Peaks and Valleys at Greenwich’s New Hot Spot, Primary Food & Drink
A likeable place, but the price would have you expecting more.
By Adam Macchia
If you’re really looking for primary food and drink, chances are you won’t find it at Graham Elliot Bowles’s first East Coast restaurant, Primary Food & Drink. There is nothing elemental about this sleekly styled restaurant in Greenwich, Connecticut, the closest East Coast analog to Beverly Hills. Yet despite an obfuscating name, Primary embodies the almost magical pairing of restaurant concept to its well-heeled clientele. Though we encountered several missteps, Primary is a stylish restaurant that still delivers the flavors of home.
First, Primary bears the sort of brand-name blinginess that’s perfectly suited to Greenwich Avenue. If you’re a foodie, you will have heard of Chef Graham Elliot Bowles and his two Chicago restaurants, Graham Elliot and Graham Elliot Bistro. The first of Elliot’s eponymous restaurants, Graham Elliot, snagged two Michelin stars, while Bowles himself has been nominated for three James Beard Awards. The killer in Elliot’s status, though, is his weekly turn (with Gordon Ramsay and Joe Bastianich) as a judge on Fox Network’s MasterChef. There, Elliot’s trademark tattoos and ice-white spectacles have made him a national brand.
Fans who know Elliot through the jazzy MasterChef production might be puzzled by the understatement in Primary’s dining room. It features all the familiar neo-vintage touches: Carrera marble, outsized white subway tiles, and old-fashioned barstools. An open kitchen lends modernity to the space while clusters of hanging globe lights accentuate its height. Nightly, Elliot may be found at any one of his restaurants (or on the MasterChef set), though you'll catch Elliot in Greenwich at least once a month. Operations in Greenwich are overseen by his managing partner and longtime collaborator, Executive Chef Merlin Verrier.
Primary’s menu features classic American and Continental comfort foods that have been dramatically rejiggered into modern cuisine. Take the chicken noodle soup that arrived looking like the underside of the She-Wolf of Rome, all baby carrots jutting up from a broth that was remarkably unflavored by chicken. But for showy plating (and a timbale of feathery pressed chicken shreds—an unpleasant texture that reappeared later in a main of Moroccan lamb), this $12 bowl of watery soup was unremarkable (and no longer on the menu). Buffalo chicken ($14), another American classic, was also dressed up for Greenwich Avenue. In this case, it was delicious and entailed a golden chicken roulade complemented with celeriac slaw, Roquefort crumble, house-made hot sauce, and crisp celery leaves. As one might predict, Primary’s Caesar salad ($13) is deconstructed, its romaine hearts partnered with Spanish anchovy, Parmesan “fluff” (like a marshmallow), and a brioche Twinkie. Fun—but “primary” this salad is not.
Some dishes appear without a wink, like the craveable beef tartare ($16), or the oysters with Champagne gelée and fresh chervil ($18). Sadly, when we splurged on the last, two of the six were still attached to their shells, necessitating some unseemly bite-and-scrape at the table; a more elegant option is Primary’s seasonally changing crudo ($15-$18). On one night, we caught beautiful, pearl-gray slices of mackerel served with sesame-scented nori and bursting sections of grapefruit. Also excellent, slippery butter-browned gnocchi paired with fragrant, russet-hued chanterelles ($15).
Don’t miss Primary’s beverage program, which offers fashionably old-fashioned cocktails. Look for the Road to Manhattan ($14), a twist on the classic Manhattan cocktail, shaken with persimmon-infused bourbon, fresh lemon, bitters, and maple syrup. Also good, the Solstice Sour ($14), a creamy mouthful of Monkey Shoulder Scotch, egg whites, fresh lemon, and allspice syrup. Save some sobriety for Primary’s wines, all thoughtfully presented by staffers. In particular, we appreciated our waiter’s suggestion of Jean-Claude Bessin Chablis ($16/glass).
For every success at Primary, we encountered a misstep. Scallops ($37) arrived without bounce, cooked well past optimal—worse, their delicate flavor was clobbered by spice. A small portion of Maine lobster ($42, with Japanese yuzu and toasted coconut) was overwhelmed by a mountain of bland forbidden rice, while beef stroganoff ($35, with filet mignon and black trumpet mushrooms) featured an oddly chosen cut of beef. Primary initially made this dish with short ribs and it was better. Still, Primary is a likeable place. When we were served the wrong main, the manager simply added the correct one to our table and laughingly encouraged us to enjoy all three.
Desserts ($10-$12) are multi-media affairs that unite a world of flavors, textures, and temperatures. These can feel like meals in themselves, so plan to share. While we quibble with an overly gelled crème brûlée or an inexpertly spherified Hawaiian pineapple with our carrot cake, each dessert comes with multiple components. You’ll find something to love—as in our carrot cake accompanied by delicious Neuchâtel gelato and walnut brittle.