Ella’s American Bistro
214 Sugartown Road
Ella’s American Bistro is owned by Devon Hill BMW’s Cortright Wetherill, Jr., and pays homage to his mother, Ella Anne Widener Wetherill, a woman of elegance and grace; and the bistro’s architecture and ambiance follow the colorful chronicles of her life and adventures. Ella’s interior is coolly contemporary yet classically comfortable. So much so, in fact, that you have to keep reminding yourself that the restaurant plays “kneesies” with an Acme in an innocuous Main Line strip mall.
The 22-foot sycamore bar is particularly pleasant, perfectly complemented by antique copper accents and rough-sawn plank walls; all of which contrast quite nicely with modern high-top tables and Kelly green chairs. This is an inviting space, a great place to stop by for lunch, a quick bite, and/or a “happy hour” libation. The main dining area – decked out in floor-to-ceiling windows, natural materials, and equestrian memorabilia – is more formal but still quite cozy.
The food, like the décor is casually sophisticated. The restaurant’s website describes it as “transitional American cuisine.” This is generally a term used to describe a kind of midpoint between organic and conventionally raised ingredients. Transitional foods are grown under the same conditions as organic foods. However, the government will not certify them as organic until the fields in which they are grown have been observed to be all organic for at least three years.
The website also notes that the cuisine is American “interpreted through a contemporary French vision,” which, in my opinion, is somewhat misleading. “Eclectic” – Asian seared scallops in black bean sauce, fried chicken with green bean casserole, shrimp & grits, escargot, ricotta gnocchi, burger on a soft pretzel roll, etc. – seems a more appropriate designation. Recently, for example, the catalog of nightly specials included such diverse items as grilled buffalo hanger steak, sautéed veal kidneys, red snapper with garlic mashed, and traditional Mexican menudo, a hearty, spicy soup made with tripe, calf’s feet, green chilies, hominy, and seasonings. Sounds like a culinary “Today’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium” to me.
But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach – provided the kitchen can pull it off… Unfortunately, Executive Chef Chad Jajczyk’s reach occasionally exceeds his grasp. Some items are beautifully conceived, prepared, and presented… others are sabotaged by errors of commission… and still others are undermined by a convolution of ingredients.
And like restaurants with similar minor faux pas, appetizers generally fair somewhat better than entrées. To start things off, the house-made country pâté is picture perfect… and just as delicious. The texture of the finely ground mixture of meats – slightly on the coarse side – is just right, as is the integration of various seasonings. Then, of course, the small gathering of cornichons (gherkins), artistic slather of mustard, sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and vertical tower of crisply toasted bread manage to capture the eye as well as ingratiate the palate. The kitchen obviously took a good deal of time and effort to make this arrangement just right, and it shows. First-rate in every respect.
The greenery is also handled exceedingly well. I always find a roasted beet salad – in whatever interesting incarnation it may appear – difficult to resist; especially when it is companioned by creamy dollops of local goat cheese, as it is here. Set on a pillow of organic greens, this is a marriage made in heaven. Splashes of a surprisingly subtle maple vinaigrette add just the slightest hint of sweetness, while candied pecans deliver a delightfully crunchy textural contrast.
As good as the above combo may be, however, the spinach salad would certainly give it a run for its money. The greenery is perfectly trimmed and tossed with a marvelous bacon dressing. Embellishments include shavings of red onion, meaty homemade lardons, and addictive warm cornbread croutons. The crowning touch… a deliciously photogenic sunny-side-up egg.
The Asian seared scallop also had a great deal to recommend it… although a bit more than bargained for. The menu specifically noted “scallop,” singular. However, when the appetizer put in an appearance, my wife counted no less than four bivalves. Since scallops are inordinately rich in their own right, the portion size seemed a bit over the top for a starter. Although, I have no doubts that it would appeal to those with heartier appetites. In any event, the black bean sauce adorned with sautéed red bell peppers and threads Napa cabbage was a taste sensation.
As you move beyond the appetizers, the kitchen appears more prone to stumble, as entrées could probably best be described as “hit or miss.” To begin on a positive note, however, the Shipyard Pumpkin Ale steamed mussels were a palpable hit, certainly some of the best ingested within recent memory. Pristinely plump and at the very peak of good health, they swim to table in a broth redolent of shallots, garlic, and parsley accompanied by crisp fries. If you’re a devoted fan of the bivalve, it doesn’t get much better than this.
