The curse of the boom-time hotel restaurant has been well documented in this column. Boom-time hotels tend to spring up around town like exotic mushrooms during (or just after) periods of economic excess. They’re shaped like giant concrete Kleenex boxes (the James, on the southern edge of Soho) or great billowing sails (the Cooper Square Hotel, on the Bowery), and many of them feature elaborate new restaurants run, at least temporarily, by big-name chefs (David Burke at the James, for example). The cooks are drawn into the arrangement by the publicity, ready-made clientele, and sometimes cheaper-than-usual rents. In return, however, they often find themselves marooned in strange, unfamiliar neighborhoods (David Chang’s Má Pêche in midtown, Susur Lee at the tragically located Thompson Hotel on the Lower East Side) or saddled with a poky, ungainly space, like the one Scott Conant’s doomed Faustina briefly occupied off the lobby of the Cooper Square Hotel.
Ellabess, which opened this summer on a featureless, benighted stretch of Kenmare Street in Nolita, looks, on the outside, like another restaurant bound for the boom-time-hotel scrap heap. The hotel in question is the Nolitan, a stunted new glass-and-concrete structure with a sleepy-looking doorman out front and a lobby the size of a modish, randomly decorated ski chalet. The restaurant is sunk in a bunkerlike space just below street level and lined with tall windows, so that you can peep out at the assorted sharpies and street hustlers sauntering by on the sidewalk. There’s a dark, not very inviting marble-topped bar in the back and rows of cramped black wood tables up front set with institutional-looking pieces of flatware. Flimsy, globe-shaped lamps dangle from the ceiling, and vases of sunflowers have been placed here and there around the room in a vain attempt to give the antiseptic, ungainly space an antic, partylike feel.
“We’re in hipster no-man’s-land,” muttered one of my guests, as we glumly nursed our first round of $12 retro cocktails, which included an oversweet Hemingway daiquiri and a Negroni not ungenerously poured with Hendrick’s gin. But the dark mood at the table began to lift perceptibly as soon as the food (cheerfully described by our waitress as “New Age American”) began to arrive. The first thing I sampled was a bowl of cooling, lemon-colored sweet-corn soup, sprinkled on top with soft bits of queso fresco and a layer of shaved truffles. This delicate seasonal special was followed by roasted sweetbreads garnished nicely with a tangy medley of cherries, pickled cucumbers, and chopped almonds; a helping of grilled quail (balanced on a mound of fresh succotash); and an elegant, “New Age” version of salmon tartare folded with pine nuts and preserved lemon and served with a row of salty housemade potato chips.
Executive chef Troy Unruh (“Ellabess” is his childhood name for his grandmother) has worked at Del Posto and Dell’anima, but compared with the menus at those operations, the offerings at this establishment are relatively spare. On the evenings I visited, the only pasta available was a bowl of simple, eggy, tagliatelle-like tajarin noodles, which the kitchen tosses with a mild puttanesca sauce topped with nuggets of swordfish. Three of the ten appetizers are salads, and several of the entrées (there are nine of those) are sized like appetizers, including a handful of plump, well-sizzled Gulf Coast shrimp, which the kitchen serves over a bed of buttery-smooth white-corn grits speckled, here and there, with crinkly strips of fried okra.
The most successful dishes at Ellabess tend have a similar southern twist to them. “This is like fried chicken for ladies who lunch,” said one of my tasters, as he picked gingerly at a single decorous chicken breast, which is fried in a batter leavened inventively with yogurt and plated with a tangy Southeast Asian–style salad made with basil, chopped peanuts, and pickled watermelon rind. The seafood entrées include a vividly orange, weirdly tasteless chunk of wild-king-salmon confit and a nicely cooked piece of red snapper, which the kitchen sets in a flavorful, if slightly overwhelming, gumbo made with smoked cranberry beans and bits of littleneck clam. The lunchtime cheeseburger (with grilled onions and melted Vermont Cheddar) is more satisfying than the meager dinnertime skirt steak, but my favorite meat dish is the house pork chop, which is smothered in a smoky, faintly funky jus flavored, in the Cajun style, with boiled shrimp shells.
Inspired little recipes like this might eventually help Ellabess avoid the dreaded curse of the boom-time hotel. But right now, there aren’t quite enough of them on the menu to merit a trip to this strange border region of Kenmare. If you happen to find yourself stranded in the neighborhood at lunchtime, however, the fried-chicken sandwich (with peanuts, cilantro, and housemade slaw on a brioche bun) is a thing of beauty. The international wine list is well chosen and well priced, and one or two of the eccentric desserts have their moments too. There’s a messy creation called a Waffle Souffle on the menu (a mash of eggy waffles with housemade maple ice cream), and a weirdly appealing upside-down olive-oil cake decorated with candied baby tomatoes. To end your hotel meal on a less racy, slightly more satisfying note, I suggest the New Age peach cobbler, which is made with sugary peaches, nuggets of candied ginger, and a dusting of cornmeal streusel.