I have a friend who often uses the word “magnificent” to describe everything from the Chrysler 300 to the dinner he had last night. I usually refrain from such hyperbole, but I believe I’ve found a restaurant worthy of such praise. Ella’s Fine Food & Drink in Westerly is only three months old, but chef-owner Jeanie Roland is turning out beautifully crafted food that any venerable restaurant would envy. This is not surprising – she has been nominated five times for a prestigious James Beard Foundation Award from her days at The Perfect Caper in Punta Gorda, Florida.
At the busy intersection of Tower, Ward and Granite, the location is unpretentious – an old brick building, which has been home to an array of restaurants over the decades, most notably Capizzano’s. For many years, the chef there was a woman named Ella, and this latest incarnation is in homage to her. The new interior is quietly sophisticated, in shades of gray with black accents. Tucked into a corner is the dimly lit lounge, offering a separate and intriguing menu. But, those Lobster Tempura and Pulled Asian Brisket sandwiches will have to wait for my return visit, and surely there will be one.
I knew we were in for an extraordinary night of dining when our immensely like-able waiter, David, brought us an amuse bouche from the chef. Only the finest restaurants make this culinary gesture, a small bite of food that lets you know this is indeed a very special restaurant. On this particular Sunday night, it was a smoked salmon mousse canapé, the base of which was a cracker that melted the instant it landed on my tongue. It definitely achieved its goal – I wanted more.
(By the way, David informed us that the night before none other than Regis Philbin had dinner at Ella’s, in the very booth in which we were sitting.)
Another sign that this is an extraordinary restaurant is the offering of foie gras on the appetizer menu. At Ella’s, it’s Foie Gras Two Ways ($18), with the precious duck liver served in the usual seared manner and as the key flavor ingredient in a savory crème brulée, along with buttery toasted brioche and blueberry jelly. It was the blueberry jelly that swayed me. I rarely pass up the chance to have foie gras, but the price always makes me hesitate. At least at Ella’s, you do get your money’s worth. The seared foie gras was a generous serving, and it paired beautifully with the sweet jelly. The big surprise was the petite ramekin of foie gras-flavored brulée. What an amazing concept. I scraped that ramekin clean of every creamy bite.
On the other side of our spacious table landed Ella’s Salad ($6), another winning first course. Certainly enough for two to share, the finely shredded greens consisted of arugula, water-cress and iceberg lettuce mixed well with bits of tomato, avocado and blue cheese, with a very subtle whole grain mustard vinaigrette.
There are plenty of entrees for your consideration. I would call the menu New American, created by a classically trained chef. It’s an interesting mix of New England seafood, French cuisine, Southern home cooking, some Italian dishes and several Asian-inspired offerings. Our dinner was decidedly all American.
I don’t believe I’ve ever written this before, but the Pan-Seared Halibut ($30) with the lobster hash browns was one of the very best dishes I’ve ever had, and I’ve been reviewing restaurants for almost 30 years. The moist halibut was draped over the delicious hash browns that contained pieces of lobster. On the side were dainty stalks of asparagus. What made this dish so appealing was the fresh herb sauce – just buttery enough. I made sure to dip every bite of food into that wonderful sauce.
It doesn’t get more American than steak and potatoes, especially when it’s served with a bourbon-veal reduction and bacon onion jam. The menu promised a seven-ounce all-natural Filet Mignon ($25), but it sure looked like more than seven ounces. Cooked to that ideal state of medium, medium rare, the filet was surrounded with well-browned fingerling potatoes. Haricot verts fancied up the plate. The menu also read: “finished with fresh grated horseradish,” which we asked to do without – that would have been flavor overkill.
The sweet ending to this remarkable dinner was right in step with all that came before it. The light texture of the Ella’s Cheesecake ($8) was almost fluffy, and it was easy to consume the entire serving with its dark chocolate crust, topped with fresh blueberries and whipped cream. Deserving even more superlatives was the Just Chocolate dessert ($10), an impossible-to-resist combination of dark chocolate on top of dark chocolate, from the cake to the mousse to the sauce, all showered with shavings of white chocolate.
Along with the check came a complimentary chocolate peanut butter pave, the French word for brick. Like the amuse bouche at the start of our dinner, this tiny morsel of sweetness was a final show that Ella’s is indeed a magnificent restaurant.