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July 2011 - Stella's has reopened. This review is from my experience in 2004 at the old location.
1012 Lafayette Street
Richmond, Virginia
Stella's New Website

The address may read Richmond, Virginia, but the vibes are pure Greenwich Village. Stella's is ensconced in a diminutive storefront replete with cozy banquettes, candlelit tables, romantically-imbued lighting, two huge murals by local artist Ed Trask on the wall opposite the comfy bar (see photograph), and a list of daily specials inscribed on a blackboard dangling from the high pressed-tin ceiling.

The eatery is best known for its Greek cuisine, but the menu also does a bit of globetrotting. To wit: grilled filet mignon with sherry Dijon crab sauce ($27.95); shrimp and scallops with roasted tomato pesto over penne pasta ($23.95); sautéed rockfish with prosciutto, spinach, and Gorgonzola ($23.95); seared duck breast with cabernet-balsamic reduction ($22.95).

The compact little wine list matches up quite nicely with the food. The restaurant also features several interesting Greek vintages, so be certain to query your server, as these are not listed on the printed agenda.

We started things off with tabbouleh accompanied by triangles of pita bread ($5.95) . The bulghur wheat was more coarsely textured than most representatives sampled over the years, but still quite excellent in every respect; indeed, it tasted absolutely fresh, as if it had just been whipped up in the kitchen moments before hitting the table. And the ingredients -- chopped tomatoes, onions, parsley, mint, olive oil -- were all in proper proportion, including the lemon juice, a surfeit of which usually spells the death knell of this particular recipe.

We also tried our luck with the calamari ($7.95), which proved to be exceedingly tender and a most fortuitous choice. Rather than being breaded, the squid was sautéed au naturel in white wine with capers, sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and finished with, of all things, a homemade raspberry vinaigrette... Yes, an odd accompaniment, but the vinaigrette -- subtle yet persuasive -- made the dish.

Unfortunately, it did not have the same effect on the complimentary Greek salad -- mixed greens, black olives, sliced cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, and stinky morsels of feta cheese -- where it completely bombed. The kitchen's culinary creativity had obviously overstepped it bounds; raspberry vinaigrette adorning Greek salad is an oxymoron if ever there was one.

As is the case with many eateries, after a series of spectacular opening moves, entrées turned out to be something of a letdown. My wife's shrimp à la Greek ($22.95) was presented en casserole in the company of tomatoes, capers, and the same exceedingly pungent feta cheese, which, of course, tended to obliterate all flavors but its own. The dish simply didn't work on a number of levels, including accompaniments of an overly salty vegetable medley and somewhat ill-conceived Grecian-style risotto embellished with avgolemono, a sauce of chicken broth, egg yolks, and lemon juice.

My moussaka ($13.95) was a solid representative of this Mediterranean classic -- eggplant very tender, ground beef properly cooked -- but hardly exceptional. The real culprit here proved to be the topping of béchamel sauce. Rather than being rich and creamy of countenance, as one would have expected, it exhibited the consistency of bland mashed potatoes.

Desserts were a mixed bag. The rice pudding ($4.95) was benchmark. The baklava ($5.95), on the other hand, lacked finesse. I've tasted infinitely better embodiments of this particular genre in any one of a number of other restaurants -- the version produced by chef Kevin LaCivita's mother at Pomegranate, for example, comes immediately to mind.

As noted above, the food at Stella's is quite good -- at times, bordering on the very good -- but not AS GOOD as had been expected. Would we return...? Since the bottom line -- with tax, tip, and a $30.00 bottle of Greek Chardonnay -- came to $130... and we spent approximately the same amount of long green at Dogwood Grill & Spirits just a few blocks away for infinitely superior cuisine... I honestly have my doubts.

The Artful Diner
December 2004

The Artful Diner is an independent, freelance food writer.  His latest review and an archive of past reviews for restaurants around the country and the world can be found on this site on the REVIEWS page.

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