Other main courses, unfortunately, fell somewhat short of the mark. Take the skate wing, a nightly special, for example. The wing-like pectoral fins of the skate are white fleshed, firm to the bite, and exhibit a mild, sweet flavor. Skate wing deserves a delicate sauce that will gently caress rather than smother its own natural attributes. The specimen proffered here, however, was drowned beneath an overly viscous, incredibly salty lemon caper butter sauce. So salty, in fact, that the dish was nearly inedible. Even the presentation – plopped on a pillow of Yukon gold mashed potatoes buttressed by broccoli florets – was rather off-putting to the eye.
The grilled salmon filet fared somewhat better – but not a great deal. Once again, it appeared to be a case of “Saucier’s Revenge.” The honey-pepper sauce proved entirely too sweet for its own good. The only redeeming feature: a superlative pomme macaire, a twice cooked potato cake. A floury potato is first baked in the skin; the flesh is then scooped out and refrigerated overnight. After being formed into a square or round cake with various seasonings, both sides are fried in a hot skillet in a mixture of butter and oil. In this case, it almost – but not quite – succeeded in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Even “Ella’s Classic Burger” was something of a disappointment. Ordered medium, it arrived dry and woefully overcooked. And this was certainly a waste of excellent, top quality sirloin. I also wasn’t wild about the soft pretzel roll, which was a bit too doughy for my taste (brioche, in my opinion, would have been a more pleasing match). The fries, on the other hand, were top notch.
Even after X number of years as a professional hired belly, it still amazes me that restaurants like Ella’s American Bistro can turn out exceptional starters… and then fall flat on their asparagus when it comes to entrées. And even more frustrating is the fact that, along with the preludes, side dishes, luncheon sandwiches, and desserts are also exceedingly well prepared and presented.
If you happen to stop in for lunch, there are a number of interesting possibilities: beer-battered fish sandwich replete with cheddar cheese, fried egg, and a zippy dose of chili-based Cholula Hot Sauce; tarragon chicken salad on brioche; capered tuna salad tea sandwiches with shaved red onion, hard-cooked egg, and pickled celery; and an Italian hoagie companioned by fresh greens. My nod, however, would have to go to the scrumptious smoked turkey Rachael (think Reuben). A generous portion of smoked turkey breast is spruced up with Russian dressing slaw & melted Gruyère cheese between beautifully toasted slices of seeded rye. Be sure to give this one a try. Among the sides, the Boursin mac & cheese is something of a sine qua non. Boursin cheese was created by Francois Boursin in 1957 in Normandy, France (it is now also produced in the U.S.). Boursin is a cow’s milk cheese, off-white in color, and is soft and creamy in texture. Although it now comes in several flavors, the original garlic and fines herbes remains the most popular. When teamed up with the pasta, it is undeniably decadent.
The dill pickle fries with spicy remoulade are an acceptable rendition of a side that has become omnipresent of late. A notch above the version served at the nearby White Dog Café, but still lagging far behind the first-class variation offered up at the Washington House in Sellersville. On the other hand, the restaurant’s chickpea fries are very good, indeed. This is a combo of puréed seasoned chickpeas & polenta. The mixture is chilled and cut into mini logs; they are then deep fried and served up piping hot with a provocative maple-chili dipping sauce.
Desserts, all made in house by pastry chef Ayanna Sims, are exceptional. Possibilities range from a chocolate cremeux (a delectable cross between chocolate sauce and chocolate mousse) to almond cake with red wine poached pears to a cinnamon apple diplomat with crème anglaise and toffee sauce. My favorite, though, is her incredible peanut butter chocolate pie. Built upon a delicious graham cracker/peanut brownie crust, the peanut butter filling is marvelously creamy and flavorful, with caramel sauce, peanut brittle, and crème Chantilly in strong supporting roles. Worth every last calorie!
Even though there are a number of kinks to work out, Ella’s American Bistro is still worth a visit… more so for lunch than for dinner, in my opinion. And definitely dine in the bar area, where the atmosphere is more laid back and the restaurant doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.
The Artful Diner
Diner is an independent, freelance food writer. His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.
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