SKANEATELES — The decor at Elephant and the Dove is as enticing as anything on its menu.
The new Skaneateles restaurant, opening Thursday, takes its visual inspiration from the Mexican artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. It also takes its name from the husband and wife, who were described as "an elephant and a dove" due to the contrast between their statures: Rivera tall and overweight, Kahlo diminutive and fragile.
And the portrait of Kahlo at the top of the stairway to the second floor of the restaurant is just one way it evokes her surrealist style.
Designed by Thom Filicia, a member of the cast of the original "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," the colorful 7,500 square-foot-space is a feast for the eyes. Large golden flowers bloom from the walls. And every surface, from the pillows lining its seats to the cages holding its candles, is richly patterned and textured, suggesting a certain authenticity.
But what gives the restaurant that authenticity is its food. Executive Chef Albert Herrera, previously of Avicolli's in Syracuse, has conceived a menu that General Manager Patrick Lischak described Tuesday as "hometown Mexican cuisine." Staples like tacos and enchiladas are there, but they're filtered through Herrera and the family recipes he grew up with.
"People are going to see some dishes they're used to, and some dishes they're not used to, that are a little more authentic to Mexican cuisine," Lischak said.
One highlight is Herrera's posole, a slow-cooked pork stew with hominy that the chef's grandmother made on Sundays, Lischak said. Depending on the amount of spices or lime juice used, its flavor can range from hot to sweet. Another highlight is chiles en nogada, a chili pepper stuffed with pork, raisins and more, and served with a walnut cream sauce.
Both items were popular at tastings put together by Elephant and the Dove's owners, Adam and Kim Weitsman, as they prepared to open the restaurant, Lischak said. Also owners of The Krebs down Genesee Street, the Weitsmans wanted their second restaurant to both bring the Mexican food they love to Skaneateles, and make that food affordable.
"Adam runs a blue-collar business (Upstate Shredding), so he wants to offer the experience of walking into a beautiful restaurant, sitting and eating a meal for $10 to $12 a dish," Lischak said.
The most expensive item on the restaurant's menu is a 12-ounce steak for $24, Lischak said. Three tacos, meanwhile, are $9 to $12, depending on which of the six options is ordered. They include shrimp, steak, pork and a rotating catch-of-the-day taco that will use fresh, available fish. The menu is 22 items, Lischak continued, and will change "when it needs to."
Affordable as it is, Lischak said, the restaurant's Mexican fare isn't prepared cheaply. Herrera and his staff makes all of the tortillas, sauces and other components from scratch.
"We're trying to make it our own and set the tone for Mexican food in Skaneateles," Lischak said. "Because it hasn't been seen here before."
Elephant and the Dove took the same approach to its cocktail menu. Its five original specials include a hibiscus habanero drink, as well as a margarita that substitutes the traditional orange liqueur with salt water. And instead of salt on the rim, there's a tahini spice that pops against restaurant's green cocktail glassware, Lischak said.
Other drink options include house-made sangria, Mexican and local craft beers, and the Scorpion Bowl, a 96-ounce glass skull for groups that want to share a cocktail. Wine is less of a focus at the restaurant, Lischak said. The bar carries a basic selection, but The Krebs already serves a Wine Spectator award-winning program, he noted.
The general manager said the restaurant was designed to drive business with its bar, which is the centerpiece of the first floor when patrons walk in the Genesee Street entrance. There are some tables surrounding the bar, including an area with no speakers for more conversational dining. But the main dining area is the skylit second floor, where the kitchen is also located. (A dumbwaiter delivers food to the lower floors.) Six of the seats on the floor are located at an exhibition counter facing the kitchen, which Lischak expects to be popular real estate.
"We hired a very lively kitchen staff," he said. "We want the guests being able to interact with the staff at any time, and them having the knowledge to answer questions that might come their way."
Diners who prefer privacy can opt for a room on the lower level with the only table at the restaurant that can be reserved. It seats 12 to 14, Lischak said. Also on the lower level is a takeout kiosk with its own entrance at the back of the restaurant. And delivery will be available this summer to the Clift Park docks, Lischak said. Food can be ordered online or by phone.
The Elephant and the Dove's private room also has its own music system. That may come in handy Thursdays through Saturdays, as the restaurant will have a resident DJ performing those nights. The DJ, whose booth location is still being determined, will set the mood of the restaurant with the music he spins, Lischak said.
"We want that fun atmosphere. Not loud, but upbeat," he said. "Where people come in, relax and have good drinks and good food."