review: six blocks to elysian fields…
Coincidence is a curious thing. Sometimes, it can be a b*tch.
Just before dessert, the sommelier arrived with a bottle of Champagne, a gift from the chef, Scott Boswell.
To explain how this happened, let me rewind to the beginning of our meal at his restaurant, Stella!
While waiting for our first courses to arrive, I noticed an email drop in my inbox from an acquaintance – in another city and state – who knew I was in New Orleans. Was I going to Stella!?, he wanted to know.
As a matter of fact, I responded, I was just sitting down to dinner there. I added that service was slow. Incredibly slow. We had been sitting dry and hungry for over thirty minutes after ordering. No explanation. No apology. Nothing. It was a rough start.
The details are too convoluted to recount, but, in short, the contents of that email reached Boswell’s ears. Unbeknownst to me, Boswell was sitting right next to the email recipient.
What Boswell did not know at the time is that after sending that email, my friends and I sat another half hour between our second courses and our main courses. Again, no explanation. No apology. Nothing.
And we sat another half hour between our main courses and our desserts. Again, not a single explanation or acknowledgment.
That’s when the bottle of Champagne arrived.
We weren’t the only ones experiencing slow service that night. Trouble was afoot in the front of the house, and probably the back as well; something was wrong.
The restaurant was full.
They were in the weeds.
Silverware was habitually misplaced. Plates were incorrectly assigned and delivered unannounced. Wine was poured erratically – sometimes twenty minutes before its paired dish arrived, sometimes a few minutes after.
The left hand was not talking to the right hand. It was a circus.
And, it seemed, the worse things got, the more the servers avoided our table. I have eaten in enough restaurants to know that when mistakes start happening with a table, it can be very easy to let things get worse rather than stopping, apologizing, and trying to start afresh.
You would never have known anything was wrong by watching the efficiency and professionalism of the bartenders though. We arrived just before eight o’clock and comfortably squeezed in a cocktail and a half before being seated. They make a delightful French 75 and do a wonderful interpretation of a Sazerac in a dimpled glass.
But the trouble in the dining room was enough to earn Stella! her exclamation point.
To add insult to injury, a tart, cruel stream of cold air was directed at our table through the half-inch gap between the set of double doors near us. It was rainy and miserable outside. We were freezing. At one point, the doors blew open. There being no servers around, my friend got up and closed them.
Service and climate control issues aside, the food at Stella! was uneven.
That vegetable main course – priced at $31 – was the type of obligatory and overpriced afterthought that most vegetarians fear in high-end restaurants. It amounted to a small assortment of beautiful vegetables, a couple of croquettes, and some sauce, all of which arrived on the colder side of acceptable. It looked more like a first course.
Next to it was a gorgeous $34 filet of grouper worthy of praise. It was crusted with popcorn crumbs and draped across a mound of macque choux studded with crawfish tails and surrounded by a moat of rich onion butter brightened with sour cream. The flaky, moist fish was delicious.
The tasting menu – a $195, 7-course truffle progression – required the participation of the entire table (even though the hostess confirmed by phone that it did not).
I asked to see the truffles.
More impressed with the black ones than the white ones (not surprising given we were well into January), I inquired where these Italian black truffles were from. The server informed me that they were Burgundian. When I pointed out that the menu stated that they were Italian truffles, she insisted that they were from Italy but were called “Burgundian” truffles.*
The five of us ordered a la carte. And my friend The Hair and I supplemented a few courses from the tasting menu to share.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. Click on the course titles to see photos of the individual dishes.
Kimchi shrimp with mango champagne.
