Ella Funt is a restaurant of winks and nudges, puns and poetry. Cocktails at the up-front bar have names like Sorry Sally, Drunk Man at the Cabaret and Picnic in a Garden (made with Supergay vodka). A mural in the dining room is a homage to Picasso, the tilted shelves to Dr. Caligari and the objets d’art to Dada. The rest rooms are splashed with paint or tiled in silver. The ceilings seem covered with big Post-Its; The menus come in marbled schoolbook covers.
The name of the restaurant, one comes to realize, is a play on the word “elephant,” but also refers to a famous hefty drag queen of the 1950s admired by Salvador Dalí at a bar at this location called Club 82, run by the Genovese crime family. By the 1980s it had lost all its luster and, after a run as a gay bar, was shuttered as an artifact of New York queer history. Happily, then, entrepreneur Lounes Mazouz and Chef Nick Koustefanou, along with architect Annabel Karim Kassar, have brought the space back to life as a serious restaurant and bar, with live music on weekends, and it has already attracted a crowd from beyond its East Village location.
Koustefanou, 28, a Miami native, came to the Big Apple in 2017 to work at a vegetarian restaurant named Nix, as well as Le Cou Cou, Kissaki and Peak at Hudson Yards. Now, Nick brings his talents to Ella, along with sous chef Ziumana Meite, fashioning a Franco-Mediterranean menu of just the right size to come out of such a small open kitchen.
They serve very good bread and a good amount of butter, though it will cost you $8. For starters there is a silky tuna slice ($22) with a tangy dressing of grapefruit, pickled baby ginger, shiso and a sweetened fish sauce. I see the word “croquettes” and I become Pavlovian, unable to resist ordering these pastry puffs full of pork, Comté cheese, a mayo mustard and cornichon ($15).
There are also “petits plats” that include Sungold and heirloom tomatoes with a tomato jam, Japanese san balzu sauce and smoked trout with nori ($20), the last flavors of summer. It’s a better choice than the too-simple grilled squash with crabmeat, almond and chili sauce ($27). Best of all were the sweetbreads ($36), which I’m told sell very well, with the unexpected addition of lobster, chanterelle mushrooms and a sauce americaine.
Larger dishes begin with an excellent roast chicken ($38) with asparagus, stone fruit and grilled sucrine lettuce in a careful glossy reduction. Also first rate was a whole fish ($65)—that night a meaty dorade—grilled to succulence, with a delicious green curry, pea leaves and wax beans (which I’d like to see more of on menus). It was also wonderful to find sauce estragon married with simple, perfectly grilled ten-ounce strip steak ($65) and little peas.
Desserts are also straightforward and very good, including a citron tart ($16), a deep dark chocolate mousse ($16) and a cheese sorbet with berries ($12).
The charming and enthusiastic sommelier Juliete Dos Santos stocks some very out-of-the-ordinary wines on her list, so trust her to match them with your food choices. The service staff rushes about earnestly but could use the addition of another waiter.
Elle Funt would certainly not be out of place in any outer arrondissement of Paris, where amidst tough competition it would rank among the best bistros. Here in New York, where we have plenty of every kind of restaurant, Ella Funt stands out as something both traditional for its menu and uniquely a part of the East Village history it now adds to with such color and verve.
78-80 East Fourth Street