Within the past few years, I can name just a handful of chefs whose restaurants’ flawless cuisine would bring me back for a second visit. My criteria includes creativity; use of locally-sourced ingredients and vibrant flavors; and intuitive twists on classic dishes.
Until recently, my list consisted of Lee Styer of Fond, Pierre Calmels of Bibou, Kevin Sbraga of Sbraga and Josh Lawler of The Farm and Fisherman.
My newest four-toque restaurant is Queen Village’s Ela where chef Jason Cichonski works his culinary magic in every dish.
The corner location housed the beloved Judy’s where meatloaf was raised to new heights. Cichonski does not work with meatloaf, but he raised each dish Edward and I sampled to extraordinary heights.
On a cold evening, Ela’s welcoming staff, perfect lighting and acoustics immediately warmed us up. We dined at the steel-topped bar where the bartender recommended a glass of Falanghina ($10), an Italian white wine that imparted a lovely, slightly floral aroma and crisp flavor. Edward sipped a Bluecoat martini ($11) .
“French style” onion soup ($9) was prepared with rich, homemade beef stock heady with smoked cherries, caramelized onions, grated Gruyere and Cichonski’s version of a crouton, which was a seasoned dough ball crisp on the outside and creamy inside. I especially enjoyed the tableside service as the waiter poured the broth from a small pitcher into my bowl.
Beets and carrots ($13) were colorful to the eyes and taste buds. Cool, chopped beets formed two rounds laced with a smoked jalapeno dressing that imparted an almost horseradish-like flavor. Long carrot strips were cooked just right and looked like cheddar cheese curls. Some almonds gave the dish a bit of a Spanish flair pairing well with bits of tangy goat cheese.
I am usually wary when chefs turn their kitchens into scientific laboratories. Preparing dishes with foams, placing ingredients in nozzle-topped contraptions and using liquid nitrogen can turn into disasters, but Cichonski knows exactly what he is doing.
Whipped foie gras ($14) should not be missed. Cichonski turned rich, bursting-with-flavor foie gras into a light, airy. melt-in-your-mouth foam and paired it with a cranberry muffin, thinly-sliced radish and dulce de leche.
Cichonski’s experiments soared to a new height with his scallop noodles ($15). He pureed sweet, succulent day boat scallops, spread the puree onto a pan and cut them into long, 1/4-inch thick noodles, which looked like udon noodles but tasted like fresh-from-the-sea scallops. They were bathed in a shiitake mushroom sauce strewn with a few pickled golden raisins that added a fine contrast of flavors.
Ela is equipped with a cruvinet for wines by the glass. I enjoyed the white wine with my soup and scallops but wanted another recommendation for my beef and Edward’s pork. A glass of Rhone blend ($14) filled the bill nicely.
Wagyu beef sirloin ($28) consisted of squares of rare, perfectly seasoned beef that kept company with Brussels sprout leaves, greens, black trumpet mushrooms and agnolotti filled with an almost liquid bone marrow which squirted rich goodness into my mouth with every bite. I have never eaten pasta filled with bone marrow and would love to know Cichonski’s method on how he achieved it.
A pork shank ($23), a dish growing in popularity on restaurant menus, was braised to perfection and fell off of the bone. It was juicy, succulent and rich with flavor. The sweet-and-sour balance in the apples and cabbage served as the pork’s perfect foil as did a pool of creamy polenta studded with pecans.
I could not wait to see what Cichonski had up his sweet sleeve. Sweet and salty butterscotch ($9) had a rich, foam-like consistency, with the right touch of salt. It was layered with dark chocolate pudding and ground nuts on the bottom.
The service and the meal were flawless. Edward and I could not stop talking about it.
Four tips of the toque to Ela.
627 S. Third St.
Last summer I sent a Tweet that said I wanted a T-shirt emblazoned with “Respect the Egg.” I immediately heard from Scott Schroeder, the talented chef at the helm of The South Philadelphia Tap room.