THE MURAL spans an entire two-story wall, making tables and white-oak banquettes look like dollhouse furniture against its billboard scale. When you round the corner into The Elm’s wide-open dining room, this rogue wave of turquoise and jade with patches of frothy white and captured light is stunningly disorienting. For a moment, you’re standing alone on a mist-shrouded beach … or maybe you’re floating. The reality—that you have found such a nice restaurant in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Bloomington—somehow feels equally mind-bending.
Owned by David and Martha Moore, local art collectors who also run Bloomington’s FAR Center for Contemporary Arts, The Elm opened in late March, following a years-long rehab of a former Bloomingfoods Market & Deli. Rhode Island architecture firm Malane Benedetto (whose founder, artist Lauren Bordes, created that centerpiece mural) and Bloomington-based Loren Wood Builders helmed the transformation of this 5,000-square-foot space in the college town’s Elm Heights historic district. Old-timers who used to stop by for organic bananas and grab-and-go quinoa can point out where the dairy cases once stood and how the restaurant’s designers replaced the sacred Bloomingfoods hot-and-cold salad bar with a section of high-top bar tables.
From the second-level balcony, you can see the outline of the old deli, now a curvaceous, dramatically lit bar lined with pale-green tiles and shelves of exotic aperitifs, where spiffy servers under the guidance of beverage director Leah Boruff-Bodoin assemble crisp Italian 75s, zero-proof Laverne Temples, and Choconut Negronis from Three Floyds gin, sweet vermouth infused with cocoa nib, and coconut fat–washed Campari. The mule-like Gettin’ Figgy With It contains house ginger syrup and is garnished with a sprig of torched rosemary adhered to the rim of the copper mug with a fig. It’s a work of art, much like its surroundings.
Executive chef Dan Thomas, who hails from Brown County’s rustic Story Inn, got off to an impressive start with his introductory spring menu. Early diners were treated to adventurous appetizers that included a chilled asparagus tart, its crisp pastry shell filled with black-garlic hollandaise and semi-soft Ameribella cheese from Indiana’s Jacobs & Brichford Farmstead. Salty cured egg yolk grated over the top tasted like Parmesan snow.
A bracingly tart radish and turnip carpaccio layered vibrant slivers of pickled roots with fennel kraut, smoked white bean hummus, and a garnish of micro turnips that, though a cute visual, did nothing to soften the dish’s brutal punch of acidity. More tastebud-friendly, the baby beet salad contained a generous load of ruby and golden bulbs tossed with goat cheese and mache lettuce. A sprinkle of dehydrated beet “soil”—like earthy black pepper—added just enough crunch and depth to make this beet salad one of the best in its rabbit-food class.
This type of flavor bombing is the norm here. Across the menu, ingredients are amped up to 11 with strategic sauces, sprinkles, and final touches. Among the mains, a leg of Moroccan lamb was anointed with an herby chermoula (basically Moroccan pesto), while succulent dry-aged duck breast glistened with lavender-honey glaze and was served with three little crispy duck croquettes. A hulking Fischer Farms ribeye wore a glorious halo of fat that flavored the entire plate-spanning cut of meat, and it dripped with a coriander-peppercorn jus that penetrated every bite.
The kitchen goes out of its way to craft the fresh pasta for its minimalist cacio e pepe (literally “cheese and pepper”) and classic casarecce aglio e olio (rustic twists with garlic and oil), as well as a pesto gnocchi so dense and cheesy with Parmigiano-Reggiano that I sat my fork down after just a few bites. The sweet tea–brined fried chicken sandwich, prepared sous vide–style to lock in the bird’s juices and arranged like a meaty softball inside its housemade brioche bun, is one of the few items that remains on the current summer menu, which will be replaced by a late-summer menu in a few weeks. “One of the nice things about The Elm is Chef Dan’s commitment to seasonality,” says general manager Eric Daniels-Howell. It might be tempting to keep a well-received ribeye on the menu, he says. But that wouldn’t jibe with the restaurant’s goal to sync with the seasons, prompted by what’s currently growing and available. That chicken sandwich, though, is a keeper. “People give me grief because we are a breaded tenderloin town, and our top seller is a chicken sandwich,” says Daniels-Howell. “But it’s a lovely chicken sandwich.”
As a more characteristic nod to current tastes (and, perhaps, to the old Bloomingfoods crowd), several dishes are designated vegan or vegetarian, including an elaborate slab of harissa cauliflower roasted with a vinaigrette of raisins and pine nuts so that it would cut like a steak. In addition to a traditional charcuterie-and-cheese spread, the restaurant offers a vegan version that’s more than just a novelty. It features carrot nduja, watermelon-radish bresaola, and even a faux boudin noir (blood sausage) made with beets. “It says a lot about what we are all about,” says Daniels-Howell. “Our food is rooted in technique, but we will never forget that the reason we’re doing this is so that our friends and neighbors can enjoy their experience.”