I first fell in love with Ella Cafe two years ago because they served sardines. Freshly butterflied, parmesan crumbed and served with lemon and aioli. Heaven. Now the chef has changed and sardines are off the menu, but I've discovered my love runs deeper than a mere sardine. Cosy, comfortable, low key and with reliably good food, Ella is the sort of place that when I'm travelling, I'm delighted to find because it is a true local. It might sound strange to refer to a restaurant on busy Ponsonby Rd as a neighbourhood eatery, but Ella is just that.
The menu reflects the casual bistro feel it has always been praised for and owner Erwin Zimmet is always on hand with his affable style to ensure you feel at ease.
Ella manages to find the right balance between refreshing the menu often enough to remain current, while preserving dishes that are local favourites - veal schnitzel with potato salad, steak frites, pavlova. The menu focuses on quality where it counts - only free range eggs, pork and chicken are served - and isn't overly fussy.
Take the terrine I ordered for my starter - chicken with shitake mushroom. It was deliciously chunky and rustic, presented simply yet elegantly with cubes of tender beetroot scattered about the plate. My dining partner selected the goat's cheese souffle. A well-made souffle is capable of elevating you to the heights of gastronomic pleasure, with its gravity-defying splendour, somehow all air, yet with a cheesiness that can melt ones heart. Ella's version fell a little short of what I've just described but it wasn't terrible, just a tad bland with a too-dense texture. Never mind, her next course was impressive enough to make up for it; 10-hour roast lamb with potato gratin and one of those classic vegetable preparations - petit pois a la francais. This marvellous dish consists of peas and lettuce sauteed in butter and stock with onions and herbs and it is divine, particularly as cooking lettuce is not common and the result is phenomenal. The kitchen at Ella had got it bang on.
I'd taken a risk with my main course. Pork belly. Risky because I'm so over this over-exposed cut that I've sworn off it for most of this year but the description at Ella got me interested again; braised in dark beer and served with cavolo nero. Apart from being too salty (and I'm a salt fiend), it was splendid if you can stand the fat, which you can hardly complain about having ordered a pork belly. A side of beans blanched and served with a squeeze of lemon juice, went part way to acting as a foil for the fat.
Ella continues to provide comfort to diners with their selection of puddings. The pavlova, with berries, lemon curd and clouds of softly whipped cream, was lovely, though a "proper baker" (which I am not) would have minded that it had been over cooked to the point of being biscuity in colour and flavour. Personally I quite like my pavs cooked this way.
Devouring our other pudding choice, the warm rice pudding served with mandarins and golden syrup ice cream, was like curling up with your favourite book. There were more than a few flavours going on but they joined hands rather than competing, and the result was tremendous.
There's always a good mix of diners in Ella and whether you're in for the full three courses, or just a wine and a quick bite, as a casual bistro Ella is a solid performer in our city. My love affair continues, sans sardines.
Please note: The menu changes regularly so not all dishes reviewed may be available.
From the menu: Chicken & mushroom terrine $15.90, goat's cheese souffle $15.50, braised pork belly $28.90, roast lamb $31.50, pavlova $13.90, rice pudding $14.90
Drinks: Fully licensed, reasonable priced wine by glass