The low down
Ela Bella opened four months ago at 163 High Street in Tonbridge, offering French and Italian dishes with an emphasis on fish and seafood. It’s spread across two floors in a beautiful old listed building, and the place is full of original charm with a network of oak beams and rather eccentric angles and slopes.
It’s a warm and welcoming décor, which retains a timeless appeal even though it has just been freshened up. You could be in a backstreet trattoria or a provincial brasserie. It feels like the kind of place you would come back to, even before you’ve sat down.
The premises once housed the Office Wine Bar, one of the first venues in the town that wasn’t a pub. Now, of course, the town is heavily populated by dining destinations and a burgeoning reputation, but head chef Tarik is confident that he can serve up a distinct experience.
Tarik, whose family is from Istanbul, is in his 20th year as a restaurateur and has a broad experience of European cuisine, having worked at The Vineyard in Wrotham Heath, El Matador in Sevenoaks and Amano at The Swan in West Malling.
His latest project is named after his daughter, who has always been known as ‘Ela bella’. The venue is keen to style itself as family-friendly and there are indeed a number of young children happily dining there on a weekend lunchtime.
Under starters orders
After an effusive welcome from Tarik, we are offered a warm bread roll, which is always a good start. I opt for the jumbo scallops wrapped in bacon with a garlic butter sauce (£9.95), which I am told is a very popular dish. The scallops are cooked to perfection and have a lovely silky consistency, with the bacon pleasingly charred and the butter eminently dippable.
My guest opts for the calamari fritti with aioli (£6.95), and the squid is very tender while the batter is splendidly light and melts on the tongue.
I partner the starter with a glass of French merlot Terres Cortal (£4.95), which proves to be very smooth so that it complements the succulent slivers of scallop well. There is a tantalising array of house wines served by the glass, which is such a relief from the customary disappointment of one of each colour and all from the same supplier, which seems to be so favoured these days.
The main event
I suppose I really should have gone for a fish dish – the dover sole special is proving a big hit with customers – but when my guest chooses the Ela Bella seafood spaghetti (£15.50), I can’t resist going for something French with red meat. I can always try hers, after all! So I have the boeuf bourgignon (£22.95). The meat is cut into small but potent chunks, the baby onions are happily crunchy and the sauce eminently deep in flavour and texture.
Now I will issue a little warning here. The bourgignon comes on its own, and you will need to order side dishes, which make the course really rather expensive. But the sautéed potatoes are an ideal accompaniment, like thick game chips, and the vegetables are al dente, which is always a plus point – over-boiling mush being one of the great crimes against greens.
The same bold handling applies to the pasta, with the spaghetti firm rather than squidgy. My guest exclaims at the large quantity of seafood in her expansive dish and applauds the sauce, which is made with cherry tomatoes, giving it a deeper richness than ordinary tomatoes, along with white wine and parsley. The effect is powerful and pungent.
I cannot resist trying another house red, and this time I go for something with a bit more body to go with the beef, an Italian cabernet sauvignon Astoria which turns out to be ideally peppery and warming.
In keeping with the appeal to family groups, it’s worth noting that the children’s menu is impressive, with five pasta dishes on offer as well as the customary chicken goujons – which are also definitely better than usual.
I really should have called it a day at that point, but duty calls and from the array of homemade puddings I go for the berry cheesecake. The fruity compote is eye-wateringly good and the biscuit base is a delightful combination of crumble and moistness. It’s another winner, which leaves you wondering about the other desserts you’ve missed out on.
In the competitive market that is Tonbridge’s growing foodie scene, Ela Bella is striking out on her own with a European dining experience in a relaxed and informal setting – it’s like being on holiday but in your own town.
“We wanted to offer something different for the people of Tonbridge,” Tarik told us. “There are plenty of pizza and pasta places in the town, so we thought it needed a specialist fish and seafood restaurant. Then we thought we would mix French and Italian, so there is a good selection of meat dishes too.
“We like to feature different things, so recently we had frogs’ legs one week, then oysters the next. And we like to give our customers what they want, so if they ask for something specifically then we will get it in for them. For example someone came in and asked for liver and bacon and we served it up. For me, it’s all about the people.”