Early last year, I collaborated on a guide to high-end Sacramento happy hours that reminded me of the afternoon/early-evening delights one can find at Ella Dining Room & Bar. Since then, I have invited several friends to join me at Ella’s bar. There, I promise them, we can meet a better class of people.
I used that phrase primarily because it seemed like something Melanie Griffith might have said in “Working Girl.” But I was also partly serious. If you have been to Ella, which turns 10 years old this month, you know what I mean.
The people who go to Ella carry briefcases and start sentences with “the senator thinks ... .” Just walking into the elegant space, with its curtains and classy, classic creamy tones, makes one stand straighter. Taking a seat at the bar amid the put-together Capitol crowd offers that thrill of a potential political-star sighting, the way a visit to Los Angeles’ Chateau Marmont bar might yield a brush with Hollywood.
Visiting the actual Capitol probably would increase the likelihood of glimpsing well-known figures. But the Capitol does not sell delicious lobster-and-artichoke dip and lobster tacos or designate August as “lobster month.”
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The Capitol does not make a $19.50-and-worth-it Manhattan served at the perfect level of chill for its alcohol punch to land without overwhelming.
The Capitol is simply not as citified as Ella.
When I reviewed Hawks in Granite Bay when it turned 10 this past month, I mentioned a key group of fine-dining, farm-to-table restaurants that opened roughly a decade ago and changed the culinary landscape of the Sacramento area. Of those, Ella always has struck me as having the most “big-city” feel.
Restaurateur Randall Selland, who with his family owns Ella, The Kitchen, OBO’ and three Market-Cafes, said this past week that he always envisioned Ella as the Boulevard of Sacramento.
Boulevard is the 23-year-old San Francisco Belle Epoque-style restaurant that sits along the Embarcadero, serves seafood-centric starters and beautifully made entrees that do not veer far from centrist culinary expectations (lamb, pork, salmon), and never has gone out of style.
Ella is a decade-old Sacramento restaurant that sits right where the streetcar rounds from 12th to K Street – main drags in their own right. Its décor exhibits what Selland calls a “rustic elegance,” with the rustic part mostly confined to the antique, distressed wood shutters found on Ella’s ceilings and walls. Ella offers a seafood-inflected starter menu and well-crafted entrees – New York steak, pork chop, sturgeon – that taste appealingly of wood smoke but would never set the culinary world on fire.
Ella has never gone out of style, either. It has seen turnover at the head chef level, with Michael Thiemann (now co-owner/chef of Mother and Empress Tavern just down K Street), Kelly McCown and Ravin Patel holding the reins at various points. The latter two still work for the Selland family – Patel as chief culinary officer for the restaurant group and McCown as head chef of the Kitchen.
Current executive chef Rob Lind has run Ella’s kitchen for the past three years, and shows a clear understanding of Randall Selland’s Boulevard-esque concept for Ella as a restaurant that offers consistently top-flight yet none-too-flashy dishes made from seasonal ingredients.
I have made many visits to Ella over the years, and never noticed chef changes. The bone-marrow appetizer is the same salty/fatty delight in 2017 that it was in 2012. Ella’s signature gin and tonic – featuring tonic Ella made in-house before everyone was doing it – still goes down a bit too easily, as always.
Selland said Ella’s drinks, like its food, are not meant to dazzle with cleverness but encourage, through their smoothness, the ordering of another. Mission accomplished.
I always want to order another drink at Ella. Or at least I do before the full effect of the not-insignificant amount of alcohol in the first one hits. In such instances, one can switch to a “buzz-free” Ella cocktail like the vanilla lemonade into which our gracious bartender added a vanilla-saffron ice sphere that usually goes in the julep. (Another worthwhile, if also decidedly buzz-full, Ella cocktail).
Before I made my specific review visits, I mostly stuck to the bar, for happy hour or dinner. I had eaten in the dining room a few times, but did not get the full effect of the place until I arrived at about 6 p.m. on a late-summer evening for a review visit. This apparently was Ella’s magic hour, when the sunlight streaming through the windows facing 12th Street lent the place a golden glow.
My companions and I marveled at that light, as we later did at the play of flavors in the memorable melon-tomato gazpacho – the fruit component of which mellows the tomato acidity before a dollop of olive oil ice cream adds sweetness, fat and dimension – and excellent wood-fired octopus starter.
