Imagine the cast of NBC's Friends going out to brunch with all their friends, and you'll have an idea of what Ella's is like around noon on a warm summer Saturday. The restaurant describes its menu as “neoclassical American cooking,” and it is astonishingly good — familiar and yet unexpected in the way of the best art. (I'll bet the coffee is better than Central Perk's, too.)
But I wonder if the food can entirely account for the durability of this place. The cheeks-aglow crowd at Ella's has its own logic, and on weekends the popularity reaches a kind of critical mass that fills the restaurant with the constant buzz of conversation and laughter amid a clatter of plates and cups. It's like a house party with excellent food.
The space encourages conviviality — and civilized flirtation. From the chairs placed curbside (so those milling around until a table opens up don't have to stand) to the posh draperies hanging from brass rods, Ella's is a catalog of classy informality. There are round marble-topped bistro tables for two, bigger wooden tables for larger parties, and a long bar at which you can sit and watch the chefs do their stuff. The big plate-glass windows give most tables a view onto the busy corner of California and Presidio.
The brunch cooking is all short-order, and Ella's also does its own baking, from the pastries to the loaves of bread that become crusty, buttery toast. You can buy Ella's baked goods to take home (a loaf of bread is $3.50), although they tend to appear frequently, and beautifully, in the restaurant's own dishes.
A sticky bun ($2.25) was a breakfast unto itself, although it did require coffee. Ella's brews its coffee in those Bunn machines familiar to patrons of roadside diners, but the coffee itself isn't Maxwell House. We sipped and swirled the dark and hair-curlingly strong brew as if we were tasting wine. Drinking the coffee was like listening to a great voice on FM radio — it was penetratingly vibrant. The sticky bun was coated in a barely sweet, amber-colored glaze flecked with chunks of almond; underneath, the pastry was a little dry. (After several slugs of the coffee, your pounding heart obliterates this detail.)
The coffee cake ($2.25) was better. It was light like angel food cake, and it was topped with a cranberry-infused meringuelike topping. As so often happens, I, who ordered the sticky bun, ended up coveting the coffee cake; while my friend, who ordered the coffee cake, liked the bun better. Our little bistro table was so small that it was easy to exchange by the forkful.
A small plate of fresh fruit ($3) featured slices of cantaloupe and honeydew melon, as well as dark grapes and ripe, sweet strawberries. The bits of fruit were artfully arranged into what could have been a farmers market sampler.
Ella's changes its menu every few days, but the brunch menu varies within a set spectrum. There are always various kinds of omelets and scrambles; most plates come with home fried potatoes or toast, or both.
The balsamic eggplant omelet was heavy with the taste of eggplant, though the sharpness of the balsamic vinegar made it seem a little less gooey. Eggplant, for me, is one of those foods a little of which goes a long way; I like a bite or two, not a plateful. The omelet was somewhere in between, but the addition of havarti cheese — rich and fragrant, also best when used sparingly — added to the damp weight of the eggplant. Little bits of dill and diced, roasted red peppers brought some visual, if not actual, relief.
The omelet would have been a meal on its own, but it arrived in the company of home fried potatoes (cubed and sauteed until tender, with just a hint of crust) and two slices of sourdough rye toast slathered with butter. The sourdough rye bread was soft with just a bit of chewiness, and it was full of the nutty taste of caraway. But without the generous smearing of butter it would have been inedibly dry.
Creamed chicken and biscuits also filled up an oversized dinner plate. The two biscuits resembled hamburger buns in size and shape, and they were halved in the same way. But they had an agreeably puffy texture in the mouth, and their craggy, exposed surfaces captured a lot of the gravy. The gravy contained a fair amount of shredded chicken (mostly dark meat), but even if it hadn't, the dish would have been delicious. The gravy seemed to be a straightforward mixture of pan drippings and some fat from roasted chicken, thickened with flour and milk. But there was another flavor we puzzled over for some time before finally asking our server. She didn't know, either, but she went to ask one of the chefs, and soon she returned with a one-syllable answer: “Thyme.”
“Yes! Thyme!” we exclaimed. “Of course.” But we were bluffing, because the truth was that it still didn't taste the way I thought thyme tasted. Maybe that's because I associate thyme with Mediterranean cooking — with olives, tomatoes, capers, lemons — and not with what is essentially a dish from the American South. But it's a perfect example of the delicately distinctive spin Ella's gives to traditional dishes.
Like the omelet, the biscuits and gravy would have been an ample meal. But they came with a formidable pile of the home fried potatoes, and a couple of scrambled eggs. In the center of the plate all these items tended to merge, so that a forkful might contain some egg with gravy and a potato, or just a chunk of biscuit. A server bearing two coffee carafes (one regular, the other decaf) plied the room endlessly, as if refueling people who needed to keep up their energy in order to finish their food.
Nobody leaves Ella's hungry. (Or sleepy.) After the bustle and friendly din inside, the street seems cool and calm, an invitation to walk around a bit, burn off some starch, maybe drop in on some friends.
Ella's, 500 Presidio Ave, S.F., 441-5669. Breakfast Mon-Fri 7 a.m.-11 a.m.; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Brunch Sat-Sun 9 a.m.-2 p.m.