Ella Dining Room and Bar

1131 K St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 443-3772

Our downtown has not, lately, seemed very chichi. But Ella Dining Room and Bar, the new restaurant venture from the Sellands—a big splashy place in the Cathedral Building at 12th and K—definitely has a fancy vibe, with its gin and (house-made) tonics and other fresh cocktails, its seafood bar, its dressed-up Saturday-night buzz: an uptown girl, one might say, living in Sacramento’s rather grungy downtown world.

Its high prices, too, convey a certain toniness. Dinner at Ella will set you back, make no mistake, especially if you order some of those cocktails. The bar aims for a seriousness equivalent to that of the food, using fresh-squeezed juices and touting handcraftedness.

Watch out, though. I got a gin and tonic, and it was indeed delicious, with a bright lime flavor and only an undertone of quinine bitterness. If it had been a hot summer day, I’d have sucked it—and maybe another—down. And gotten totally wasted. Yeah, it’s strong. There are, however, some good non-alcoholic options available; from a lunchtime visit, I can enthusiastically recommend the refreshing basil lemonade. While we’re on the subject of drinks, I’ll just mention, too, that the wine list is really enticing, if also pricey.

With its sleek, loungey bar area, its kitchenside communal tables, and its cool gray dining room lined in worn bistro shutters—plus a cool, tall wedding-cake-like stack of white tables holding both decorations and service items—Ella seems like about three restaurants in one. It feels fast-moving, with people constantly in motion around the different areas of the restaurant, but in my experience service is a little slow—though very welcoming and smooth.

The menu, too, seems less focused, veering from rescued classics like crab Louie to comfort fare like a cauliflower gratin with brie to mod slow-roasted salmon in a broth with preserved lemon and baby artichokes. The menu, divided into “cold bar,” “small plates,” salads, vegetables, pasta, fish and meat sections, undergoes seasonal evolutions; it’s not swapped out entirely very often, but changes subtly according to what’s fresh and available. That menu setup exacerbates the feeling of hazy focus: The servers say everything is designed for sharing—but some things are pretty clearly entrees, others small plates, and the former are awkward to share, especially since they’re generally served in oversized china.

On different visits, I was able to sample a variety of the dishes, and I can say that most of the cooking at Ella is precise and well conceived, with a few minor exceptions. I’ll get the less successful dishes over with first: On a dinner visit, our entrees both fell a touch flat. Pan-roasted chicken breast with an unusual chicken confit, croutons, lemon and pan juices sounded interesting, but it turns out that chicken confit is not that interesting—it was a case of chicken with, um, more chicken. The sauce was homey and tasty, and the chicken breast juicy and flavorful, but the dish seemed to be reaching for something that chicken just doesn’t do.

My sea bass, served with large shell beans, fennel and a tomato broth, was also a touch disappointing: Some of the beans were undercooked, and the tomato broth was sweetish but not that flavorful. The bass was well-cooked and high-quality, though. It couldn’t match the salmon dish mentioned above, which I tried on a previous visit. That had the tang of preserved lemon complementing the fish and the perfectly trimmed artichokes. I also tried a side of Brussels sprouts with bacon; they had a sludgy, deliciously rich sauce around them, but a few of the sprouts themselves were undercooked and hard. The fully cooked ones, however, were fabulous.

The cold fare I tried was very nice. The crab Louie had a sweet-tangy dressing and the crunch of baby iceberg lettuce, plus oniony chives and lots of sweet crab. A mixed ceviche with yucca chips was bright and limey, nice with the crunchy chips. Endive and frilly Lola Rossa lettuce made a nice combo in a salad with blue cheese, cucumber and radish—a pleasant departure from the current trend to put sweet things in all salads. A beet salad I sampled, with pistachios and watercress, was focused and lovely.

I wasn’t instantly drawn to most of the items on the small-plates menu, many of which seemed like (very) gussied-up bar food: fried giant shrimp with chili aioli, grilled prawns with Creole barbecue sauce. I did like some mildly salty oven-roasted meatballs with a deep roasted tomato sauce and sheep’s-milk ricotta cheese, though. The pasta section is short, but on a lunch visit I tried a hearty little dish of Wagyu beef Bolognese (yummy, though it was hard to tell if the beef breed’s special qualities really showed up) on hand-cut pasta ribbons. A lot of the fresh pasta was stuck together, but it tasted good anyway.

Desserts are accomplished and forthrightly American in style. I loved the creamy lemon tartlette with blood orange sorbet and some intense berry sauce; the tangy tartlette managed to taste light despite its buttery, perfect crust and a spoonful of crème fraîche on top. Baked Pink Lady apples with puff pastry—a paper-thin crisped apple slice, cinnamon ice cream and caramel sabayon—was sweetly satisfying, but the diced apples’ flavor got a bit lost in the cinnamon-caramel shuffle. A straight-up winner was a brownie with fudge sauce and crunchy cacao-nib ice cream.

Ella’s kitchen may make the odd misstep on occasion, but most of the food is very good, and the atmosphere is great, making for an unusually swank and festive evening downtown.