Roasted Potato and Truffle Gnocchi
Iberico Belotta Ham, Local Scallions,
Sweet Corn and Oregano Florets. ($18)
Chef’s Garden Bibb Lettuces
Organic Mixed Radishes with Sweet Red Onion
Local Blueberry Vinaigrette ($12)
Local Louisiana Citrus Salad
Louisiana Blue Crab Spicy Kumquat Marmalade,
Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette and Nitro Satsuma Crème Soda Suspension. ($15)
Hudson Valley Foie Gras BLT
Foie Gras Confit, Truffle Mayonnaise,
Sour Cream and Onion Potato Chips and Sweet Persian Cucumber Pickles. ($22)
Lobster, Egg and Caviar
Farm Egg, Canadian Lobster and American Paddlefish Caviar. ($24)
Caramelized Hen of the Woods Mushroom Risotto
Local Scallions and Black Winter Truffles. ($18 with a $25 supplement)
A Composition of Heirloom Beets
Heirloom Beet Carpaccio with Red and Yellow Beet Sorbet,
Confit of Baby Beets, Spun Beet Honey and Purple Beet Air. ($17)
Pan-Seared Georges Bank Dry Pack Scallops
Jumbo Gulf Shrimp with Truffle Andouille New Potato Hash and Caviar Butter. ($33)
Vegetarian Daily Composition
Cauliflower, Beets, Turnips and Brussels with Sugar Snap Peas,
Wild Rice and Potato Croquettes, Cauliflower Puree and Tapenade Butter. ($31)
Hot Buttered Popcorn Crust, Louisiana Crawfish and Local Corn Maque Choux
Sour Cream and Onion Butter. ($34)
Porcini Crusted Dutch Valley Veal Tenderloin Medallions
Fingerling Potato Confit, Roasted Winter Root Vegetables
Calvados Escargots Herb Reduction. ($42)
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster
Crisp Claws, New Potato Salad,
Heirloom Vegetables and Dill Sauternes Butter. ($49)
Gloucester, Delice de Bourgogne, and Roaring Forties Blue.
Shaved almonds, honey, green apples,
macerated dried cherries, toast. ($24)
Bananas Foster French Toast
Tahitian Vanilla Bean Ice Cream,
Spicy Candied Walnuts and Crisp Plantains. ($11)
House Made Ice Creams
Praline, Root Beer and Citrus Cream. ($11)
Truffle Scented White Chocolate Panna Cotta
Chocolate Chip and Black Truffle Ice Cream,
Candied Black Garlic and Spun Raw Black Truffle Honey.
(Supplemented from the truffle tasting menu $17)
Black Truffle and Delice de Bourgogne Grilled Cheese Sandwich
Candied Macadamias, Powdered Pistachio and Captain Crunch Nutella Explosion.
(Supplemented from the truffle tasting menu $17)
Chocolate biscuits with cafe au lait mousse
Coconut macaroons with chocolate
Before you get too disheartened, there’s a happy ending to this story.
But first, the food:
The best thing about the food at Stella! is the ingredient quality. It’s top shelf.
Those black truffles are prime example. A little went a long way.
They perfumed a bowl of gnocchi, serving as an umbrella under which corn, oregano blossoms, and a twirl of salty Iberico Bellotta ham married marvelously, a balance of sweet, salty, and fragrant (“Roasted Potato and Truffle Gnocchi“).
A masterfully turned risotto studded with meaty maitake mushrooms was thoroughly imbued with black truffle aroma. The black truffle flecked the risotto and was shaved atop, its earthy pungency resonating particularly well with the scallions in the dish. This was my favorite dish of the night (“Caramelized Hen of the Woods Mushroom Risotto“).**
And frilly black truffle shavings sprouted generously from the mouth of a hollowed egg shell refilled with finely minced lobster bound in a warm egg curd along with caviar (“Lobster, Egg and Caviar“). The scent from the truffle was worth every penny of the $25 surcharge.
Boswell understands well the nature of truffles, a friend of comfort, a delivery system for shock and awe.
He understands this of foie gras as well, which Stella! incorporates into a fancy BLT (“Hudson Valley Foie Gras BLT“).
Clever and witty, the playful riff on the humble sandwich isn’t the shocking part. The shocking part is the amount of foie gras you get. Forget the B, the L, and the T, this was F.G. in billboard print. At least two inches thick, the slice of confit foie gras was arresting. This sandwich required a fork, knife, and a Lipitor chaser. Arriving with a stack of potato chips adhered together by sour cream and onion dip and sweet pickles, this was a millionaire’s lunchbox. Awesome.
