Several long blocks outside the picturesque village of Westerly, Rhode Island, casually-elegant Ella's Fine Food & Drink — helmed by seven-time James Beard-nominated chef Jeanie Roland — serves seasonally influenced American-Asian fusion dishes prepared with classical French techniques. Each one showcases ingredients that change with the seasons, including locally sourced dairy, produce, seafood, and certified-organic meats.
Growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut, chef Jeanie was inspired by both her mother and grandmother. “Both were exceptional scratch cooks,” says Roland. "My mother made dinner every night and we set the table on Saturday for a formal dinner. This taught me a lot about respecting the process of dining itself. My grandmother ate from her garden, made her own liquor from her fruit, and traded her vegetables for meats, milk, and eggs from local farmers.”
After high school, Roland earned her culinary arts degree at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and then served as corporate chef for IMPAC, an international consulting firm where she traveled the world to bring cultural cuisine to business and political leaders. In 2000, Roland and her husband/business partner James settled down in Punta Gorda, Florida, opening The Perfect Caper, a 10-table restaurant and deli. Chef Roland gained such a large and loyal following that in 2012, with a desire to be closer to family and her New England roots, she opened her second restaurant in Westerly.
Chef Roland had the name "Ella" on her mind for a full two years before actually selecting their current location, what was once Cappizano’s, a local Italian favorite for over 50 years. After finding out from the Cappizano brothers that their mother’s name was "Eleanor,” she knew it had to be Ella’s Fine Food & Drink.
Situated in a brick building at the corner of Tower and Granite Streets, Ella's outward appearance is about as far as you can get from nearby coastal Rhode Island's picturesque vistas or the historic walkable village of Westerly just a stone's throw away.
First impressions are deceiving, with the restaurant overlooking a starkly car-centric intersection and a small parking lot with squeezed-together spaces that fill up quickly. But once inside, your taste buds are rewarded.
Plates range from gourmet comfort food like the buttermilk-fried “Momma’s chicken” accompanied with sweet corn butter, wilted greens, and white cheddar grits, to haute global favorites like “duck a deux façons,” a garlic marinated duck breast, confit leg, and slow-cooked haricot tarbias with seasonal greens, smash of fingerling confit, and thyme jus. Other favorites include the “crabby scallop,” a jumbo lump crab topped with grilled scallops, coconut-cilantro-infused forbidden black rice, shanghai bok choy, and mirin-yuzu apricot beurre blanc. There’s also the “filet la maison,” a house filet mignon with seasonal vegetable, black truffle Béarnaise, and a side of double truffle lobster mac and cheese.
You'll notice that duck fat figures prominently on the menu. “I love to cook with duck fat for a variety of reasons!” says Roland. “Flavor is of course a no-brainer — but most importantly, duck fat can be brought to a higher temperature without smoking like clarified butter and grape seed oil.” Another superior quality of duck fat is that food doesn't absorb it as readily, producing a crisper, less greasy cooking experience that bodes especially well for her pommes frites.
Seasonal cooking is chef Roland's passion. “My favorite seasons are spring and fall,” she said. “There's just something about sautéing little sprouts, spruce tips, and fiddle heads at the beginning of growing season that awakes my inner chef. On the other hand, fall inspires me to hunker down and indulge my obsession with the many varieties of squash now available at the farmers markets that play both sweet and savory well. Hubbard squash pie is just as tasty — if not more so — than classic pumpkin, while being a great substitute for carrots in cake, or pumpkin in cheesecake and ice cream. Squash also complements a wide range of ingredients like vanilla, goat cheese, blue cheese, bacon, and white & black truffles.”
Beyond word of mouth, chef Roland's rise in popularity got a major boost in 2014 when friends Taylor Swift and Lorde popped in for dinner, and later asked if she would be willing to host them for a private cooking class. Soon they were in Roland's kitchen learning how to make tuna tartare tacos seasoned with sesame oil and fresh ginger wrapped in a “won-taco” (wonton taco). Chef Roland credits the Instagram pictures shared during this session for ultimately catching the eye of Bobby Flay, who invited her to compete on his Food Network show, Beat Bobby Flay. She accepted the challenge, preparing her Thai curry mussels with duck fat frites accompanied by three homemade dipping sauces within 45 minutes — much to the acclaim of two of the three blindfolded judges, beating the world-famous Flay.
Photos courtesy of Ella's Fine Food & Drink. Coverage made possible by participating in a sponsored visit.