Good Eats – XO on Elm
When a restaurant has the international shorthand symbols for “kiss” (X) and “hug” (O) in its name, you can be reasonably sure that hospitality is a high priority. Such is the case for XO on Elm in downtown Manchester, N.H.
“We were trying to find a name for who I am, and I love to hug and kiss,” owner Rosa Paolini confesses. “That is who I am.”
When she opened the popular restaurant nearly five years ago, she had simple goals. “I wanted it to be a seasonal place, featuring local and New England foods as much as possible,” she says. “I wanted healthy servings with a variety of flavors. A modern, nice place, but also ‘homey’ so you didn’t have to dress up fancy for it.” [Editor’s note: This review originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of mvm, so some dishes and prices may have changed. At the time of online publication, the restaurant noted in this article was offering special services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Please call or visit their website listed below for updates.]
Paolini admits there was also a selfish reason for opening. “I was embarrassed when relatives and friends would visit from Italy and Europe; I would have to take them to Portsmouth or Boston to eat because there was nothing local.”Invalid mfunc tag syntax. The correct format is: <!-- W3TC_DYNAMIC_SECURITY mfunc PHP code --><!-- /mfunc W3TC_DYNAMIC_SECURITY --> or <!-- W3TC_DYNAMIC_SECURITY mfunc -->PHP code<!-- /mfunc W3TC_DYNAMIC_SECURITY -->. Left: The pan-seared duck with coconut risotto is one of the entree highlights at XO on Elm in downtown Manchester. Right: Marinated stuffed quail is the kind of exceptional appetizer at XO on Elm that doesn’t show up on many local menus. Photos by Kevin Harkins.[/caption]
That has changed, and Elm Street is now a culinary epicenter in the Granite State. XO on Elm features a varied dinner menu with plenty of Mediterranean flourishes. Tapas and “small plates” take up more menu space than entrees.
During a recent visit, each member of our party was able to enjoy a small plate, entree and dessert, and feel comfortably full, not as if we were going to explode. I like the new trend in conscientious, manageable portions, and XO on Elm clearly endorses it.
XO on Elm also stresses healthy dining by clearly marking menu items that are appropriate for vegetarians, vegans and guests on gluten-free diets, and there were plenty of options in all three categories.
The restaurant seats about 60 in two dining areas separated by a comfortable bar/lounge space. The main dining room, with picture windows facing Elm, seemed a bit spartan to me and was noisy when filled. Some folks like that. I preferred to retreat to a quiet table at the rear near a gas fireplace. The general atmosphere was a likable mix of retro chic with a dash of contemporary — very European.
The lamb lollipops ($10) were bracing starters: two petite grilled chops, ideally prepared and packed with herb and garlic flavors. I was raised on lamb; it’s easy to get it wrong. These were terrific.
The marinated stuffed quail with bacon ($13) also earned high scores. Tender and tasty and filled with cornbread/blueberry/goat cheese stuffing, the small bird was wrapped in bacon for good measure. The flavors melded nicely, with no one ingredient overpowering the others.
Pan seared duck ($26) was another treat. Served with coconut risotto and local veggies, and accented with a red plum hoisin glaze, it connected with all the right taste buds, and was yet another example of a menu item so often done wrong elsewhere, but done so right here.
A 10-ounce hangar steak ($26) was ideally grilled, but the truffle parmigiano gratin nearly stole the spotlight. Our only food complaint was a case of “bread envy.” We noticed other tables with a bread platter. None ever came our way.
Also, as a server approached a nearby table, we heard his cellphone ring. As he passed us, he growled into it, “Yeah, what do you want?” Any restaurant owner I have known would have wanted his head ona pike.
But those small distractions couldn’t spoil an exceptional meal that was accented with reasonable wine and martini lists.
Bananas Foster with coconut gelato ($9) and homemade churros with a divine chocolate dipping sauce ($7) were stylish endings to a high-style night.
XO on Elm