- Marie Doyon
It’s said that the Velvet Underground’s first album only sold 30,000 copies in its first five years, but everyone who bought the album started a band. As Lou Reed would have told you, being a cult fave ain’t easy, and after 12 years, Elephant, Kingston’s clubhouse of culinary cool is closing on Saturday, March 24.
“It was a great run,” says chef Rich Reeve, who co-owns Elephant with his wife Maya Karrol, who runs the front of the house. “I’ve worked in a lot of restaurants, I’ve opened a few restaurants, but this has been my favorite,” Reeve says. “We made friends, we made enemies, it’s been an intense 12 years. I didn’t actually expect it to last this long.”
(Elephant has been purchased by a group headed by chef Chris Turgeon, formerly of Chicago’s Michelin-starred 42 Grams. The new restaurant, Wildebeest, will open at 310 Wall Street in May. According to Turgeon, Wildebeest will be aggressively seasonal in focus, with one kitchen staffer dedicated to preserving, canning, pickling, and dehydrating the local bounty for the off-season. The restaurant’s tagline: “Serious food, serious drinks, no serious people.”)
Despite Kingston’s current status as a super-hip, uber-hot spot, with bookstore-cum-bars like Rough Draft and swank event venues like the Senate Garage, it was not always thus. When Elephant opened, the city more than a decade on from IBM’s retreat, was in the doldrums, both economically and food-wise. (Le Canard Enchaine, Jean-Jacque Carquillat’s bastion to French gourmandizing being a wonderful exception.) Here’s how I described the state Kingston was in back in 2008, from a profile of Elephant:
“Uptown Kingston is in a bit of a slump. Retail businesses have been especially hard hit, with vacant storefronts sprouting like so many daffodils. The bagel shop closed less than a month after it opened. Hickory BBQ, which took over a prosperous luncheonette from Jane’s Ice Cream, is gone. The billiard hall that never was is a glass mausoleum for two dozen pool tables. The city closed the Chinese restaurant with the 1950s 'Chop Suey' sign for code violations. The parking garage at the corner of Wall and North Front Streets—always an eyesore, but a useful place to park—is ringed with a six-foot high chain-link fence and is being torn down.”At the time, living and working in Kingston was a bit of a bummer. What Elephant represented was a new spark of creativity in the city, epitomized by the exquisite small plates that Reeve was producing from a kitchen with no stove, only a hot plate, a toaster oven, a panini machine, and a barbecue grill out back. And that spark kindled a fire that we are still basking in the glow of. It’s worth noting that Elephant was the forerunner to Stockade Tavern, Boitson’s, Duo, Diego’s Taqueria, Yum Yum Noodle Bar…I could go on. Those of us who enjoy the cultural flowering that’s taken place in Kingston in the past decade have a lot to thank Elephant for.
When asked for one of his favorite moments in Elephant, Reeve didn’t hesitate, recalling serving Philippe Petit, local resident and the only person to walk a wire between the Twin Towers. “When he told me how much he enjoyed my pate, it was like a kiss on the cheek from Elizabeth Taylor—a young Elizabeth Taylor,” says Reeve. “I probably shouldn’t have hugged him though. He’s never been back since.”
So, what this all means in the short term is: You’ve got two more nights, so grab your snail toasts and pork belly tacos while ye may. And don’t be surprised if you see me crying into my Tempranillo at the bar on Saturday night at last call.
Elephant is dead. Long live Elephant.