The big breakthrough at Ellē occurred at a microscopic level in one of Brad Deboy’s 5-gallon buckets.
Sometime in the lead-up to opening Eater D.C.’s 2018 Restaurant of the Year last January, Deboy took a break from painting a wall and realized he was starving. Ellē was close to welcoming customers, but the executive chef didn’t have his stoves turned on yet. To busy himself, he had already tossed hundreds of pounds of vegetables — including organic red cabbage for kimchi — into fermenting buckets. With nothing else on hand, Deboy grabbed some of the vegan kimchi, some strained yogurt, a chile oil he’d been experimenting with, and a slice of country loaf fired up by head bread baker Dan Fogg.
“We just ate it,” Deboy says, “and we’re like, ‘Whoah.’”
The snack has become the calling card for the multi-purpose cafe, bakery, restaurant, and bar in Mount Pleasant. Deboy has tweaked the kimchi so some of the cabbage gets a smoky char on the grill before getting tossed in another marinade.
“That dish, on paper, sounds disgusting,” co-owner Nick Pimentel says. “Kimchi, yogurt, it sounds weird. But it became our signature dish, and I think that explains a lot about us. ... It’s things that are very homey and kitchen staples from all over the world, and then you pile it together and you create this new thing.”
This week Ellē celebrated its first full year as Mount Pleasant’s ultimate neighborhood hangout, drawing diners from all over D.C. and critics from all over the country to sample bread from Fogg, sweets from co-owner Lizzy Evelyn and pastry chef Alison O’Brien, and funky cafe fare from Deboy.
On paper, the roughly 2-year process from signing a lease at the former home of the historic Heller’s Bakery (established in 1928) to creating the versatile venue looks grueling. Evelyn and Pimentel — parents to a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old — acknowledge that. But the couple also says so many pieces along the way that felt disarmingly easy.
Even though they shook their heads when they took a first look at the 3,000-square-foot space, the landlord kept gauging their interest every few weeks. The space was across an alley from where they used to live, and Pimentel kept recalling fond memories of a daily doughnut ritual at Heller’s. Investors quickly appeared from within a four-block radius.
Deboy, who won a Michelin star leading the kitchen at the Blue Duck Tavern, happened to be a regular at Room 11, Pimentel’s bar in Columbia Heights. Even the name (ell-ee), a nod to a whiskey-drinking grandmother that used to send Evelyn home from New Hampshire loaded up with preserves, fit conveniently into the Heller’s sign.
“Everything about it just sort of progressed naturally in like an open-arms kind of way,” Evelyn says.
But Evelyn and Pimentel — who is also a partner in nationally recognized Bad Saint — wanted to be patient with implementing all the moving parts. So patient in fact, that their pastry chef got pregnant and had a baby during the process.
Wanting to create a homey setting that felt a little like Heller’s in its heyday and a little like a corner cafe in Europe, Pimentel brought floral print wallpaper into the mix. The couple who first bonded over abrasive music as graphic design students at American University — she says it was Slayer; he says it was Bad Brains — made the place quaint.
Evelyn says their mostly hands-off approach as managers has helped foment creativity. Although she says she sometimes wishes she applied more pressure on the staff, it’s not her personality to do so. Setting them free to create was the goal.
“There aren’t a lot of perks to being back of the house,” she says. “It’s hard. It’s very hard to pay people what they need to be paid. So, Jesus, I mean, at least have fun, right? That’s a perk. You should come to work and enjoy it and have fun. That’s the core to the pastry department. We all have to like each other. We all have to get along. We all have to have fun. That’s mandatory.”
Deboy has been given free rein to delve into fermentation techniques he’s been studying for more than a decade. His Instagram handle, naturally, is @fermentaboutit.
With a much smaller kitchen than he had at his hotel job, Deboy enjoys more time to mentor line cooks and collaborate with sous chefs Chris Yates and Demetri Michelis.
Although the executive chef tweaks the menu frequently — he just added an olive oil poached swordfish with lemon spaetzle and a smoked lamb ham and biscuits with pimento cheese and pickled green tomatoes — he doesn’t want to stray from his core goals as Ellē looks to continue its success:
“Ferment as much as possible and learn everyday,” he says.
Take a look Inside the Dishes at Ellē with new items and old standbys:
Served on a sweet potato roll, the go-to morning dish features a brisket pastrami that’s brined for two weeks, smoked for eight to 10 hours, crusted with peppercorns and coriander, and steamed until tender. Farm eggs are folded to order over low heat on a mobile burner behind the coffee counter. There’s also white cheddar cheese and some of Deboy’s fermented chile hot sauce.
Gran Arso Pappardelle
Deboy wanted to bring a pasta to the menu, so he picked one that took him four months to develop. In the tradition of gran arso — a burnt wheat pasta developed by Italian field workers — he sets pharro grains on fire to start his pappardelle dough. Getting it to a consistency that would extrude involved heavy research and develoment. It’s served with shitake mushrooms, porcini breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese and roasted garlic. “It’s like an earthy umami bomb,” Deboy says. “When you breath out, it’s almost like you’re breathing out al little bit of smoke from the fields as it’s burning.”
“This is a straight-up just chocolate for the chocolate lovers,” Evelyn says, adding that there’s an olive oil cake crust made with cake scrap with Maldon sea salt, an espresso brown whipped cream, and a drizzle of olive oil.
White Chocolate Passion Fruit Mousse
Ellē just tried out its first plated dessert this week, but the majority of its sweets have to hold up all day in the display case before being offered up at the end of dinner. This mouse is made with a sesame pound cake crust, sesame crumb on the outside, and passion fruit gelee inside.