It is a busy day at Elaine’s on Queen Street. Although the restaurant isn’t open on Mondays for regular business, the kitchen is buzzing with a big event. Cynthia Higgins, owner of Elaine’s and Executive Chef says, “We do a lot of catered events and my husband is an author of spy thrillers so we have frequent events for authors in the Library room upstairs.”
Elaine’s has just been open since May, and Higgins is still getting used to the 40-year-old stove. She leased the space in 2022 where the former Bilbo Baggins had been located and spent the next 9 months renovating it. Higgins says she has taught herself, and this is her first commercial kitchen but she told her grandmother when she was a child in Egypt that she was going to open a restaurant one day. “My grandmother said ‘oh, it’s so sweet darlin’—what was she going to say? It took me 30 years to do it but she knew I would. Your word is your contract.”
Today Higgins is making her weekly special— branzino on warm farro salad, inspired by a recipe of her grandmother’s of course. Higgins says her vision is to bring Alexandria of Egypt to Alexandria, Virginia. She says Alexandria of Egypt was named after Alexander the Great—such an exciting city combining French, Italian, Middle eastern flavors.
Higgins has marinated the thin filet of branzino overnight in a combination of finely chopped parsley, cilantro, with a tiny bit of dill, kosher salt, pepper, chopped garlic and a little bit of extra virgin olive oil. She turns the heat on medium high, squirts olive oil into the skillet and adds a large pat of butter from a bowl mounded high with butter cubes. “I use a lot of butter; the secret to all good cooking is butter. Don’t let anyone tell you that butter is bad.” She explains the olive oil and butter act together. “The olive oil keeps the butter from burning.”
Higgins places the filet of branzino in the hot oil with the skin side down. “The fish is thin and delicate so I am careful not to overcook it. I watch it carefully—about two minutes on the first side until it is about halfway opaque. Then I flip it over and cook it about a minute. I keep watching the whole time.”
“I have already cooked the …. she hesitates for a moment. “Sometimes I forget the English word when I’m excited. farro —that’s it! In Egypt we eat farro both sweet and savory, for breakfast with milk and honey or savory such as with seafood or this salad with a mixture of vegetables.” Higgins has boiled a cup of farro in water with a little salt. “I keep an eye on it, too.” When it looks just right, she drains the farro. In a pan adjoining the fish she tosses diced white onions, carrots and celery. “I throw in a little salt and pepper and the zest from half a lemon.” She says you can sauté the vegetables just until crunchy or a little softer. “Add the minced garlic at the end. You don’t want it to burn. Then mix in the farro to warm the salad.”
The branzino and farro salad both come off their burners at the same time. She scrapes the farro onto a handmade pottery plate and tosses it around the plate a bit. “I love the randomness of it.” Higgins has made harissa vinaigrette by blending a large can of roasted red peppers, a tablespoon of tomato paste, a little paprika, extra virgin olive oil, lemon juice, cumin, coriander, salt and pepper. “It makes a pretty plate.”
Higgins places the branzino across the farro salad. She stands back, moves her head slightly and squirts two dollops of mild harissa vinaigrette around the plate. “Now I add dots of garlic lebna.” Finally charmoula sauce artfully but randomly added to the remaining spaces on the plate. “It makes a pretty plate.” She usually garnishes the final dish with spring onions curled in ice water but today the green onions have disappeared in the refrigerator so she improvises with chopped parsley.
Higgins says she had a pretty tough childhood, and her first happy memory was of food. “I was four-years-old and it was a pasta dish with fresh tomatoes and garlic when I was in Egypt in school. I thought this is what food should be like. It was just fresh spaghetti but so flavorful.” Higgins says her father was abusive, and in Egypt it was legal at the time. “It was worse than that. He enjoyed torturing us. It was the thing of nightmares.” She and her mother and grandmother were in hiding for 14 years moving from apartment to apartment in Cairo with their clothes in suitcases to escape her father.
She remembers cooking with her grandmother, Elaine, “who was an extraordinary woman — morally, culturally. Her real personality came out in the kitchen. I would usually be her sous chef — chopping onions, puréeing tomatoes, sometimes grinding spices.” She says, “We would play old French music; she loved Edith Piaf. We would be talking a lot about food, telling secrets, laughing.”
Higgins says she realizes that running a restaurant is about a lot more than cooking food. You have to have control of the inventory, produce a consistent product, manage the personality components. She explains the kitchen is brutally hot, not an easy atmosphere and it’s boom, boom activity level. You have to maintain composure under extreme pressure. “You can be the most renowned cook on the planet but if you don’t have the rest of it, you won’t be a success.”
Higgins comments, “I live in the kitchen.” She routinely spends 14 hours a day there. Higgins adds it’s a good thing that her husband is a workaholic because there are weeks that go by without time for a five-minute conversation. “Really.” But she strives to make it a good place to work. “That’s what I’m most proud of the culture of business; it’s like being in charge of an orchestra.”