Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Ela -- A Few Days In!

Not realizing that my fellow bloggers were planning to grace Ela with their presence on opening night, I made a last-minute reservation for this past Sunday, after catching up on all the latest foodie news on my beloved uwishunu. Having heard off-the-chart reviews about Chip Roman's Blackfish, I couldn't resist trying a place he had his name on. Two clicks on Open Table and I had a reservation for one!


Queen Village is an adorable neighborhood -- quaint and quiet, and with just enough hustle and bustle coming off South Street. Ela is situated on the corner of 3rd and Bainbridge, and with a soft glow cast over a chic black door, I felt like I was entering an upscale pub -- and I got just that.

With a sleek bar to the left and a series of tables on the right by the windows, I was greeted by the hostess and shown to a small table for two that seemed to be right in the line of traffic. When I asked for a quieter table tucked away in the corner, she quickly obliged (always a good sign!) and I found myself pleasantly situated.

While I waited forever for my server, I got a chance to check out the rest of the clientele. At the bar were a bunch of Eagles fans (most likely mulling over their earlier loss to the Cardinals) with beer flowing as well as several pairs munching on appetizers. Across the warmly lit dining room and back room, I noticed older couples, younger couples, and groups of friends and family members.

A handful of hipsters looked ready to go out, while most diners seemed fairly dressed down. If anything, the wandering hosts and hostesses were more dressed up than anyone else. Chef Jason Cichonski himself was dressed to the nines as he wandered the restaurant greeting guests.

From what I could tell from overheard conversations, Ela is already gaining favor with the locals. Indeed, one couple was already back for a second meal -- and the restaurant had just opened two days before!

That said, it's likely that service will need to be watched, as the bar and dining room both seemed slightly understaffed. And while I may not be the most patient diner, I didn't expect to have to ask for water and menus.


With Ela's website yet to be fully operational (which I have to admit I always question), I didn't have the opportunity to preview their menus prior to arrival. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, as it forces you to make decisions based on your gut -- which is wholly appropriate in this case.

As noted by my fellow bloggers, the menu is divided into four different plate sizes. Seeing as how I was dining solo (which I'll expound on shortly), I decided to go with two smaller plates and one larger one, so that I could save just enough room for dessert. The strategy worked, as I was pleasantly full by the end of the meal, without being overwhelmingly so.

To give some context, November is my birthday month, and I'm planning to celebrate all month. And however much I love my friends, even my foodiest of foodie friends, dining solo ultimately gives me the fullest extent of time and space to thoroughly savor and consider the food set before me. And with another birthday coming up, I really could think of no one else I'd rather have eaten with than me, myself, and I.

My first plate was the foie gras. To be clear, this was far and away the best dish of the night. The foie itself was lighter than usual, simultaneously airy and creamy. The huckleberries provided just enough acidic contrast, and the gingerbread crumbles offered a nice sweetness and crunch. The shredded parsley root was a bit of a throwaway, as the dish was perfect enough with the first three elements. Having this dish was like having dessert as an appetizer, to the extent that I seriously considered ordering it AS the dessert. (This I actually should've done since the dessert ultimately needed the most work.)

My second plate was the crab banh cam. These crab balls consisted of crabmeat wrapped in glutinous rice flour (similar to mochi) and flash fried. The result is a delightful contrast in textures and flavors -- from the super crispy outside, to the first layer of semi-sweet chewiness, and then to the seasoned crabmeat inside. The shredded daikon radish added a freshness to the dish, but tasted even better soaked in the miso mayonnaise underneath. As a whole, the dish was a great example of what modern Asian cuisine has the potential to be.

The most fascinating element was the thinly sliced and delicately scored pieces of mushroom supporting the crab balls. If anything, the pieces looked and tasted more like pieces of calamari -- a unique element that made for an interesting foil if nothing else. Despite all its wonderful elements, however, the sad thing about this dish was that one of the two crab balls contained *no* crabmeat! When I mentioned this to one of the hosts, he immediately apologized and ran off to tell the chef -- and ultimately comped the dish entirely. Totally unnecessary, but most definitely a sign of good service.

For my last plate, I chose the diver scallop "noodles" -- essentially noodles made from flattened diver scallops. In general, I must admit that I hate scallops. I've never liked their texture, but while I'm wont to avoid them totally, I thought I'd have them for my brother's sake (my little brother who adores scallops beyond anything and will order them whenever he sees them on a menu). Plus, who wouldn't want to try something as creative as scallop noodles, right?

And to my thankful surprise, the dish was delightful. While I could've done without the carrots (I absolutely hate carrots -- and yes, more than I do scallops), the shredded root vegetables were nicely pickled (from what I could tell) and the scallop noodles were tender but offered a noodle-worthy chew. A drizzle of sweet and salty (possibly honey and soy) sauce brought together the various elements of the dish, and a dusting of black sesame seeds gave the dish a bit of Asian flair.

Because of my incredible sweet tooth, I can't help but end practically every meal with dessert. With the leaves finally changing color, and the fall finally upon us, I decided to go with the whipped pumpkin pie. To my chagrin, I was met with a horrible deluge of mismatched flavors and textures. First of all, the whipped pumpkin tasted like air (and FYI that I despise cotton candy). This would've been salvageable had the pumpkin seed praline not been in diametric opposition in terms of texture and flavor -- overly crunchy and cloyingly sweet. In addition, the figs on the side were bland, and the cookie underneath was mushy. A major disappointment, and I totally made it known to my server that the dish needed serious work.


After taking a while to get to my table initially, my server made a point to check in on me throughout the meal, asking me what I thought about the food and really taking in what I had to say. In fact, she even asked me to write thoroughly on a comment card, especially since they were still tweaking dishes in their first week of opening. My water glass was consistently full, and my fellow diners were regularly checked on as well. One minor issue was that I was told by a host that the chef would come by my table to say hello, and he ultimately didn't. While I wouldn't have cared if it hadn't been mentioned, it was mentioned so therefore I cared. That aside, I tipped well.

Final Thoughts

Despite a few culinary stumbles, the overall experience of Ela was quite excellent. The main dishes were creative and thoughtful, and well-executed in terms of contrasting textures and flavors. Each dish had the right amount of seasoning, and I never felt any element to be overwhelming. Moving forward, ensuring all crab balls have crabmeat in them will be critical. However, more than anything, the desserts (particularly the pumpkin one) need some serious overhaul. Expanding and/or rotating the menu may help keep folks coming back for more. All in all, the atmosphere seemed to draw in an eclectic mix of locals, visitors, and foodies. With creative food, reasonable prices, and plenty of drink options, I hope Ela continues to bring in a diverse clientele that enjoys good food without pretension.

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