There are a few things that Ellington's doesn't get quite right. One of them is a statement in the restaurant's publicity blurb: "We like to fry," it states. "It may not be politically correct, but one taste of our fried chicken, chicken-fried steak, or pan-fried catfish, and you'll swear off tofu forever."
The thing that's wrong with that statement is that it isn't a taste of those foods that will compel you to swear off tofu. A taste of tofu will take care of that just fine. The other thing is that, while it's better than tofu, Ellington's fried chicken isn't all that great, at least not great enough to drive changes in eating habits. Southern fried chicken ($9.95), marinated overnight, hand-battered (how else do you batter a chicken?), and fried, was soggy with grease. Plus, the coating lacked any compelling spice. Yet once you got beyond the fry part, the interior was moist and delicious, and it almost compensated for the golden coat that disappointed. A side of black-eyed peas fell short too, spiceless and bland as they were. Dark turnip greens were a bit better, though they tended to be tough and slightly bitter.
Ellington's was birthed by the M Crowd -- the group that launched Mi Cocina, Taco Diner, The Mercury, and Citizen -- in the space near Fort Worth's Sundance Square that was once home to Mainstream Fish House, another M Crowd concept. It was born Ellington's Southern Table some 30 days before Citizen popped up in Dallas to polished crowds and fervent accolades. Maybe this swiped the focus from Ellington's, because it has had its stumbles. They took their eye off the table and kept it locked on the flashy Citizen ball. Even partner Brent Johnson admits as much.
But he assures us that Ellington's will improve. Maybe it already has. By the time you read this, the restaurant will have changed from Ellington's Southern Table to Ellington's Southern Chop House, and in addition to home-style artery blockage, Ellington's will serve steaks, chops, and broiled lobster. Do we need this?
Hard to say. But there is some benefit to exploring the question. The double cut smoked pork chop ($17.95) nuzzled with a coarse charred tomato salsa was extraordinary: tender, moist, and firm, with a subtle smokiness. It was thick too, as thick as the girth of someone raised on Southern cuisine, the kind that doesn't have tofu. The charred tomato salsa, a singed tomato meshed with onions, jalapeños, cilantro, and garlic, played off the smoky meat while it added some zing.
Sniff around Ellington's for a while, and you'll even find twists. Chilled crab claws ($6.95), for example, are served in a martini glass. Maybe that wouldn't be a twist in a typical steak house, but it could be considered a bit of a warp in a menu with Yankee-style pot roast. Anyway, couched in a slurry of chopped parsley, cucumber, and garlic, the claws were firm and moist without any sinewy texture. The only drawback was the garlic cheese bread crowding the claws. The bread got soggy, and that may be fine when its warm, but it's devastating to the mouth when it's cold.
Southern crock selections fare well too. Beef stroganoff ($7.95), swamped in smooth, rich gravy, was tangled with well-cooked noodles. Yet the meat was relatively dry and chewy. Sides were more often disappointing than not. Broccoli and rice was well seasoned and thick with cheese, but the rice and broccoli were mushy and overcooked. Cole slaw was limp and mottled in a mayonnaise goop: thick but not lively or fresh tasting.
Peach cobbler ($2.95) didn't work well either: It had a good tangy flavor, but it was a little too soupy, and there was precious little crust to firm it up and make it chewy.
Johnson says Ellington's was a concept that had been in the can for quite some time before it finally emerged in Fort Worth, and it's still a work in progress. In addition to the new menu crafted by M Crowd chef Chris Ward and Ellington's chef Kenny Mills, Ellington's will get some decorative touches such as draperies and leather to soften the wood paneling, brick walls, and marble. It will also get some neon lighting to add a little spark. But it should take some of that focus and put it into service. Not that the service is rude. It's just that it's slow, inefficient, and seemingly indifferent. It was even hard to get a server's attention after concerted flagging maneuvers. That's a fatal flaw in a place with "Southern" in its name.
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