First Look

First Look: Soft-Shell Crab and a Vietnamese Espresso Martini Shine at Elephant East

The soft-shell crab with a spicy black bean sauce is one of the best bites we've had this year.
The soft-shell crab with a spicy black bean sauce is one of the best bites we've had this year. Lauren Drewes Daniels
Elephant East in the Harwood District opened about a year ago, a pan-Asian flair folded into Harwood Hospitality Group's large portfolio of amenities in this sprawling neighborhood just north of downtown. This pan-Asian restaurant is just off McKinnon Street, near Harwood Arms, a British-inspired pub and a soon-to-open pizza and martini joint, Poco Fiasco.

The whole Harwood area is a bit like the districts in the Hunger Games, but the exact opposite. If we get to some post-apocalyptical circumstance where we have to choose, do whatever you can to get in this district. There's the comfortable cafe, Magnolia Sous Le Point, just around the corner. And a block over is an outdoor adult play yard with sand volleyball and bocce ball called Harwood Grove. On the other side, Dolce Riviera channels the Italian Riveria, Happiest Hour is a behemoth indoor and outdoor restaurant and bar with footlong fried cheese sticks. Mercat Bistro, Saint Ann and Te Deseo round out the portfolio.
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Our perch at the bar.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
We'd yet to make it out to Elephant East, mainly because reservations are recommended and that level of planning can take the pomp out of the weekend. After adulting all week, who likes to feel so committed? However, on the way to a Stars game, with a private event at Harwood Grove and Harwood Arms packing the place, we grabbed two seats at the bar.

Here's a theory: the bar is the best seat in the house, and this goes for just about any place. The view is better, and you can chat with a bartender about dishes or drinks. The service is usually quicker and more accessible when needed, but also a bit less doting, which can also be good. Plus, you rarely need reservations for seats at the bar (Lucia being a notable exception here).
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Bang Bang Shrimp seems like a silly name for a dish, but you'll get it after trying it.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
The bartender suggested we start with the Bang Bang Shrimp ($18), lightly fried in a tempura batter with a bright and punchy sauce with a touch of citrus and spicy chilies. At first, the mound of slaw under the shrimp seemed like a guise to make the bowl seem fuller, but that slaw is dressed in the same sauce with chilies and is a surprising delight. After working through most of it with chopsticks, we finished it off with spoons to get every last strand.

Next, we had the lightly-fried soft-shell crabs ($26), covered in a spicy black bean sauce. It came with that same crisp napa slaw, which here was blessed with an umami-rich spicy black bean sauce and a sweet chili sauce to create a brilliant menagerie of flavors. We alternated between popping whole pinchers in our mouths to big bites of slaw, then a bit of both, and finally using our teeth to tear into the meat of the crab. That's a bar move, not at all for a dimly lit corner table.
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The dining room at Elephant East is cozy and nicely adorned.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Speaking of tables, an important note here: There are six or so tables in the middle of the dining room, but along one side are curved, plush booths that are great for dates. On the other side are semi-private, ornate wooden booths that look like a fun spot for four or five diners. We still like the horseshoe marble bar the most, though.
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Steamed buns with char siu braised pork
Lauren Drewes Daniels
We also ordered steamed buns, which come three to an order for $14. These big buns are stuffed with saucy cubes of char siu braised pork. These were filling and had that perfectly odd, yet amazing, fluffy dense texture of steamed buns.
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The first option on the cocktail menu should be the last taste of the night.
Lauren Drewes Daniels
Finally, we ended our pan-Asian soirée with a Vietnamese Espresso Martini ($17). It cost more than many of the starters on the menu, but if you're a big fan of Dallas' quintessential drink, then splurge here. Elephant East uses an instant Vietnamese espresso powder, which the bartender said is special ordered. This gives it a bit more of a chicory flavor, but if there ever was a bow on a meal, the espresso martini here is it.

As with many places around downtown, parking can be a bear. But, all Harwood properties have complimentary valet (just tip). There's a valet stand just in front of Elephant East.

Elephant East, 2850 N. Harwood St., No. 120. 5 p.m. – 10 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday; 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursday; 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Monday and Tuesday.
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Lauren Drewes Daniels is the Dallas Observer's food editor. She started writing about local restaurants, chefs, beer and kouign-amanns in 2011. She's driven through two dirt devils and is certain they were both some type of cosmic force.

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