Monday, November 14, 2011

Ela's Opening Night

Ela, the new restaurant under the partnership of chefs Jason Cichonski and Chip Roman, opened this Friday night. The duo already worked together at Roman's Mica (which opened this March) on Chestnut Hill. However, if you thought Mica served inventive cuisine then Ela's is downright crazy. Before going we had sneaked a look at potential dishes. Popcorn pana cotta with paddlefish caviar, asparagus and shrimp? Duck magret with pretzel spaetzle, Brussels sprouts and smoked butternut squash puree? We knew we were in for a gustatory adventure.

We arrived at Ela at half past nine. After walking ten blocks from the Septa station we were a bit cold and hungry. Ela was understandably packed and the staff seemed quite frazzled. Even though we had made a reservation, I was afraid we wouldn't be seated for a while. Fortunately I was wrong, in less than two minutes we found ourselves seated at an awkwardly long two-person table. With the noise levels so high, we found ourselves leaning in uncomfortably and nearly shouting at one another. I'm sure on a less busy night it would be much easier to communicate, however the set-up was far from romantic. I'm imagining the awkwardness that would ensue from a couple trying to play footsie at such a table.

However, we didn't come to Ela to analyze table proportions, and we were quickly distracted by the creative menu. It was similar to a tasting menu, arranged into first, second, third and fourth bite sections. Each dish ranged from $8-$23 dollars, and ordering one from each category was too much for our poor college students' budget. Being gluten-intolerant, I asked our server which of the dishes were gluten-free. Unfortunately, out of the twenty or so dishes offered on the menu, only three were edible to me. I ordered the hamachi with green apple, horseradish and truffle ($9) and the sweet potato soup with porcini and coffee ($7). Maggie, who had free-range of the entire menu (the lucky girl!) chose the foie gras with gingerbread, huckleberry and parsley root ($13).

"The Bites"

Elliott's take: The raw hamachi, a Japanese fish commonly used in sushi, tasted fresh and was elegantly folded. The promised green apple was served in long strips. They were surprisingly tart and almost pickled, I imagine they had been marinated in a vinegary concoction. The truffle and horseradish were quite a surprise. As far as I could tell the truffle was a white truffle, crumbled all over the plate and flavored with horseradish. It was like eating airy horseradish clouds that dissolved in my mouth. A lot of fun, but I was disappointed that the truffle's flavor was masked. Swirled between all these different components was a syrupy fruit puree. When eaten together, a mouthful of hamachi, syrup, apple and horseradish truffles, the flavor combination was quite unusual but not bad.

I was at first taken aback when the server brought me my sweet potato soup. He placed a bowl down in front of me, empty except for an artistically arranged assortment of cylindrical sweet potato pieces, jellied cubes of something, a sprig of fennel and a sprinkle of a vibrant red spice. Very beautiful, but where was my soup? I was appeased however as a pitcher of soup materialized in his left hand. He then proceeded to pour it over the still-life with sweet potatoes that had been waiting in my bowl. It was quite the show; I'm sad my camera wasn't out to photograph such a demonstration. The soup itself was delicious; I thoroughly enjoyed every spoonful. The flavor of fennel permeated the soup, adding an unexpected complexity to the sweetness of the sweet potato. The jellied cubes however are still a mystery to me. The moment I saw them I thought that they must be the coffee, but they didn't taste like it. To me they were reminiscent of aspic, a culinary "delight" that my Belgian host family never succeeded in convincing me to enjoy.

Even though I had been restricted to only a few choices of the menu, I enjoyed my dinner more than I had expected. Some of the flavor combinations worked surprisingly well together. However for me the most fun thing about the dinner wasn't the flavor combinations but just trying to figure out what in the world I was actually eating.

Maggie's take: My plate was made up of tiny portions that were artfully displayed. The foie gras was mousse-like and airy, served in dollops on the crumbled gingerbread. It was dotted with gooseberries and the parsley roots lay on the side of the dish. The end result was an eclectic group of flavors, with the salty foie gras, the sweet gingerbread, the fruity gooseberries, and the crisp parsley roots. The proportions were perfect, and I had enough of the refreshing parsley root to pair with each bite of the foie gras. The foie gras was saltier than I expected, and I would have preferred the gingerbread to be more heavily ginger-flavored and less dessert-like, but altogether it was an interesting experience for my taste buds. Because the foie gras was in a mousse and the gingerbread was crumbled, the dish was not “substantial” in the same sense that a slab of foie gras paired with bread would be. However, in spite of the small quantities and the emphasis on presentation, I ended up feeling quite full from the rich food.

After our plates were cleared Maggie and I were taken aback as our server asked us kindly, "Is that all?" He must have noticed the look of horror cross our faces since he immediately added, "Or would like to see the dessert menu?" We assured him that we would very much like to see the dessert menu. There were three sweet offerings (along with an artisanal cheese plate), on the menu. The options consisted of whipped pumpkin pie with crust (I found it odd they had to mention that, doesn't pie usually come with crust?), pumpkin seed praline, candied ginger and figs, and hot chocolate chip cookie dough with vanilla semifreddo and banana. Our server was quick to point out the last item, manjari chocolate with with apricot, malt and peanuts ($9) was the only dessert suitable to my digestion. We quickly agreed to split such a decadent-sounding treat.

The Dessert

Elliott's Take: I like to think of myself as a bit of a chocolate aficionado. However, I'll admit that I had no idea what "manjari" chocolate was and had to look it up once I got back to Penn's campus. Apparently, manjari chocolate is made from "the best beans" in Madagascar, and has around a 64% cocoa content. I'm not so sure about these being the best beans, but the mousse was certainly quite good. Not as rich as I was expecting, with a bit of a tart edge (manjari chocolate is often described as being citrusy). While I prefer my chocolate darker, the lower cocoa content was a perfect complement to the apricot puree that oozed from its center. The addition of the peanuts and malt powder made the apricot puree an interesting twist on the usual caramel sauce. The most confusing bit of the dessert were these little white crunchy clouds scattered along the plate. The moment I saw them I was worried that bits of my previous horseradish-flavored white truffles had been mistakenly strewn on the plate. After nibbling one, however, I was assured that they were just harmless meringue. I must have appeared perplexed however, because our server quickly rushed over and assured me that they were "malt bits". I don't think they were however, since I had already found the malt powder sprinkled on the plate, and these white bits didn't taste anything like malt. The identity of these mysterious bits became the focal point of Maggie's and my discussion. I'm still quite convinced that they were meringue. Once again, the game of what-could-I-possibly be eating was played by all. I thought it was a lot of fun.

Maggie's take: Once again, I was initially struck by the small portion of food on my plate but once more I was pleasantly surprised by it being just the right amount. The chocolate was delicious, more semi-sweet than sweet and with an interesting texture that was in between the hardness of a chocolate bar and the lightness of a mousse. The apricot gel in the middle added a slight citrusy sweetness but was not an overpoweringly strong flavor. The salted peanuts and malt powder were delicious with the chocolate. Overall, it was not a strongly sweet dessert. As with my main course, the flavors contrasted with each other to create an intriguing and delicious end result.

The Bottom Line

Elliott's take: Would I go back to Ela? Maybe. They promise ultra-seasonal dishes and I would love to go back to see how their menu has changed. However, the night was definitely a splurge, and next time I would hope to go on someone else's dime.

Maggie's take: I definitely enjoyed going to Ela for the experience. It seemed to emphasize different flavors and foods than I was used to, and also focused on presenting them in artistic ways. While it was not the sort of menu I am used to and is more expensive than I’d typically like to spend, it was certainly a fun dinner.

-Elliott Brooks and Maggie Buff

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