Ellen's Southern Kitchen Cooks With Soul
Ellen's Southern Kitchen and I got off to a great start. Sitting at the bar, I had a nice conversation with what seemed like half the restaurant staff. I drank an ice-cold beer while waiting for my entrees and was alerted to the stuffed jalapeños the kitchen was working on but had not yet added to the menu.
The jalapeños were interesting. Stuffed with large hunks of shrimp and cheese, the peppers had a shoddy cornmeal coating I attributed to a kitchen that was still working out the kinks on a new dish. The peppers themselves, though, were cleaned of their seeds and mild, with a tangy, creamy dip that squelched away any remaining heat. They had the potential to become a great bar snack.
My chicken-fried steak was even better. It was a shame the breading didn't cling to the beef a little better, but what hung on to the tender meat was crisp and unbelievably crunchy. I had to will myself not to mop up the cast-away shards of breading with the gravy that remained on my plate. (I'll admit to indulging the shameful practice for a fork-full or two.)
Even though I usually prefer a simple BLT, adding an egg and avocado to a classic hardly seems a crime when it tastes this good. Ellen's version boasted bacon so crisp I went hunting for the extras that fell out of the sandwich, and the yolk became a runny condiment that brought the whole thing together. If it weren't for bland and dry whole-grain bread, the sandwich would have been a real show-stopper. I walked away from the restaurant with a positive impression and a sincere desire to return, even if the location seemed a little odd to me.
Ellen's opened earlier this fall in the West End. Joe Groves, a newcomer to the Dallas restaurant scene, took over the old Heart Attack Grill space, which boasted waitresses dressed as nurses with short skirts, red vinyl booths and the worst burgers you could buy in Dallas. The gimmick didn't work and the burger joint closed not even a year after it opened.
Groves set upon the space with a complete transformation in mind. Black and white wallpaper with an ornate floral print covers the walls, and dark carpet blankets the old tile floors. The bright red booths are gone, replaced by tables and chairs with dark wood and blue seat pans. A large granite bar was installed where the old burger counter used to sit and a warm waitress is there to greet you when you walk through the glossy, jet-black doors.
That's how my second visit started on a cold, blustery winter evening. We were offered our choice of tables in the dimly lit dining room and given an awkward menu printed on loose leaves of paper by a waitress who told us it was her first day.
While our waitress was briefly shadowed by a trainer, it was clear her training was minimal, and her clunky service was in stark contrast to the treatment I received while I sat at the bar. Questions about the menu and drinks were met with blank stares and repeat trips back to the kitchen. It was clear she'd been given an apron and a pad of paper and then turned loose on the restaurant — a significant failing of the management, and an indication of ownership that's still relatively new to the restaurant game.
That's a shame considering the good work chef Russell Mertz is accomplishing back in the kitchen. Mertz used to cook at The Butcher Shop, a steak restaurant in the same neighborhood, before Groves poached him. He's responsible for some respectable dishes that feature scratch cooking, with most components cooked to order, according to Groves.
The menu at Ellen's reads like diner fare with a Southern flare. Breakfast is served all day, complete with eggs any style, more of that crunchy bacon, sausage and hash browns. Customers who want a more substantial morning meal can dive into eggs Benedict, omelets, pancakes and waffles.
For lunch and dinner service, more comfort classics make an appearance. The meatloaf is a dense, rich, flavorful hunk of meat hiding under a thin veil of sweet gravy. The fried chicken is almost as good, boasting a crisp, not-at-all-oily crust that stays put, and the pork chop, while a little dry, is hard to beat considering the prices.
Mertz's food can't compete with the likes of Sissy's Southern Kitchen & Bar or other fancy restaurants with a Southern flair, but it shouldn't have to. The prices are cheap and more on par with what you find at your standard neighborhood diner. Compare Ellen's Southern Kitchen to this caliber of cooking and suddenly the food here shines very brightly.
Most entrees come with a choice of two sides, and the braised greens are one of your best choices. With a subtle tang and huge hunks of ham, the braised greens taste light in contrast to a sometimes heavy menu.
Smoked macaroni and cheese is another side that deserves some real estate on your plate. The smoke isn't derived from bacon as you might think, but from smoked cheddar cheese that leaves the faintest trace of campfire in the finished dish.
For now, Groves says his breakfast and lunch crowds are his largest, and the office workers who fill his dining room are surely thankful that a restaurant within walking distance of their desks offers affordable plates based on fresh ingredients. In a neighborhood dominated by TGI Friday's and Hooters, getting a meal cooked with some thought behind it can be a tough order. In that vein Ellen's is a great addition to the neighborhood.
There is work to be done if Ellen's is ever to become a worthwhile Friday night destination, though. In addition to service that was less than optimal, the dining room feels a little sparse and minimalist. The color scheme is great, but the décor doesn't come together like all the ingredients in that BLT did. A bookshelf that cuts the dining room in half seems oddly placed and truncates the space instead of integrating with it. That menu sure could use a leather binder, too.
Groves is off to a great start though, and with some tweaks Ellen's is a good contribution to the downtown dining scene. I just hope nothing changes with that chicken-fried steak. It's perfect how it is.
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