Boswell appreciates textures, which he showcases in “A Composition of Heirloom Beets.”
This bejeweled plate boasted a magnificent array of heirloom beets in various forms, ranging from sorbet to frothy “air.” It was a kaleidoscope of textures, colors, and flavors. The most intriguing member of the collection was a scoop of “spun beet honey.” A pretty shade of watercolor pink, it had the semblance of buttercream and the flavor of honey, a perfect spread for bread.
But creativity and the best ingredients can be ruined by poor execution.
What sounded like a wonderful combination of flavors and textures, the “Local Louisiana Citrus Salad” was wan. The citrus supremes were bright and cheerful, but the crab salad was bland, mute, almost. So were the scrambled eggs in that decadent egg shell of mine. They needed salt.
Worse, there was grit in Houston’s plate of “Pan-Seared Georges Bank Dry Pack Scallops,” which tempered the joy from what was an otherwise delicious truffle andouille hash that anchored the plate.
And the citrus cream ice cream, misting with liquid nitrogen in beautiful bowl made of ice, was so bitter that we wondered if it might be pith ice cream (“House Made Ice Creams“).
Chef Boswell has since been made aware of all of these issues and others.
And this is where the happy ending starts.
Upon his return to New Orleans, Boswell sent me a very nice email in which he apologized for the long wait we endured. In my reply, I thanked him and encouraged him to look into some of the other aspects of Stella!’s operations, both in the front and back of the house.
Presumptuous of me?
But, as I told Boswell, I offered my unedited and honest report of our experience to be helpful, not spiteful. The sincerity of my well-meaning response was received graciously and with a constructive mind. A wonderful dialogue ensued between Boswell and me. Our conversation and his attitude reassured me that our experience was a gross departure from the norm. Praise for Stella! from all corners seems to support this.
You’ll notice that Stella! ain’t cheap. But in her defense – with a few exceptions – the portion sizes and quality of the ingredients more than justified the price tag.
My $49 “Butter-Poached Maine Lobster,” the most expensive dish of the night, included the entire lobster. The tail meat was warm, silky, and tender – just the way I like it. The claws had been breaded and fried, fantastic. Served with waxy potatoes, the dish was tied together with a delicious dill and Sauternes butter sauce. I loved it.
The second-most expensive dish, the “Porcini Crusted Dutch Valley Veal Tenderloin Medallions,” presented two unbelievably tender rounds of veal that had been wet-aged for 30 days. Sauced with a rich Calvados and escargot herb reduction, it was my favorite main course.
The pith ice cream aside, the desserts we tried were very good.
The cheeses were presentable, a trio attended to by a bevy of accompaniments, including nicely toasted bread, which they refilled upon request (“Cheese Plate“). And the petits fours were pretty and fun, my favorites being an impossibly delicate strawberry marshmallow and a rich, dark gianduja truffle.
Whereas the “Bananas Foster French Toast” was a fine specimen of the sticky and sweet stripe, the “Black Truffle and Delice de Bourgogne Grilled Cheese Sandwich” appealed to the more savory-sweet sentiments I favor.
That French toast was fantastic though, a fluffy tranche lapping up a rich, buttery bananas Foster syrup. Served a la mode, the comforting, warm mass was topped with a tangled ribbon of fried plantain. Simple and straightforward, it was blessedly satisfying.
The grilled cheese, on the other hand, was a window into sophistication. A smart combination of salty, sweet, creamy, and crunchy, it was my favorite of the two desserts that I supplemented from the truffle tasting menu.
No restaurant is perfect. And on this night, Stella! missed her streetcar.
But I’m not the kind of diner to dismiss a restaurant easily. Chef Boswell’s persistence and upbeat attitude in the days and weeks that followed was encouraging.
I suspect I’ll be back at Stella! some day. I look forward to revisiting under better circumstances.
1032 Chartres Street
New Orleans, Lousiana 70116
* In a subsequent email correspondences with Boswell, he confirmed that the truffles were from Perigord, which explains their impressive aroma and nearly jet-black interior.
** Due to the delay in service, I asked that it be sent out with our third (main) courses.