Lind slow-poaches Mediterranean octopus before it hits the wood-fired grill and gains a smoky flavor to complement its tenderness. This octopus starter – one of several Spanish-themed items currently on the menu as part of “España” month in September, also comes with perfectly crisped and spiced patatas bravas. Both pick up the brightness of the lime zest in the coriander dressing that is part of the dish.
The Spanish theme hit a snag with the paella, which contained borderline-tough lobster, overcooked shrimp and over-seasoned rice.
Ella’s food did not disappoint often, but its missteps tended to cost us a lot. That paella was $48. We also were let down by the $42 scallop entree. It comes with three scallops, only one of which was cooked to silky perfection. The other two tasted slightly overcooked and not very flavorful.
Too-hot Padron peppers cost less, at $12, but left the most lasting impression on the palate. Supposedly, only some Padrons are hot. But the whole order seemed hot in this instance, creating a distractingly scorching start to a long meal.
The only other starter to underwhelm – among the several we tried over a few months – had the opposite problem. It was a pork-based pâté de Campagne with little flavor beyond that of congealed fat.
This appetizer’s presence on an Ella menu is to be celebrated, anyway, since it usually corresponds with the offering of Ella’s tasty pork chop, Lind said, and his desire not to waste any product. The pork chop that we tried in June had been brined and cooked sous vide before hitting the grill. The result was a beautifully seasoned, startlingly tender chop hefty enough in size to warrant the $35 price tag for the entree in which it starred.
But in terms of classic American items, nothing beats Ella’s crispy, $25 fried half chicken. Buttermilk batter does a lot of the work in making it delicious, but not all of it. The bird is brined overnight so the meat is flavorful throughout. The house-fermented hot sauce served on the side contained plenty of depth and spark, but the chicken was so good on its own that we did not use much of it.
Service was impeccable throughout our visits. Our seating situation, however, was less than ideal for a weeknight dinner. We were seated in the alcove near the bar area on the restaurant’s K Street side, close to where an event was happening. I would call it a “private” event, but we caught too much of what the people were saying for there to be any real measure of privacy for them. Or for us, the people dropping $300 on dinner.
We never saw anyone famous on our review visits, but we met a nice engineer from Ohio who was in town for a conference and with whom we shared desserts. We all loved Ella pastry chef Jane Anderson’s bourbon butterscotch doughnuts. But I did not discover my favorite dessert – a not-too-sweet, thoroughly refreshing melon milkshake – until a later visit.
I have eaten and drunk at Ella more times this year than I have any other restaurant. Yet the prospect of going there still excites me, because the food and drink are of such consistent high quality, and I never tire of the décor.
Selland said Ella was designed to be a restaurant that could be plopped in any city in the world and not seem out of place. And maybe it would fit in fine in Copenhagen or Lisbon. I am glad it is in Sacramento instead.
Ella Dining Room and Bar
1131 K St., Sacramento. 916-443-3772. www.elladiningroomandbar.com
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday. 5:30 -10 p.m. Saturday.
Beverage options: Full bar with craft cocktails. Sparkling, red and white wines by the half-glass, glass and bottle. Draft and bottled beer.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise levels: Moderate to loud. It was loud in the bar area where a special event was happening – an event that was too close to the alcove where we were trying to have a peaceful dinner.
Ambiance: Lots of high-profile restaurants have sprung up on or near K Street downtown in the decade since Ella opened. None feels as big-city as Ella. Part of the effect comes from the well-dressed Capitol crowd that is a mainstay of the place, but a lot of it is the airy, classic design of the space and the many windows through which one can view streetcars rounding the corner from 12th on to K street.
It’s a timelessly elegant place with reliably high-quality, beautifully crafted food and drinks.
Dishes and cocktails at Ella, by design, do not dazzle with individual flavors but satisfy on a bigger, seamless level. Executive chef Rob Lind shows a knack for the classics – New York steak, fried chicken and pork chops – but also shines when putting together more elaborate dishes such as the wood-fired octopus with patatas bravas. But the paella and scallop entrees were pricey disappointments.
Impeccable, throughout several visits over a few months.
There is no denying Ella is pricey. Most of the time the food’s high quality justifies those prices, but that’s not always the case.