Verrier’s tendency toward left-leaning locales – add Portland to the list for culinary training – it’s a byproduct of an über-liberal upbringing in his hometown of Santa Cruz, Calif.
“I have this mentality of a Central Coast kid that grew up in a surfer, hippie community,” he says.
The mentality is, one might say, more Brooklyn than Greenwich. He has an affinity for newsboy caps, freethinkers and jam bands. His watch is made of rubber. And his entrée no doubt fills a void.
“A large majority of our customers are really appreciative of what we’re doing here,” says Verrier. “The food and the atmosphere–this area doesn’t necessarily have that.”
Striking creativity’s fertile balance between freedom of mind and nurtured expertise, he presents the kind of dishes that beg the question why chefs don’t take these liberties more often. Food should always be this fun.
OH, THE PLACES YOU’LL GO
Note the accompaniment to Verrier’s latest swordfish creation: “We’ve made squid ink couscous that looks like eggs from sturgeons; and oven dried cherry tomatoes, fennel top pesto. And we’ve dehydrated oil-cured black olives into a crumble on top.”
If I’ve had a better fish dish, I can’t remember when. The medium-rare swordfish sliced on diagonal popped against the black couscous in roe clothing. In unison, fish, couscous and olive harmonized of ocean and earthy elements. The olives brought particular complexity, not to mention they introduced to my palate an entirely new state of matter.
The toasted gnocchi, another dish that alone is worth the trip, sets the bar with a forget-me-not texture – a touch of crisp covering each sultry, downy round. Foraged mushrooms and brown butter complete a plate of entrancing indulgence. Take a bite, close your eyes.
Not to belabor the pastas – for meats, my lamb preparation tasted as gorgeous as any lamb I’ve had – the artichoke and crab ravioli is also a seasonal must-try. Vacant of heavy creams, bright flavors are punctuated with finishers like fried lemons and parsley broth, which arrives with a bit of flair from a tableside pour. (Like a handful of items, the artichoke and crab ravioli is served at both lunch and dinner, with dinner plates more gussied up.) And on a sentimental note, the dish also pays homage to Verrier’s mother and childhood memories of California summers.
“My mom was born in Indonesia, so I was raised on a lot of ethnic flavors and some really intense techniques that most American kids didn’t see,” he says. “This time of year in California is Dungeness crab and artichoke season. I remember eating it all the time, because it was literally the cheapest thing to put on the table.”
To polish your meal, there’s the spring brûlée, the flower child of sweet treats. Made with elderflower cream, lingonberries and plums – in chutney and sliced as topping décor – this freewheeling fruit-on-the-bottom brûlée dances around a deep-V bowl (not a ramekin!) with cheery, custard abandon.
Like his menu, Verrier stands out for all the right reasons. He emanates passion, authenticity and focus wrapped in West Coast Zen and workplace levity. The day we speak, he’s wearing a shirt with a unicorn and pig cavorting under a rainbow that reads, “How bacon sausage is made.” He calls the term farm-to-table “the goofiest term any restaurant could ever use. It’s literally like saying, ‘I use salt.’”
He’s also made fast friends with his first East Coast stomping grounds. Verrier found his new music hall (The Capitol Theatre), grower of local greens (Mimi Edelman of I & Me Farm) and a foraging buddy (Fortina frontman Christian Petroni). Finding open arms from local industry standouts – as with national ones – I imagine was effortless considering his countenance and character.
“People will be attracted to you,” he says, “as long as you stay true to who you are.”
Primary Food & Drink is at 409 Greenwich Ave., Greenwich. Call 203-861-2400 or visit primaryrestaurant.com.