Randall Selland’s The Kitchen restaurant is a local institution. For years, it offered an hours-long dining experience in which every ingredient, every plate presentation, every cooking method was loudly and gleefully demonstrated by a man who revels in the spotlight.
Selland abandoned the stage of his cozy Hurley Way restaurant more than two years ago following a skiing injury. Now, he’s overseeing the festivities at Ella, the high-profile restaurant that he and his wife, Nancy Zimmer, opened in September. Selland’s fans no doubt will flock to Ella to seek out the food and the chef they so admire, but they’re more likely to see Selland wandering around the dining room shaking hands with customers than pan-roasting chicken breasts behind the line.
The restaurant, on a heavily trafficked corner at 12th and K streets, is an elegant, manicured oasis from the gritty hustle and bustle directly outside. Its most arresting feature is its ceiling, encrusted with rustic, weathered-looking shutters that lend a European feel to an otherwise crisp, controlled ambiance. Textured elm tables draped with soft linen runners rest on beige-tiled floors, and a handsome oyster bar showcases a lavish selection of shellfish on glittering ice. Columns are enshrouded by wispy, cream-colored drapes that hover like gentle ghosts and serve as diaphanous room dividers. Unfortunately, they do little to tamp down the noise, which can be mind-numbing.
Selland, who is known for his sumptuous, bountiful meals, has exercised real restraint with Ella’s menu. More than half of the selections are appetizer-size small plates. This was deliberate: The restaurant serves its food family-style and encourages diners to share many small courses. Also noteworthy is the kitchen’s mindful consideration of vegetables: An entire section of the menu is devoted to vegetable-focused dishes such as butter-poached Yukon Gold potatoes, pumpkin bisque and roasted baby beets.
Salads, assembled tenderly and presented impeccably, are the not-to-miss items at Ella. A Belgian endive salad was as visually exciting as it was electrifying to consume, scattered with nutty blue cheese crumbles and tiny, doll-like slices of Japanese cucumber. Bibb lettuce cups, like frothy green prom dresses, were drizzled with a lively mustard vinaigrette and served with crunchy crouton toasts smeared with chÃ¨vre. I adored the miniature Dungeness crab Louis, which shattered all memories of dull, clunky versions eaten in grim wharf-side restaurants. Delicate butter lettuce leaves cradled fresh pink crab chunks, and the ensemble was garnished with itsy-bitsy diced hardboiled egg and exactingly chopped, dazzlingly green chives.
Without exception, I preferred the kitchen’s small plates over the main courses. The wood oven meatballs, drenched in a bright, full-flavored roasted tomato sauce, were a meaty revelation, and plump, fried giant rock shrimp&emdash;served up with a tart fried lemon slice and zingy chili aioli&emdash;were hot and succulent. An enticing ceviche, prepared with shrimp, halibut and sea scallops, smacked of citrus and was divine when piled high on yuca chips. The braised short rib, ridiculously tender, was flanked by lovely glazed carrots and provided an irresistible dunking juice for bread. The only small plate to fall flat was the wood-roasted mussels, whose fat, pumpkin-colored flesh was doused with an overly salty white wine-chorizo broth.
Of the large plates, the duck breast with silky sauted Swiss chard and tiny roasted figs was visually captivating, but its flavors fell short of its presentation. There’s a Fred Flintstone-size lamb shank, served with tender roasted potatoes and soft carrots, and a generous chunk of pan-seared halibut dotted with swooningly sweet cherry tomatoes and a brisk, aggressive olive tapenade. Other large plates I sampled included the roasted salmon, partnered with softly appealing baby artichokes, and a lackluster, though generously proportioned, $48 rib-eye steak whose velvety Barnaise sauce effortlessly trumped the meat it was intended to complement.
Save room for dessert, especially if you’re an ice cream or sorbet fan. All frozen desserts are made in-house, and rarely have I tried ice cream and sorbet that taste so luminously of its main flavor component. The coffee ice cream, for example, is so cleanly and purely coffee-flavored, you forget it’s made primarily from dairy products. The toasted-coconut ice cream that accompanies the very fine bittersweet chocolate and macadamia nut cake is the boldest, fullest-flavored ice cream I have tasted in many years. And the Charentais melon sorbet, so utterly melonlike, vigorously catapulted me back into summer, even as the chilly November winds blew outside Ella’s pretty windows.
Devotees of The Kitchen should not visit Ella expecting a similar dining experience; the restaurants, and Randall Selland’s role in them, could not be more different. However, Ella is a dazzling addition to an increasingly sophisticated downtown, and I’m glad Selland and his talented team of family members and employees have imported their considerable skills to the corner of 12th and K.
At a Glance
Ella caters to a nattily attired clientele; casually dressed diners may feel uncomfortably conspicuous
Sweet tooth: Don’t miss the outstanding chocolate brownie: Crusty, warm, gooey and comforting, it’s a chocoholic’s dream
Ella Dining Room & Bar: 1131 K St., Sacramento; (916) 443-3772; elladiningroomandbar.com
Hours: Lunch Mondayâ€“Friday 11 a.m.â€“2:30 p.m., dinner Mondayâ€“Thursday 5â€“10 p.m., Fridayâ€“
Saturday 5â€“11 p.m., closed Sunday
At a Glance