Dining review: Elegant, elevated Ella makes case as Sacramento region’s best restaurant
09/28/2013 12:00 AM
09/30/2014 1:24 PM
In the nearly seven years Ella Dining Room & Bar has graced our downtown dining scene with an exciting and original brand of urban elegance, the restaurant has had four chefs, three general managers and one very hands-on family.
From the beginning, the concept outlined by the Selland family has been a brilliant one. It’s also a near-impossible one to get right, a farm-to-fork, New American bistro that is supposed to be cozy and relaxed with touches of grandeur befitting a special-occasion destination. Beyond that, the idea was to simply be a great restaurant, the kind of place that the Michelin Guide, if it were to extend its reach beyond the Bay Area and Napa, just might award it a coveted star or two.
I never thought Ella had hit its stride to that extent – until now.
Under current general manager Joseph Vaccaro, executive chef Ravin Patel and a staff devoted to teamwork in the front and back of the house, Ella has not only done the near impossible, it has evolved into a near-perfect dining experience. It is casual. It is serious. It is beautiful. It is discerning. But it isn’t daunting.
My recent selections at Ella for lunch and dinner have run the gamut, including a remarkable wood-fired pork chop garnished with Concord grapes, a plump and meaty sturgeon wrapped in caul fat and then seared, an artful and delicious Pavlova dessert, and, for the adventurous set, a baby-octopus appetizer that offered a prelude of the exciting flavors to come. Each time, my experience showed that restaurant impresario Randall Selland and company are not resting on their laurels.
They’ve already got the singular performance-style restaurant, The Kitchen, dialed in and playing to packed houses for 20-plus years. They’ve got the quality neighborhood joint, Selland Market-Cafe, all figured out.
And now, after gentle tweaks, solid leadership and a superbly talented new chef who marries bold strokes with subtle and sophisticated ones, Ella, big and beautiful, has made a strong case for being the best restaurant in the Sacramento region.
That’s saying a lot in our new high-caliber and highly competitive dining scene. Its food is a touch more eclectic than Hawks’. Its setting is superior to Enotria’s. Its menu is more dynamic and daring than Taste’s. And its overall vibe is more au courant than the Firehouse’s.
When Selland, forever brimming with wisdom and enthusiasm, once told me that Ella was not, in fact, a fine-dining restaurant, I was taken aback. Had this elder statesman/chef/restaurateur been cooking too long without adequate ventilation?
If it wasn’t fine dining, what in the world was it? Why did the serving staff seem so choreographed and precise, if not so serious? If it wasn’t fine dining, why bother having an intelligently curated wine cellar with a 3,100-bottle capacity, and a trained sommelier to guide you through your selections? Why bother spending millions on interior design and renovations?
And if you’re not a fine-dining place, why are you doing such meaningful and memorable things with food and hiring some of the most thoughtful and talented chefs to come through town?
It comes down to a question of semantics. Selland, it turns out, wants Ella to be high quality and original. He wants the service to be attentive and knowing. And he insists people should be comfortable dropping in on a whim wearing sweatshirts with jeans and fit right in where others are dressed to the nines.
That’s an incredibly tough balance to get right.
But the service at Ella is better – and more fitting – than it has ever been. While it remains attuned to the fundamentals, there is a breezy and casual quality to service that I had not seen before. I used to think it was a bit fussy, almost overdone – look at us, how many of us there are, how we’re moving all over this grand dining space until you’re distracted, if not dizzy. Now there is a sense of ease, of restraint, that seems more fitting. And the restaurant is more fun as a result.
I chalk that up to the leadership of Vaccaro, the longtime sommelier who was promoted to GM. He has an easy intensity about him. All he wants is perfection, yet he appears to work the room with a seeming insouciance, all the while focusing on all the moving parts in this bustling restaurant. If a guest doesn’t like a drink, he’s on it. If someone leaves a half-eaten pork chop on the plate, he’ll be there to figure out why and make it right.
Which leads us to the question of the cooking. Whoever leaves a half-eaten pork chop at Ella might qualify for a straitjacket. The food here is irresistibly good and stimulating, for in Patel we have a chef who has great gifts, a wonderful vision and a background that places his sensibilities firmly in two distinctly different but complementary worlds. He is very much a Sacramento chef, born and raised here. And when he married and started a family, he chose to return here. He is also very much a product of India and its great culinary passions.
His parents moved to the U.S. from southern India and eventually settled in Sacramento. These days, we’d refer to them as serious foodies. They planted a backyard garden so they could have access to vegetables from their homeland. They cooked and cooked, and Patel learned to see food as a key component of the family dynamic.
He went to college and became a stockbroker, but he wasn’t content. After talking it over with his family, he decided to make a dramatic career shift, giving up the lucrative life in high finance to go to culinary school while still in his early 20s. After that, he eventually found himself working in the kitchen at The Modern, a Danny Meyer-owned restaurant in New York City that earned one Michelin star.
