Want to get your own glimpse into Stella Sola's fast-paced kitchen? Check out our slideshow.
Some dishes stick fast in my memory without even being deliberately placed there. In lieu of remembering important things like my father's birthday or what time to show up to my cousin's wedding, I remember things like this: a poached egg's bright-orange yolk trickling with a viscous energy over freshly baked brioche and house-cured prosciutto. It was a yard egg from Hatterman's, served for brunch in a Texan twist on "egg in the basket," that I sopped up with stray pieces of brioche until no trace of yolk remained. I ate this in June 2010, nearly a year ago, and remember it as if it were yesterday.
This is the kind of food that Stella Sola is serving, under the somewhat cumbersome but apt description "Texas Tuscan." Food that excites you, food that makes memories, food that you want to tell everyone about while simultaneously keeping it selfishly to yourself, for fear that some Tuesday night in the future you will be greeted by a packed restaurant and no chance of simply walking into one of the city's best restaurants without a reservation booked two weeks in advance. We're spoiled like that in Houston.
Stella Sola serves food that makes you want to return, time and again. Like the wild boar ragu served with creamy ricotta cheese over tender pappardelle that's house-made and wholly toothsome, with just that right amount of coy resistance in the al dente noodles. Or the immense pork rib I shared with friends last week, served with local polenta and bacon-braised mustard greens. The polenta could have been gritty or runny; it was rich and downy. The greens could have been bitter and tart; they were musky and earthy, with a bright twang of vinegar. The pork could have been tough and over-seasoned; it was perfect.
That's not to say that there aren't occasional stumbles: a slightly rubbery lamb chop served with an aggressively minty pesto sauce that slipped and slid around the plate on one night, or a blue crab carbonara that was just barely oversalted.
But they're so minor in and of themselves, and seem even smaller by comparison when viewed through the lens of all the amazing meals I've eaten at Stella Sola in the past. Curling tendrils of watercress in a bright Meyer lemon vinaigrette over pickled carrots and beets in the dal giardino salad; a Gulf seafood stew with the bright, sweet aroma of roasted tomatoes and fennel; a Texan version of grillades and grits made with fatty pork; a crackling-coated suckling pig that feeds two people surrounded by plump Brussels sprouts roasted almost as if they were intended to break down any final walls people may have against enjoying the maligned vegetable; all resonate as if they weren't meals consumed in the past but enjoyed this very afternoon.
That a restaurant as phenomenal as Stella Sola should rise from the failed ashes of the much-hyped Bedford — temperamental chef Robert Gadsby's last project before he departed Houston for good — is remarkable in and of itself. But what's even more remarkable is how the kitchen has fired on all cylinders from day one and continues to do so to this day. Sea legs? Stella Sola never even had any seasickness.
Daily execution of such exceptional and extraordinary dishes is only one of the restaurant's noteworthy qualities. Noticeably fresh produce, much of it local and always seasonal, highlights every plate. First-class house-made charcuterie that even incorporates its very own lardo back into the salumi is featured prominently. A menu of cleverly blended Texan classics and Tuscan standards has something for any diner to love, like the tangy, caper-loaded venison tartara that's a smart take on vitello tonnato, or the Lone Star State-size "Meatballs XL." The dining room is upscale yet intimately cozy. The wine list is broad and more reasonably priced than it has to be, with dozens of great bottles under $40. The service is kind, casual and attentive.
Simply put, Stella Sola is one of Houston's most impeccable restaurants. And its youth makes that determination even more striking.
The kitchen's youth, too, is reflected in the food. Chef de cuisine Justin Basye just turned 30 years old last year. Stella Sola's owners, Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd, were determined to leave Basye alone in the kitchen, despite his being largely untested. Basye received a James Beard Foundation Award nomination for Rising Star Chef of the Year in 2010, only a few months after Stella Sola opened.
It's safe to say that fewer cooks in a kitchen really is a good thing.
As fate would have it, however, Basye put in his resignation the day after my final review visit to Stella Sola, citing a desire to take time off and stage in other kitchens for a while. While it might be a smart move for a young chef with a strong desire to learn and develop, it was a blow to discover.
On the other hand, Adam Dorris — the young chef responsible for the wildly popular Ghetto Dinner supper clubs at Grand Prize Bar — has been promoted to chef de cuisine. I expect him to do just as well as Basye, although it's a bittersweet end to this chapter in the restaurant's short history. On the other hand, it's an excellent opportunity to see if Caswell and Floyd can duplicate their successful strategy of leaving a young new talent in charge of a very big kitchen.
For all of the fanfare and chef intrigue, Stella Sola has remained a resolutely laid-back restaurant that also serves as a comfortable neighborhood bistro. It often seems that for nearly every car that's valet-parked, another group has walked to Stella Sola from their home in the Heights.
"You know," remarked my girlfriend one night after dinner, "for as nice as Stella Sola is, it's also just incredibly cozy." We'd spend nearly three hours in the dining room gabbing over plates of pasta and wines such as the cheekily-named Flat Creek Super Texan — an appropriate wine for a Texas Tuscan restaurant, after all — and closed the place down around 10 p.m. Not once were we rushed; instead, other tables around us all seemed content to do the same.
In keeping with its bistro vibe, the restaurant is careful to recognize and remember regulars, lending a very personal touch to what could be — with its vastness and the type of high-end food it's turning out — a very impersonal kitchen. Sommelier Nathan Smith remembers his customers' favorites and often comes by with samples of new bottles "to play around with." And the bar area, separated by a giant "Meat Market" sign — tongue planted firmly in cheek — has become a neighborhood watering hole in its own right. Excellent cocktails with primarily Texas liquors and ingredients are a big part of the draw, such as the reliably refreshing Santos Cruz with Paula's Texas orange, tequila, balsamic vinegar and rosemary syrup.
I ate dinner in the bar last week with a friend who'd arrived dressed down after work. "They're not going to be upset that I'm wearing jeans and a Hatebeak T-shirt, are they?" he asked, a little intimidated by the restaurant's grand foyer and menu prices.
"No," I replied. Then, after a second, "This is Houston, after all."
And that might be what I love the most about Stella Sola: It's Houston, through and through. It's a restaurant that gets our city and its wonderful idiosyncrasies, but elevates its best qualities at the same time by marrying Texan food with Tuscan ideals while staying fresh and young. Yes, perhaps the menu itself is a little too pork-heavy at times (even the Texas quail is stuffed with suckling pig, and vinaigrettes for salads are made with pancetta), but it's all to showcase the excellent pigs we have around these parts. The same care is taken here with tender Gulf seafood as with pork, after all. And yes, maybe the prices are a little high, but I have absolutely no qualms about paying a premium for high-quality ingredients that also support local farmers, growers and artisans.
I believe that what Stella Sola is doing is groundbreaking in such a sly and subtle way as not to be immediately apparent. Its talent lies in taking national food trends — techniques and ingredients that you would see in places like New York City or Chicago — and weaving them in so skillfully and so subtly that they go virtually unnoticed by a casual diner here in Houston who's just out for a nice meal. The menu is straightforward, not daunting.
And you may not necessarily notice at first the tiny, yellow-tinged beech mushrooms in your venison tartara or the graceful arabesque of creamy mustard across its broad, white expanse of plate. But you'll instantly recognize how supremely lovely it is. And you'll be left with a reminder of time and place: Houston, 2011, Stella Sola. It simply couldn't be anywhere else.
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