The surroundings are deceptively modest, but Ella’s American fusion menu — simple, yet sophisticated — is anything but ordinary.
By Karen Deutsch
Photography by Angel Tucker
Ella's Fine Food and Drink
2 Tower St., Westerly, 315-0606, ellasfinefoodanddrink.com. Hours Open for dinner Tuesday through Sunday, late lunch on weekends. Reservations suggested. Wheelchair accessible. Parking lot. Cuisine Multilingual European married to an American. Capacity Seventy in the dining room; more in the adjacent bar. Vibe Visually, the restaurant reads like a popup venture, but the food establishes depth. Prices $5–$18; entrees $16–$45; dessert $8–$10. Karen’s picks Volcano scallop, salads, Momma’s chicken, seafood. Leave room for dessert.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
All that glitters is not gold and, conversely, there are culinary caches in staid surroundings — aptly evidenced by Ella's, the nondescript building at the corner of Westerly’s Tower and Granite streets. Though South County is well-known for its broad beach views and enviable real estate, chef Jeanie Roland's new restaurant (at the site of the old Capizzano’s) is in one of the most unassuming intersections in America, housed in a brick paneled edifice that looks more like a 1970s Elks Lodge than a seaside eatery. Consider it, however, a disguise of sorts.
To her credit, Roland is no newbie to the culinary scene. After opening and running the Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda, Florida, with her husband, James, for ten years, the couple eventually returned north and settled in Rhode Island to showcase her evident aptitude. Eat your way through her menu and the proficiency is clear, not because a single dish is accomplished but because she works well with so many disparate cuisines and techniques.
While the term “American” is vast and capable of incorporating a wide range of ingredients, one of the most overrated tactics a restaurant can adopt is the “everything approach.” Fusion is fine when it's confined to two cultures, but no one benefits from a hybrid that borders on gastronomic schizophrenia. Fortunately, Roland keeps her focus on mainstream dishes — seafood, steaks, salads — with subtle (but sincere) homage to foreign lands and a lot of creativity. Better yet, she knows when to grandstand and when to let food speak for itself. Evidence of the former: foie gras with blueberry sauce and the most unexpected pairing you may ever see with duck liver — bacon creme brulee ($18). It's easy and not entirely wrong to conclude it's simply too much. The textures are so silky, the dish so rich, that enjoyment just barely wins over guilt.
On the other hand, the tartness of the berries and the smoky sweetness of the creme are in convivial conversation with that elevated offal. “Look what you could be,” it smirks, “if you were more unassuming.” Other dishes follow the same vein: A single scallop just past raw in the center is topped with torched crabmeat and tobiko ($12), creating textures so distinct that each bite is entirely different.
However, some finds — the occasionally perfect piece of fruit — crop up and Roland's aggressive attitude is swiftly harnessed. A salad of Hillandale Farm tomato, a Platonic version practically quivering with its own superlative juices, is unadorned except for a drizzle of herb dressing and a handful of peppery arugula ($10). And hallelujah — there's nothing more welcome, in an age of conceit, than the ability to acknowledge that soil is capable of as many wonders as human hands.
That's not to say that personality isn't apparent at Ella's, as much in the waitstaff as the kitchen. Bartenders and servers seem genuinely proud to present plates and offer opinions. The miraculous tomato remained a persistent topic of conversation, described as “red itself and full of heart” by a waiter I thought too young to have developed such sentimentality. Even an accidentally toppled glass of water was met with such sincere devastation that one diner looked to be placating the employee rather than the other way around. Likewise, both the dining room and adjoining bar are outfitted with residential touches that attempt to evoke home — lamps, curtains and console tables — in hues of brown and blue to soften industrial architecture bones. But it's best to keep your eyes on the food, which delivers more readily.
Entrees are rooted in comfort though Roland only uses tradition as a springboard and affordability more in principle than practice. Lamb is the highest priced dish at a startling $45, but she often does more with less. Gnocchi with mozzarella ($16) is old-school but Momma's fried chicken ($23), doused with sweet corn butter and served with chunky cheddar grits, evokes something far less processed and better than corn consumers have come to expect. Renditions of duck ($28) and rabbit ($32), both roasted and prepared as confit, are accomplished as is wagyu hanger steak ($28), made international with a soy-based marinade, and an elevated filet served with bacon-onion jam and the sharp, welcome addition of fresh horseradish ($25). If there's a classification to be made, you might make the case for a decidedly Asian influence, but Roland is too clever and curious to bind herself to a single perspective.
Well established in Florida, she's been thrice nominated for a James Beard Award, technically for Southern Chef but one could speculate the recognition is more for synchronized ingenuity and restraint. In lobster-loving New England, she makes the unexpected choice of serving it pho-style with rice noodles in lobster broth ($29). It might seem alienating to a local crowd but — burning house chile sauce on the side and up to the diner's discretion — it's a sweet dish not too distant from the classic. If anything, it seems strangely tamer than the ubiquitous butter-soaked version, in part because each bite is tempered by starch. Halibut, too, is pushed just slightly past what's anticipated, served on a thickly seared disk of lobster hash browns and brightened with fresh herb sauce ($30) — both humble and heightened.
Given how artful Roland's dishes are, it's still a surprise that Ella's space is so ordinary. Sure, the bar benefits as it soaks up the casual atmosphere with the privilege of a lofty menu. But the institutional ceilings sit at obvious odds with the highly crafted plates. Even doughnuts ($8), considered commonplace but presented here like a Damien Hirst painting, are aesthetically adept. It's hard not to want to play matchmaker for a menu that deserves more than an understated backdrop and demands a substantive financial commitment. But the regular crowd seems unfazed. Perhaps it grounds the lofty objectives, making Ella's more accessible than if it were housed in, say, Boston. (Who, after all, in the South End could claim their produce came from a dozen paces down the road?)
Desserts, however, easily capture the eye if the decor does not: A wedge of caramel semifreddo painted with chocolate sauce ($8) disappears into liquid sugar as it hits the tongue. And even the geometric precision of shortbread-crusted hazelnut mousse with a dome of banana chocolate-chunk ice cream ($10) is swiftly forgotten at first bite. In the end, that's clearly the quickest way to identify good food: There might be a firestorm three feet away — or an institutional feel to the walls around you — but nothing distracts from a dish done right.