Ela in Queen Village has been on my list of restaurants to visit since its since opening late last year. The restaurant is a partnership venture between Jason Cichonski (formerly of LaCroix) and Chip Roman (owner of the much buzzed about Mica and Blackfish, which I still have yet to try).
Fish is a predominant ingredient throughout the menu, but this is by no means just a seafood restaurant. The menu is an eclectic mix of dishes, ingredients and flavors, which run the gamut from American to Asian to Spanish and everything in between. At first glance, it all seems a bit wacky. But, the ability to take seemingly disparate ingredients and make them into inventive dishes is how Cichonski has started to make a name for himself (at 27, he’s still fairly early on in his career).
Chester started out with the oysters. I don’t touch oysters, ever, but he enjoyed them as they were fresh, sweet and briny. They were noted on the menu as having dill pickle and bacon, but he found these flavors to be pretty subtle.
I, in the meantime, had the best dish of the night—the diver scallop noodles, one of Cichonski’s signature dishes. Now, this wasn’t just scallops served over pasta. The scallops themselves were actually shaved into long, thick strands, so that they resembled noodle. The shellfish had a unique ability to hold on to the rich peanut sauce as though it was a starchy Thai noodle. Cool strands of sweet green papaya were a nice complement to the slightly salty, spicy sauce.
This was one of the most creative, memorable dishes I have had in awhile and for a moment, I considered ordering a second helping. But then the gnocchi Chester ordered for his second course arrived and we ended up sharing that. The tiny melt-in-your-mouth dumplings were served in a foamy, smoked gouda cheese sauce, and topped with hazelnuts and sweet dates. This dish was a nice mix of sweet, savory and creamy flavors that worked well together.
For the main course, I had the halibut, which was served on top of homemade longatelli (short, thick pasta noodles) and sweet English peas. The fish was fresh, simply seared and topped with a crunchy mustard-seed cracker. I don’t like my fish swimming in sauce, but since halibut is a fish that takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked in, it definitely could have benefited from more another spoonful of the accompanying hearty morel mushroom sauce to enhance its flavor. Chester had the pork belly. He noted that it was a bit tough, especially at the top layer, although the rest of the portion was very tender and flavorful.
For dessert, we shared the hot chocolate chip cookie dough. With a name like that, I expected something pretty amazing, but it was just okay. The “dough” was actually a sweet, brown sugar based sauce that was then poured over chunks of bananas browned in butter, dark chocolate shavings and vanilla custard. It was like a deconstructed version of chocolate chip cookies and milk, but the combination of ingredients was just a bit too sweet.
Although the bar menu is diverse and well-thought out (the cocktails, in particular are creative combinations with fun names, like “Last Chance to Lose Your Keys,” to match), drinks are pricey. For example, wine prices hover around $15 a glass. So, although the food is priced appropriately relative to portion size, a couple of drinks will but add a substantial amount on to your bill.
The service itself was attentive throughout the evening, but the pacing was a bit fast for our taste. We were in an out in about an hour and 15 minutes. Furthermore, some of the dishes arrived from the kitchen only lukewarm, making us thing that everything had been prepped way in advance (perhaps pork belly was a bit tough from sitting out a bit?). Given the fact that it wasn’t overly crowded and fairly easy to get an 8 p.m. reservation on a Friday evening, I don’t quite understand why there needed to turn over the tables quickly.
This semi-emptiness also makes me wonder what kind of longevity it will have in the area. Queen Village is still pretty much just a residential neighborhood and not really a dining destination. So, if you live in the area and are looking for after-work dinner options, I don’t know if the food and price tag at Ela will really fill that need.
On the other hand, though, the relative ease of getting a table can give you the chance to check out a talented chef before he becomes really famous and moves on to a place at which it will be impossible to score a table for months. Because, overall, dinner at Ela was an interesting experience and I can’t think of anyplace I’ve been to recently with such a creative approach. Although it fell a bit short in some areas, with a few tweaks to some dishes and to the pacing of the service, it definitely has the potential to be outstanding.