Brunch at Stella Sola

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My poached egg split open at the touch of a fork, drenching the brioche beneath it with a thick, bright splash of yolk. It instantly brightened my dark Sunday morning.

Eating brunch at Stella Sola isn't the cheapest thing you'll do all week, but it might be the most cheerful. I have lately resigned myself to paying more for quality ingredients -- especially things like farm-fresh produce and house-cured meats -- because I feel the extra effort and cost of these items is worth every penny. I love knowing that the peaches came from Chappell Hill, that the bacon came from Jolie Vue Farms, that the scones are baked fresh in house. There is an underappreciated level of comfort knowing that you're putting food in your belly that came from hardworking local farmers, not from the deep-freeze at Sysco.

Of course, others might not want to pay more for these kind of ingredients. And there's nothing really wrong with that. We all have different priorities in life. But knowing that the kitchen at Stella Sola can firmly establish the provenance of nearly every ingredient it serves you goes a long way toward understanding why you're paying $9 for a poached egg on a piece of brioche with a slice of prosciutto on top.

There are other restaurants in Houston with far more expensive brunches, and far less legitimate claim to those prices. They're simply charging what the market will bear. Stella Sola is charging for the high-quality ingredients it's serving, and that's what makes eating brunch there a cheerful and more mindful experience for me. That, and you get a wicked little amuse platter before your meal with different exciting bites each time.

The menu changes slightly each Sunday, reflecting what's fresh and in season. The outstanding grillades and grits I had a few weeks ago weren't on the most recent brunch menu, so I went for Stella Sola's version of "toad in a hole" instead. It seems a bit off-kilter for an Italian-Texan fusion restaurant to serve an English item, but the allure of house-cured prosciutto and a fresh yard egg were difficult to resist.

The breakfast was good enough, if a little uninspiring. Stella Sola seems to do best when it focuses on Italian (whether modern or old-school) and Gulf Coast cuisine, even if that sometimes extends a bit further east. To wit, the fatty, perfectly seasoned pork that made up the grillades portion of the grillades and grits did the Cajun dish justice while taking it to an entirely Texan place. The thick, creamy cheese grits beneath the juicy hunk of pork were so good that I've begun ordering them on the side on return visits. Steak and eggs with a side of potatoes -- cooked in a generous portion of pork fat, of course -- are also a sure bet and will fill up the hungriest Texan belly.

What's more inviting at Stella Sola are the drink specials -- $3 for mimosas or amazing, richly spiced Bloody Marys -- and the truly excellent coffee. This is the kind of coffee that I want to come here specifically to order along with a platter of freshly baked pastries for $6. Although the types of pastries rotate each time, you can almost always count on a sweet, luscious, buttery cinnamon roll among the assortment. The platter is enough to share between a table of four, but you won't want to.

Of course, since it's brunch, you can take either a breakfast or lunch route while ordering. And if you take the lunch route, I strongly suggest scanning the dessert menu to see what they have in store. This last visit, we were lucky to get a peach soup that blew us away.

An elegant and restrained dish, it resisted the urge to coat the peaches with sugar and instead let their sweetness shine through on its own. Several slices of peaches sat atop a delicate panacotta flavored with cardamom and lime, tart and smooth at the same time. The peach puree itself was accented only with a drizzle of olive oil and a few mint leaves. It was a thoughtful, thought-provoking dish -- not the kind of dessert you hork greedily down -- and the perfect end to a mindful meal.

Although the restaurant is still young (and under the guidance of an equally young yet talented chef, Justin Basye), dishes like the simple peach soup show Stella Sola moving in an intriguingly mature direction.

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