When he came back to Sacramento, he soon got a job at Ella and started near the bottom in the kitchen. But then-executive chef Kelly McCown quickly spotted his skills, and Patel moved up. He also worked under Michael Thiemann, who succeeded McCown. Thiemann left six months ago for a brief stint working in the Bay Area for the Tyler Florence Group before returning to announce he would be opening two restaurants on K Street.
Patel’s palate is a true expression of who he is and the flavors he loves. While he has no plans to overhaul the food style at Ella, Patel manages to sprinkle exotic notes of Indian cuisine throughout the menu, leading to a cultural fusion unlike anything you’ll encounter in the city.
Let’s look at two relatively mainstream dishes that Patel transforms into inimitable eating experiences. First, the salmon entree takes us on a journey to Patel’s ancestral home and back. Patel steeps coconut milk in aromatics, lemongrass and ginger, and creates a creamy sauce with lentils that marries well with the fatty salmon. It’s an American dish with Indian flavor notes and multiple textural components that give the dish an elegance and complexity.
Then there’s the beet salad, something we see at every serious farm-to-table eatery in town. This one looked like a classic California dish, but some gently foreign flavors were a delightful surprise. I asked Patel how he did it, for it seemed like a little touch of magic. He told me about a plant called fenugreek, which is common in the cuisines of India. Patel uses the earthy ingredient in the pickling of the golden beets.
Some of the meals here could easily be called “very Michelin.” The sturgeon, for instance, was one of the best seafood dishes I’ve had in memory. Patel’s techniques are noteworthy. He brines this plump fish (from Passmore Ranch) for eight hours in a blend of sugar, spices and herbs to enhance the mild flavor, then wraps each piece in caul fat, a rather esoteric use of the thin layer of fat surrounding the internal organs of a pig. As the sturgeon is seared in a hot pan, that fat practically melts into the fish and creates a caramelized crust. Served with cranberry beans, gypsy peppers and a small fennel salad, it’s an intensely delicious eating experience.
The pork dish will also make one swoon with a delightful use of grapes – a bunch of the grapes, still on the stems, are roasted and placed atop the chop, while other grapes are cooked down into a thick, dark sauce. Here, we have the acidity and sweetness bringing out the subtle flavors of the pork, which has been brined for 24 hours, cooked sous vide to perfect medium rare, then seared and finished in the wood-fired oven.
This is a dish that seems in harmony with the dining room itself – at once rustic and elegant and refined. We can argue about the semantics of fine dining, but this casual ideal is the new American way of enjoying superior food. Fine dining hasn’t gone away, but maybe we’ve softened some of that stuffiness and formality. It’s happening from here to New York.
There were few missteps during our visits. The fried chicken we had at lunch may be the best bird in town, but the vegetarian nut burger was an unfortunate unraveling. The bun and the patty fell apart and it ate more like a Sloppy Joe. While the desserts were often superb, including a graceful use of meringue in a refined interpretation of Pavlova, and an excellent tres leches dessert served in a Mason jar, we grimaced our way through a chocolate sorbet that was overly bitter and jarring to the senses.
Still, our visits here show that highly regarded, elegant Ella continues to evolve. In the hands of Vaccaro and Patel, we’re seeing this beautiful downtown restaurant achieve a new level of excellence. Feel confident in making the case that there’s no better restaurant in and around Sacramento.
Ella Dining Room & Bar
1131 K St.
Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m to 10 p.m. Friday; 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday.
Beverage options: One of the three best wine lists in town featuring a balance of styles, regions and price points; small craft beer selection; superb mixed drinks and very good “buzz-free” mixed drinks that are a good bet at lunch.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes, though the highlights of the menu tend to be meat and seafood.
Noise level: Lively but refined enough for comfortable conversations at the table.
Ambiance: The rustic wooden shutters decorating the ceiling give a cozy feel to a large, grand room that could otherwise feel cold and formal.
Overall * * * * (out of 4 stars)
Given the beauty of the setting, the sense of teamwork with the service, the extensive wine program and the wonderful cooking, a very strong case can be made that this is not only a very Sacramento dining experience, but the very best dining experience in Sacramento.
Food * * * *
Chef Ravin Patel continues to showcase the restaurant’s legacy as a farm-to-fork, seasonal restaurant, but he has taken the menu in an exciting new direction by marrying American classic cooking with touches and flourishes of his ancestral homeland in southern India. Patel’s food is beautiful, elegant, a touch rustic and always exciting.
Service * * * *
The emphasis here is on training, knowledge, the ability to read the needs of each table and, more than anything, seamless teamwork.
Value * * * *
Lunch ranges from $15 for the superb burger to $23 for the excellent salmon. Dinner entrees range from $23 to $40 for the steak, making this among the most expensive restaurants in the area. But the quality and overall experience add up to good value.
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