My accomplice and I huddled at our table outside the restaurant, shivering as waitstaff struggled to light the outdoor heaters. It was the first night of sidewalk season at Ella Elli, but we were the only guests fool enough to take advantage of it. Suddenly the doors swung open and a well-fed, ruddy-cheeked, blue-blazer-over-white-golf-shirt alpha-bro strutted onto the sidewalk bellowing over and along with the tastefully leveled sound system: "Doot dooo-ooo dooo dooo. Doot! Dooo dooo dooo. Oh-oh. Oh-oh. Oh-uh-ohhhhh. This is gonna be the best day of my li-i-i-i-i-i-i-ife!"
We were treated to several minutes of this special performance before the dude's postprandial Uber whisked him away into the buzzing twilight of west Wrigleyville. That's what out on the town on the Southport corridor looks like these days.
That's in no small part due to the early success of Ella Elli, the tenth opening from the Four Star Restaurant Group, a company I've criticized in the past for its calculated pursuit of the mundane. It sits right around the corner from the company's family-oriented Crosby's Kitchen, a restaurant that serves a skillet cookie for dessert that's "better than mom's!," according to the menu, which should not be talking about your moms.
You usually know what to expect from a Four Star restaurant. One thing I did not expect was for Ella Elli to be full. It was a Monday, there was a Cubs game happening just a few blocks away, and who could imagine we'd be offered a 45-minute wait for a table? The bar was full, and so to the patio it was.
Turns out the fading natural light illuminated some striking details about the food that might otherwise be hidden in the dim of the dining room. The chef here, Matt Eversman, is a guy who blew me away when he opened Saigon Sisters, and who I continued to root for at the doomed, unloved Oon. After a time taking command at Crosby's, he's put together some very pretty and very different food at Ella Elli, under the broadest and vaguest sort of pan-Mediterranean umbrella that somehow encompasses a basket full of prevalent but disparate menu trends, such as toast, charcuterie, vegetables, and the somehow inseparable pizza-pasta. You better bet the bottom line there's a burger, dawg.
Well, everybody has to be fed, right? And that avocado toast is actually no joke. It's a thick slab of charred rustic bread, smeared with a blanket of the green goo, topped with a poached egg jiggling like Gypsy Rose Lee amid a shower of everything-bagel spice blend. It's a collision of three of the most prevalent Instagram food trends in current rotation, but also the kind of virtuous food that somehow feels bad for you, as you struggle to shove it in your face before old man frat rock stops singing on the sidewalk and snatches it away. There's a mushroom toast that performs similarly: superb meaty slices of fungi glistening with heavy cream and butter on smoky bread.
On the overwhelmingly plant-dominated left half of the menu, sections of sweet roasted fennel tangle with bright wedges of orange and grapefruit. Crispy smashed whole fingerling potatoes tossed with pickled mustard seeds push up through a cover of grated cheese like snow-covered mountains. Clusters of cauliflower, burnished with char, embrace a salsa verde souring agent. A mound of roasted carrot salad tossed with sharply pickled celery and avocado, and dressed with za'atar and harissa, is a kaleidoscopically colored dish, alive with loud, jousting flavors. A textural medley of fried grains with sliced radishes and a generous pile of sprouts comes alive with a smear of tangy goat cheese.
You might expect a restaurant that doesn't specialize in pasta couldn't cut it with a simple coil of bucatini with sungold tomato and Parmigiano, but it's a marvel of simplicity; nicely al dente noodles, bright yellow tomato puree, and shavings of the King of Cheeses. Similarly, wide fettuccine noodles with mint, peas, and sweet rock shrimp is a dish so springlike you might start sneezing.
But as many restaurants tend to do, Ella Elli stumbles when it comes to entree-size plates. It's usually difficult to redeem swordfish—the chicken breast of the sea—because it's so frequently (often by necessity) overcooked, and that's the unfortunate situation at Ella Elli. The aforementioned crispy potatoes make a nice partner to grilled octopus as long as it doesn't smell too fishy (mine did). And while there's rarely a need to overcook lamb chops, the ones I ordered, otherwise paired nicely with yogurt and harissa, suffered the same fate as the swordfish.
While it wouldn't be a Four Star restaurant (or just about any Chicago restaurant) without a burger on the menu, Eversman has taken pains to distinguish his: a juicy puck topped with a disk of soft ripened cheese, with a lily-gilding little shot of powerfully rich cognac-and-cream-powered poivre sauce on the side.
While Ella Elli's menu takes Four Star's familiar scattershot approach to Eversman's more interesting food, dessert is a less wide ranging exercise: profiteroles, fruit and yogurt, and a modest tarragon pound cake are offered along with a pair of boozy cocktails. There's no skillet cookie. Unlike Crosby's there won't likely be kids canoodling in the dimly lit alcoves of the dining room, or the bar outfitted with stools for two. The wine list is similarly easy to digest, with just 40-some bottles over which to dither.
Ella Elli is a welcome departure for Four Star, and a welcome return for Eversman, who may no longer be cooking Asian food but at least has found a place to exercise his creative muscles, even if they're confined to the focus-grouped menu trends of the day. v