Why are appetizers always so much tastier than entrées? Is it because chefs focus their attention on creating that perfect first forkful—one that hopefully sets the stage for the entire meal? Or since main courses come with higher price tags, do kitchen commandos feel compelled to stick to the safe-but-boring staples? Perhaps patrons succumb to food fatigue: Even a seasoned gourmand has trouble getting as jazzed about his 27th bite of rib eye as his first three.
Whatever the reason, you’ll encounter the conundrum at Ellabess, an eclectic American spot in the gleaming new Nolitan Hotel. Helmed by Troy Unruh and run by the team behind L’Artusi, Anfora, and dell’anima (where Unruh previously worked), the restaurant starts off promising. But it fizzles by the end, like the sprinter who thought he’d try his feet at a marathon.
The setting—abutting the lobby and sunk just below street level—doesn’t help. Large windows overlooking Kenmare and Elizabeth streets enclose the corner room, ensuring a prime (and awkward) view of the Louboutins clicking on the pavement—pray a golden retriever doesn’t dump a load outside while you’re noshing on your Parker House rolls. The overly tight clusters of dark wood furniture and large concrete columns further add to the space’s stark impersonality—the West Elm catalog in restaurant form. And like the brochures that never feature people in them, Ellabess has been conspicuously devoid of diners lately.
Don’t cross it off your list just yet, though. You’ll want to pay a visit to sample the velvety chilled corn soup ($10), avalanched with house-made queso fresco and a snowdrift of shaved truffles. A touch sweet, a tad earthy, all around comforting—one of the best soups I’ve had recently. Also swoon-worthy: a mountain of peekytoe crab salad ($14), which you scoop onto sesame-studded crackers slathered with rich, salty uni butter. Sweetbreads, so often dry and overcooked, are grilled yakitori-style to succulent glory, accompanied by kohlrabi puree and a tart apple-and-walnut slaw ($14). Vegetable salad ($12) heralds the best of the season, happily abandoning any tasteless mesclun. The artfully composed mélange of raw zucchini, beets, corn, and fresh herbs finds a friend in lemony whipped ricotta that’s not quite a garnish nor a dressing.
But then chug along the entrées. Not so much bad or even boring, just nothing that will compel you to rush home to file a five-star Yelp review. Tarragon enlivens skirt steak with summer beans ($24), but not enough to save it from the ghost of beef entrées past. Chicken breast ($22) gets battered, fried, and garnished with crunchy peanuts and pickled watermelon rind for haute Asian picnic fare. A tangy sauce reminiscent of caponata caresses zucchini fashioned into pappardelle-like strips—although not the pitiful grilled portobello plate doled out to non-meat eaters, the bowl resembles what vegetarians regularly make at home (and for less than $18). The confit wild king salmon with tiny chanterelles and huckleberries ($32), though, raises the bar. Its rustic, outdoorsy spirit is matched by its elegance (but perhaps is also overshadowed by its price). If Laura Ingalls Wilder had been a foodie in the Big Woods, this might have been her birthday supper.
Individual desserts need a kick to elevate them from good to great. Elements of a peach sundae—crumble topping, cold stewed fruit, a tuile cone, each fine on its own—get lost when combined. Same for a tomato upside-down cake with mascarpone sherbet ($8).
Ellabess is a far cry from the days when hotel restaurants offered continental cuisine served banquet-style. But its potential is threatened by poor aesthetic choices and some ongoing hiccups in execution. Maybe think of it as the amuse before the real appetizer—it can whet the palate, but it won’t sate you. At least not yet.
For more restaurant coverage, check out our food blog, Fork in the Road, at voicefoodblog.com. Follow us on Twitter @ForkintheRoad.