It’s no secret that Long Beach’s restaurant scene has been on a precipitous rise in the last few years, bringing with it new cuisines (raw!), thoughtful chefs (Philip Pretty!) and a farm-to-table ethos that has always felt more Silver Lake café than working-class LBC. But I still wonder if Long Beach even wants or needs the kinds of creative neighborhood bistros that Angelenos consistently flock to. (“This is why we can’t have nice things,” I say to myself every time I see the veteran-hiring Alsatian restaurant 4th and Olive with an empty dining room.)
Ellie’s—which recently took over the institutional, if inconsistent, At Last Cafe on the corner of Second Street and Orange Avenue—is telling us that we deserve better, that we don’t have to do a date night at Michael’s on Naples for handmade pasta or wait for a table at Restauration for a chance to eat the culinary art of a highly skilled chef.
Chef Jason Witzl is a Whittier native who has by far the most impressive résumé of any chef in Long Beach right now. Since the age of 17, when he started washing dishes at famed uptown dive the 6740, Witzl has been moving up the ranks in upscale kitchens across LA County, from the groundbreaking Campanile to the Michelin-starred Water Grill to the James Beard-nominated Manhattan Beach Post. In between, he spent time in Spain at the world-renowned, three-Michelin-starred Martin Berasategui and worked under acclaimed chefs such as David Lefevre and Brian Malarkey.
With such impressive credentials, it’s easy to wonder why Witzl decided to open his white-tablecloth California-Italian concept in a borderline-residential location in the heart of a city long content with dive bars and takeout joints. But it’s best not to think about such things, though, and just enjoy his seasonal menu of imaginative pastas and share plates, which are currently lush with apples, winter squash and cauliflower.
That is, if you can afford $16 plates of pasta and $6 herb fries on the regular. Even though dishes such as the light and creamy tagliatelle (Laughing Bird shrimp, ’Nduja), Calabrian-inspired ahi tuna crudo (with pistachios, beets and chiles) and roasted carrots (nearly caramelized with mushrooms and mustard crema) are all exquisitely crafted, beautifully plated and clearly conceived with native ingredients and pan-Italian traditions, Ellie’s seems just out of reach both conceptually and financially for many Long Beach diners.
Though the same money can get you full on tacos or Thai, your $5 is well-spent on a plate of grilled bread. Once you dip the crunchy-soft slices of rustic Pugliese loaf into the heavenly saba-infused pork butter, you’ll understand why it’s really a steal.
After several visits, I started to wish some of Witzl’s expertly molded pastas (his eggy spaghetti, a dumpling-like agnolotti, the “silk handkerchief” mandilli) and decadent, savory sauces (that short rib bolognese!) were available in a build-your-own, mix-and-match format, similar to what the now-shuttered P3 offered. His own complex combinations are fascinating, but I kept trying to think of ways to ease the fears of locals who see white tablecloths as little more than a mark of gentrification. In the meantime, those who wish to dive in would to best to start with the nightly $25 quarterie menu. Part omakase, part prix fixe, it lets you select a pasta dish, around which the kitchen will build a meal, sending out an appetizer and dessert based not only on what you ordered, but also on whatever is looking best that day.
As with similarly courageous 4th and Olive, Ellie’s is slightly ahead of its time, but that doesn’t mean it has to be. Here’s to hoping Witzl can help Long Beach get used to something cozy and creative that’s worth a few extra bones. Because it’s not just Silver Lake that deserves to have nice things.
Ellie’s, 204 Orange Ave., Long Beach, (562) 437-4837; ellieslbc.com.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.