How do you keep the spark alive?
Restaurants face the same question that haunts many a marriage—only, with restaurants, it comes ‘round a whole lot sooner. If spouses can hope for seven years before the proverbial itch begs scratching, restaurateurs are lucky if they can make it past the first anniversary.
That thought chorused through my head during a recent meal at Ela—repeating like the 90-minute loop of down-tempo indie-rock throbbing softly in the background of Jason Cichonski’s Queen Village resto-bar.
When it opened in 2012, this submarine-gray space conjured visions of a supernatural portal into its restless owner’s head. From noodles made of reconstituted scallops, to banh cam balls spiced with Old Bay, to cocktails perfumed with kaffir lime, the kitchen and bar sent out one titillating surprise after another.
Two years later, the sexiest vision appeared in a window across Bainbridge Street that framed a naked man doing what appeared to be household chores. Which was about as sexy as, well, a naked guy doing household chores. (Dude! Curtains!)
I don’t mean that as a critical barb—at least, not entirely. By the time sparks stop flying in any relationship, one hopes that they’ll have kindled a flame that can give comfort and an occasional crackle without them. And that’s more or less the groove Ela seems to have settled into. The menu encourages customers toward a 4- to 6-course tasting format that suggests destination dining. But for better and worse, the restaurant feels a lot more like a cozy neighborhood place than it used to.
First, the better. There are half-price wine bottles on Mondays to drive traffic. You can walk in on any weeknight without fearing a wait. And even if our server sounded a little sick of listening to the same chilled-out Modest Mouse tracks, they made me more relaxed and unhurried than I usually feel in my own living room.
So there’s plenty to be happy about—including some of Ela’s dishes. The scallop noodles are still here (dressed, now, in regularly changing robes), but a lot of other things were new to me. And two stood out for being more interesting on the plate than on paper. The first was a velvety truffled cauliflower soup that got a pick-me-up from pickled raisins and cauliflower florets, and an arrestingly novel grace note in the form of sprouted fennel seeds. These were so delicate it was hard to imagine how a cook could touch them without mangling them, but they packed a surprisingly robust flavor. And second, chilled roasted beets minced into a crimson “tartare,” with firm cubes of celery root, soft curds of house ricotta, and crunchy pumpernickel pita chips whose earthy sourness was just the right foil for all three.
So Cichonski remains a font of experimentation, but as dinner progressed, a certain looseness—if not laziness—began to blur the sharpness of some of his ideas. “Pretzeled risotto” sure sounded intriguing (especially when our server explained the application of lye to create slickness), but all I got from the sloppy pile of overcooked rice, studded with mustard crackers, were the flavors of salt and boredom. That carelessness with grains turned up again in the chestnut farro that accompanied an ultra-savory short rib sauced with a sweet, tart, and winning cherry gremolata. It seemed a shame to cook that delicate grain until every second kernel had ruptured and adhered to its neighbors in a pasty mass.
Ela’s duck thigh “steak” also fell flat—though it was easy to imagine it being amazing with just a little more time and effort. Two thighs are meat-glued together so that there’s a skin on both sides, which is a nice trick. And if the flesh had been cooked to tenderness, and the skin had been fully crisped, this set-up could not have been further up my alley. Alas, it came off more like quick-cooked chicken thighs wrapped in skin that should have surrendered more of its fat to the meat. A cloying and over-processed sweet potato puree scented like Christmas potpourri didn’t help much either. Which left the vibrantly bitter Treviso with more weight than it could possibly carry, no matter how perfect that part was.
Carelessness is often a part of comfort food, but it doesn’t have to be. Ela comforted me most with a tangle of housemade tagliatelle whose luxuriant lobster sauce rang my tastebuds with a cleanly struck top note of kaffir lime. And the kitchen did it again with a tidal wave of passionfruit spilling out of a molten chocolate cake—and a whiskey-flavored foam that was just strange enough to convince me that, stumbles aside, Cichonski bears revisiting yet again.
Though maybe the next time will be at The Gaslight, his brand new bar in Old City, to see if the sparks are flying there.
The Gaslight [f8b8z]