Published November 01. 2012 4:00AM
There's an energy that exists inside Ella's Fine Food and Drink in Westerly, and it's kind of contagious.
You feel it when you enter the dining room, a masculine, "Mad Men" kind of space, where golden pendant lights over each high-backed booth invite you to nestle in for an intimate, elegant meal.
The charcoal gray carpet keeps down the noise as it runs beneath the black and cherry wood tables. Large windows span the front, overlooking a stone patio and the busy Granite Street intersection.
A disproportionately large wait staff, all in black, stands ready to refill water glasses, brush away crumbs between courses and describe the night's offerings from James Beard Award-nominated Chef Jeanie Roland, who, with her husband James, owns Ella's as well as the acclaimed Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda, Fla.
On our first visit, a handsome host in a lavender shirt greeted us with a smile, escorted us to our table and laid our black napkins in our laps.
Our waitress regaled us with tales of the chef and the menu, which had been seriously updated just the previous week. We ordered and soon were given a glorious hunk of warm Kalamata olive and rosemary focaccia and an amuse-bouche - a single, bite-sized hors d'oeuvre - gifts from the chef. On this day, the amuse was a tiny circle of brioche topped with a dollop of smoky salmon mousse, a bit of fish roe and a leaf of micro celery. Such an auspicious beginning.
But the truth is, now about six months after its opening, Ella's can be a bit hit or miss.
For example, our appetizers: the Volcano Scallop ($12) and the Seared Fois Gras ($18). The scallop was succulent and huge, piled with lump crab meat, bruleed (browned with a torch), and served with brown butter and a lovely salad with a soy dressing. Delicious.
The fois gras was pan-seared and served with a "Rhode Island Jeaniecake stack"?with maple fois butter, pickled Asian pear and a Madeira reduction. Arranged on a rectangular white plate, a nice slice of caramelized fois gras was on the left, with a stack of silver dollar johnnycakes next, then the pear slices and a little salad. Each element was good, but in an assembled bite, the sweet maple drowned the other flavors.
Next, we shared a salad from that night's specials: spinach, walnuts, Turkish figs, vinaigrette, and a giant wedge of aged goat cheese. Truthfully, the spinach was unnecessary, a way to kill time between mouthfuls of sweet, fresh fig and creamy, decadent cheese. Yum.
For our entrees, I chose the fluke ($21) from the specials menu, a tight stack of filets served atop sautéed spinach and potato gratin. The fish, perhaps in an attempt to heat the tight mass all the way through, was overcooked and dry. The spinach was delicious, but the gratin was the star - slices of creamy, buttery, potatoes, perfectly browned, it melted in your mouth.
The marinara on my husband's Three Cheese Housemade Gnocci ($17) with marinara and fresh basil was fresh but a tad sweet. The gnocci were not the best texture. Good, but not great.
On our next visit, we ate in Ella's lounge, an excellent option if you're not a fan of the fussy service. Here, you may order from the full menu or the lounge menu, which features a Wagyu burger - an American version of a Kobe-style beef ? and other lighter fare.
There is no draught beer at Ella's, but there's a good selection of bottled, a large wine list, a specialty drinks menu and an impressive selection of high-end liquor.
I ordered the grilled tuna tacos ($18) from the bar menu. My husband tried the Duo of Rabbit ($12), a special that day.
The tacos arrived assembly-required: two fat portions of grilled tuna, three corn tortillas, shredded cabbage, salsa, sour cream and guacamole. The tuna, grilled rare, was fine but lacked flavor. The tortillas were room temperature and flabby. The salsa and guacamole were uninspired. And putting them together was awkward. A miss.
But the rabbit? A hit. The first preparation was a confit (slow-cooked in duck fat), served atop a frisee (curly endive) salad dressed in a sherry vinaigrette that made you want to lick the plate. The confit was rich and tender, perfect with the fresh salad. The second was a spring roll. Crunchy and flavorful, it was cut into three pieces that stood on end in a wash of vinaigrette. Creative, satisfying, delicious.
We didn't resist the dessert menu this time, which included a gingersnap ice cream sandwich and a fresh fried donut with chocolate sauce. We opted for the rustic apple tart ($10), garnished with crème fraiche ice cream and salted caramel sauce. Served piping hot, it was perfect.
So what is the moral of Ella's story thus far? It's not cheap, and I didn't love everything we were served, but will I go again? Absolutely. It is so exciting to have a chef like Roland cooking in a Westerly kitchen. As a diner, you feel as if you're participating with her in this culinary adventure. During both of our visits, she came out of the kitchen to chat with patrons. So gracious. Ella's is clearly a labor of love, and I hope the adventure continues for a long time to come.