A BRIGHT FUTURE Ella’s shines in Westerly.
In the Rhode Island tradition, Ella's can be described as the place where Capizzano's Restaurant used to be, prominently located. But Ella's has been earning a name of its own, and a recent visit made clear why.
The ambience, the ambitious menu, the credentials in the kitchen — some or all must have contributed. As we perused the list of appetizers, I had a "What have you done with my wife?" moment as the woman seated across from me suggested the pate as a possibility. Johnnie never suggests pate as a possibility. She'd sooner force-feed a calf to engorge its liver. This place was having a hypnotic effect.
The Svengali-in-chief is Culinary Institute of America grad Jeanie Roland, among 20 James Beard Award regional semifinalists for "Best Chef" five years in a row at the Perfect Caper, her restaurant in Punta Gorda, Florida. A perfectionist, indeed — she makes her own hot red pepper flakes! The Asian and French culinary touches punctuating Ella's offerings were picked up when she traveled as a corporate chef for a worldwide consulting firm. She and manager/husband James opened Ella's here so Jeanie would be closer to her family in Charlestown, where she started her restaurant experience at age 14, washing dishes at the General Stanton Inn.
The chef prefers to source produce and seafood locally (though not all dairy), and the menu asserts that the meats are "natural and organic." As a result, the red wine braised leg of rabbit is $30, and the Moroccan spice-rubbed domestic lamb will set you back $45. But if you're looking to keep the bill down, there are bargains, such as the three-cheese gnocchi under marinara sauce ($17) and the wild mushroom risotto ($20), drizzled with white truffle oil (also available vegan, for $2 less). And you don't have to settle for pasta if you don't want to splurge, since both the shrimp curry and shrimp tempura are $23.
Of the dozen wines by the glass ($7-$15), the priciest are a Sauvignon Blanc-sancerre and a Chardonnay, both careful selections from France rather than the usual cheaper Australian and Californians. The Spanish garnacha ($8), usually blended, was a tasty treat, hinting of strawberry and white pepper, as our knowledgeable server described.
I like that the starters are listed as "Appetizers & Small Plates," which reminds diners that an interesting meal here can consist of a selection of several, tapas-style. So many of them sounded tantalizing, such as tuna tacos with sesame and ginger-infused tartare, and slow-cooked pork belly tacos crème fraîche ($10 each).
A friendly pre-start was a complimentary amuse bouche, two bright orange salmon roe atop a dollop of salmon mousse atop a puff pastry. Nice.
We continued to begin with baked oysters ($12) from the local Walrus & Carpenter Farm, the half-dozen of them delicately complemented with spinach, a touch of mascarpone, and the barest hint of ginger. No way I could wangle more than my half. I had to settle for more of the delicious kitchen-baked focaccia, sprinkled with sea salt and nearly as flavorful as the quality olive oil. Johnnie also ordered the Parisian salad ($7), heavy on the frisee more than arugula but made interesting by the green beans, thick shavings of mimolette cheese and the toasted hazelnut black truffle vinaigrette.