Thursday, October 26, 2017

Stella, Oxford's newest restaurant, has the potential to be its very best

Stella's Caesar salad is art on a plate

    I’ve never been to a restaurant on opening night, but I read on about the opening of Oxford’s newest restaurant, Stella, and decided to try it out. Stella is located where Smitty’s used to be, just off the Square on South Lamar; for old-timers, Grundy’s.
    Here’s my short review: If opening night is any indicator, Stella is an outstanding fine dining establishment. It has the potential to be the best restaurant in Oxford. Oh, and it’s fairly expensive, too.
    Now for the longer version, with one caveat: Stella is outstanding, but everyone likes and dislikes things. Any negative comment I make should be taken as a quibble and nothing more.
    After reading about the opening we tried to call to ask about availability. Stella doesn’t have a phone number on Google yet, and while they have a web page, about 50 percent of it is dummy copy. The mobile version of the website had no phone number (actually, it’s listed as 111-1234), so Jinny and I just decided to try to walk in.
    I was sure the restaurant would be packed with people wanting to be first in line for a new thing, but there were a number of empty tables visible as we drove by. We were able to get a table right away. Most tables were full, but I would guess that having a few empty tables was a blessing on opening night.
    When we arrived we were seated immediately in banquette seating on the north wall. I hate banquette seating, but they only had seven tables for two with plenty of space between the tables. I’ve been in restaurants where the tables were narrower and they would cram 10 tables into the same space, so all in all it was plenty roomy. If every place with banquette seating was like this I might learn to like it.
    At present Stella has a pretty limited menu. My understanding is that they plan to expand it once they get the place up and running on all cylinders. This is a wise choice; better to do a few things exceptionally well than a lot of things poorly.
    There were, as I recall, five starters, three salads, and five entrees on the menu. We didn’t get a starter, but they included a crab cake, fried oysters, stuffed quail, and two others. I’d love to see the crab cake and stuffed quail stuck on a plate as a main, but I don’t know enough about food to know if they would pair well.
    Entrees included salmon with a crust that included horseradish, a pork chop, a filet, scallops, and a semi-cheap chicken breast. Jinny loves scallops, but the description of all the other things on the plate, including capers and cauliflower puree,  scared her off. So Jinny got the filet and I got the pork chop. I kind of wanted to get the filet, too, but knew Jinny wouldn’t eat all of hers. I really regret not taking a photo of the menu so I could accurately describe the way these dishes are presented.
    We started with salads, which are priced high enough that we started not to order them. A Caesar Salad costs $11 and the cheapest salad was $9. We each ordered the Caesar’s though, and I have to say the Caesar Salads were a work of art. I love baked Parmesan, and there was a large arch of baked Parmesan over a salad of uncut romaine lettuce leaves, topped with a white anchovy (mine only, since Jinny asked that they keep her anchovy for another lucky customer). It was only after the salad arrived that I decided to take out my phone and snap a photo, because they really were beautiful. They tasted good, too.
My pork chop and peas, minus a few bites
    After the salads came the entrees. Jinny’s filet was closer to medium-well than the medium-rare ordered, but was nevertheless quite good. The filet was melt-in-your-mouth tender with a great flavor. It was served with a “Balsamic Demi Glace” on top and “Hoseradish-Lemon Aioli” on the side. I refer to this as a sumpin-sumpin sauce. I loved it, although I usually only like Lea & Perrins on my steak. My pork chop was served atop a bed of black-eyed peas mixed with chopped celery and other stuff, kind of a dry, crunchy relish. The pork chop was good, but I think I would order the black-eyed peas as a main course if I could.
    For desert we had coffees and split a molten lava cake with an anglais sauce. I don’t know what the rest of the desserts on offer were because when I heard “molten lava” the decision was made. Dessert was great. My second cup of coffee was cold, and when I asked the waiter to microwave it for me for 40 seconds he took it to the back and brewed more coffee. He said the restaurant doesn’t have a microwave, which I find odd, since sometimes things just need to be heated a bit. I’d rather have a microwaved cup of coffee in one minute than a freshly brewed cup in five. Only a quibble, as I promised above.
    Stella also offered a cheese plate for dessert, which is my usual dessert choice when offered. Cheese for dessert is kind of a European thing, but I hope they get enough demand for this to keep offering it. I plan on ordering it next time.
    Now to the wine list! Stella only had one “wine by the glass” of each type, which was a bit of a disappointment, although their one choice of each type was a quality wine. Their sparkling wine is Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Cava, which Jinny had on a business trip and came home raving about, so that's what she got. I started with a glass of Pine Ridge white wine, a blend consisting of 80 percent chenin blanc and 20 percent viognier. The Pine Ridge white was very grape-fruity, which I usually hate, but I liked this wine. I also got a glass of Benton Lane pinot noir which was quite good; at $14 a glass it ought to be! Although Stella's wine prices are a little on the high side, they offer a generous 6.25 oz. wine pour; they bring the wine in a small carafe and pour it at the table. I call it the Disney World pour, since all of the Disney restaurants have a similar serving size, which is almost exactly one-fourth of a bottle. Many (most?) restaurants squeeze out five glasses to the bottle. The extra little dab is easy to see in the glass.
    In the future I’d love to see more wine-by-the-glass options, and perhaps wine flights. There are wine dispensing systems using argon as a preservative that will keep a bottle of wine fresh for 30 days, which allows restaurants the option of serving obscure or expensive wines by the glass. This would be a great thing to have.
    The worst part of every restaurant meal is the check, in our case $157, which is more than we usually spend on dinner. We knew it was coming; part of me wishes we hadn’t enjoyed the meal so much, because we are eager to go back but our budget is screaming “No!”
    I asked our waiter to tell the owner that we really enjoyed our meal and thought his restaurant would be a great success. I then added that he should tell the chef as well, at which point I was informed that the owner is the chef. That’s a good thing.
    I suspect Stella will soon be slammed with customers. New restaurants often have problems dealing with a full house, leaving first-time patrons with a bad impression. I hope the owners will keep their crowd down – removing some tables if necessary – for the first few weeks until they get their sea legs. Our meal was nearly perfect, but my gut feeling was that if every table in the place had been full there would have been some problems.
    In any event, I’m glad to see that Oxford has a new fine-dining establishment. Stella has the potential to be the best restaurant in Oxford. I wish them well and look forward to visiting again when my budget allows.


Anonymous said...

I had the cauliflower puree. Hard to distinguish between it and really good mashed potatoes in taste and texture. The puree lacks the calories and starch of the potatoes, and for us seasoned (as in our age) eaters, that is a nice plus for the cauliflower. My oyster app was as good as remembered from prior meals at the chef's Stella in Memphis several years ago. That one was the best in Memphis, and this one will likely be the best in Oxford, too. Auspicious start last night.

Liz Barrett Foster said...

Thanks for sharing your experience at the new restaurant, Frank. Glad to hear the article inspired you to check it out.