Ella’s Oyster Bar is named for one of its co-owners’ daughters, but as far as this New England-meets-Miami seafood joint is concerned, Ella is also the fictional persona of the place as a local “she” who is sassy, fun and so Little Havana.
The chica’s got moxie. And she likes to play with her food.
That means you’ll find chorizo in her crab meat and Cuban crackers served alongside oysters. Ella’s ubiquitous lobster roll comes wrapped in a toasted medianoche bread. Her oyster po boy is sandwiched inside Cuban bread.
Casual and spunky, the storefront restaurant seats 78, with a small kitchen open at the back of the rectangular space. A blue mural of the legendary sea monster Kraken by artists from EVLworld Studio in Wynwood covers one white-washed brick wall. A large photo of the Miami skyline at dusk hangs from another, along with light-bulb letters that spell out OYSTERS. Terrazzo floors, industrial hanging lights and exposed metal ceiling grids emphasize the relaxed, local nature of the place, although they do little to control the noise.
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Just smile and nod, you won’t be able to hear a thing after Ella’s fills up, which inevitably happens most weekend nights after 8 p.m., when Calle Ocho springs to life outside the 2-month-old oyster bar’s picture windows. With this working-class, Cuban-rooted neighborhood fighting gentrification, Little Havana nights as we know them may be numbered, so grab a table while you can and enjoy the view.
Start with the small but respectable chalkboard selection of oysters plucked from the East, West and Gulf coasts, served on a bed of crushed ice with horseradish, cocktail sauce and a biting red wine vinegar mignonette sauce. For those who prefer their seafood baked or broiled, the slyly named oysters “Rockafeller” with lime, herbs, panko bread crumbs and sweet, briny uni butter pooled in the bottom of the shells is a creamy, dreamy choice.
Adventurers should try the cuttle fish, an appetizer that presents the squid-like mollusk as two lobes lightly grilled and served with a limon vinaigrette on top of a beefy tomato slice. The dish is smoky, tart and surprisingly tender.
Another solid starter: crab croquettas with Old Bay hollandaise sauce. They’re crispy on the outside and full of flaky, fluffy crabmeat inside.
The diver scallops entrée, with three large scallops served atop roasted corn and truffled ragu, was a table favorite. The Little Havana Clam Bake for two also wowed with its presentation in a cast-iron pot. Mussels, clams, Maine lobster, shrimp, purple Peruvian potatoes, mini corn cobs and chorizo chunks in a thin tomato-base broth were dumped tableside into a shallow metal platter, setting off a steamy cloud of salt air. We would have preferred cornbread, but the buttered white bread slices alongside served their purpose for dipping.
Ella’s is a partnership between Jordan Marano and Christian Plotczyk, two scrappy Miami chefs who recently decided to be their own bosses after meeting 20 years ago while working with the China Grill Group and Rosa Mexicano chain. Marano, who is on hand in Ella’s kitchen most nights, is a Culinary Institute of America grad who has worked at DeVito and Il Migliore. Plotczyk, who worked in corporate management for Virgin Hotels and One Group Hospitality (STK restaurants), oversees operations.
While servers are not polished, they are courteous and attentive under the hands-on duo’s watchful eyes. When our short rib entrée fell apart in the kitchen, Marano visited our table with an apologetic explanation for the delay then delivered the new-and-improved version later himself. The silky, rich dish was worth the wait, served with a dark pan sauce, crispy shallots and cauliflower mashed with achiote to a marigold color.
Ella’s does not offer liquor, but the busy wood bar near the entrance makes up for it with local brews, a small selection of red, white and rosé wines, and clever wine- and sake-based cocktails, including a refreshing “mojito.” Along with chalkboard specials, the one-page menu starts with raw bar selections, which include a local fish ceviche, tuna taquitos and a local fish tostada.
Ten small plates, seven entrees and a generous selection of salads, sandwiches and desserts are designed to keep seafood lovers happy, although some meat lovers will find joy in the fried chicken and chili queso pancakes with jalapeno honey. The closest you’ll get to a steak is a cheeseburger.
Side dishes aim to surprise. The plantain two ways, as tater tots and tostones, with a house-made onion dip was one of the few combos that didn’t work. The plantains were chalky and not salty enough to pair with the thick dip. Coconut milk cherry rice, scooped into a coconut half-shell, could easily have been served as dessert; it was sweet and speckled with plump cherries — not very compatible with seafood, but a delightful treat on its own.
From the sandwiches side of the menu, the lobster roll was more Tajin mayo than meat. The “surf n’ turf frita Cubana,” a patty of lump crab meat and chorizo topped with papas (potato) sticks, was slightly mushy.
The Yankee-Miami romance was rekindled by desserts that cleverly merged the two worlds, particularly the pastelito ice cream sandwich drizzled with caramel sauce and the café con leche flan baked on a brownie bottom.
With the historic Art Deco Tower Theater now regularly showing films across the street and Ball & Chain packing in dance crowds for live Latin jazz one block up, Ella’s could be the start of a fabulous night. “She” may well be one of the most eligible bachelorettes in Miami. Swipe right!
If you go
Place: Ella’s Oyster Bar
Address: 1615 SW Eighth St., Miami
Rating: ☆ ☆ 1/2 (Good)
Contact: 786-332-4436, www.ellasoysterbar.com
Hours: noon-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, until midnight Friday-Saturday
Prices: $9-$15 starters, $12-$28 entrees, $6-$7 desserts
FYI: VS, MC, AmEx; beer, wine and sake-based cocktails; happy hour daily with $1.25 oysters; street parking is difficult.