Restaurant review: Ella

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From the January 26, 2012 edition

“I can tell you where everything comes from if you want,” a friendly and knowledgeable server gently said to me at Ella. He’d noticed I was staring at a nearby chalkboard that — instead of specials — announced some of the restaurant’s many locally sourced ingredients (like Gerber Poultry chickens, Cooper Farms turkeys and beef from an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction program). Knowing this eatery had also lured in blue-chip cooking talents — chefs Alexis Randolph from G. Michael’s and Travis Hyde from Z Cucina — and enjoying its unexpectedly (to me) breezy vibe, my hopes were inching ever higher that the haul out to New Albany had been a worthy idea. See, before, I’d had doubts.

While it’s a liltingly pretty name, Ella — which is attached to an art gallery — is actually an acronym for “eat local. love art.” From afar, I found this dictum to be a bit preachy. After eating several thoroughly pleasurable meals at Ella, I can testify that this place at least practices what it preaches. And instead of feeling staid or pretentious, Ella is a fun and sometimes boisterous place that equally accommodates friends, family and dates.

Colorful ’60s-style circles and stripes splashed across banquettes and blues music seemingly more suited to a barbecue joint than a fine dining hot spot loosen up Ella. So do brash and colorful paintings affixed to Ella’s taupe and terra cotta walls (courtesy of artists championed by Ella’s sister business, Hayley Gallery). In the sports-on-TV-beaming bar area, wacky little figurative sculptures are fashioned out of peanut and liquor canisters.

A sense of whimsy also finds its way onto Ella’s menu (which consistently shows its G. Michael’s roots). Take, for instance, the surprising Sherry Molasses Pork Wings ($9). Slathered in a dark, sweet and tangy Kansas City-style barbecue sauce were two heaving hunks of impossibly tender and juicy rib-like pig meat. What made them “wings”? Carved from frenched foreshanks, they sported “drumette” shapes and convenient bone handles. A partnering snow-white jicama slaw provided more color and texture than flavor.

Canadian Hockey Fries were another amusing starter ($7). Basically a play on poutine, this special was made with crispy “jo-jo potatoes,” soft housemade mozzarella curds and a good-on-all-things creamy and peppery gravy sprinkled with bacon and sun-dried tomatoes.

The Smoked Chicken Breast was a standout sandwich and deal at $10. With perfectly pronounced smoky notes, tender poultry, crunchily toasted ciabatta bread, sweet apple and bacon jam, zingy mustard, pickled cabbage and unifying melted aged provolone, it exhibited estimable balance.

Lustiness literally dripped from the pretzel roll of a deeply beefy “80/20” (lean to fat) burger ($11), even though it arrived cooked to medium instead of my requested medium rare. Tricked out with crispy bacon, aged cheddar and pickled onion, the burger — like all sandwiches — came with addictive sweet and salty housemade potato chips.

From the entrees, the lovely Butternut Squash Ravioli ($17) was comfort food with a sense of elegance. Topped with shaved parmesan and buttery broccolini were sheets of homemade al dente pasta loosely enveloping a blessedly unsweet and untainted-by-Christmas-spices filling. Its flattering sauce — made with garlic, butter and wine — was nearly as tangy as it was rich.

Lake Erie Walleye ($24) was another highlight. Teamed with a diced mixed-spud “hash” that nicely contrasted with a garlicky and scene-stealing wilted arugula, the fish’s mild sauce allowed its fresh flavor to shine brightly.

Like Ella itself, that dish was a kicky forum for local-loving artistry.