You can tell which people in the dining room remember the Stoneleigh of yore. They’re the ones craning their necks and twisting in their chairs to gawk at the hotel’s astonishing transformation. Before it closed late last year, the 85-year-old building had grown rather down-at-the- heels. One extreme makeover later, it emerged this March, resplendent in champagne and ebony. As my friend sniffed, there are few flaws that $36 million cannot correct.
The tagline on Bolla’s menu is “modern Italian,” with the emphasis on modern. Executive chef David Bull earned his chops at the Mansion on Turtle Creek, in Dallas, then came into his own at the Driskill Hotel, in Austin; while at the Driskill, he was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs, in 2003. Given that Bull lives on the cutting edge, it comes as no surprise that the first starter on the menu is not fried calamari but, ta-da, raw fish. Here, crudo, as it’s called, is cut in precise squares and served on mod platters of costly Dudson china. Our foursome couldn’t get enough of the arctic char with capers and Maldon sea salt (the third garnish, a bizarre herbal-sweet fennel confit, needs to be tossed). A (slightly too) acidic mignonette, along with Italian parsley and lightly charred teardrop tomatoes, gave the yellowtail a ceviche-like lilt.
After this promising start, things slid backward with a couple of appetizers. The fried baby artichokes with classic basil pesto were competent, if less than sparkling, but the pork belly diavolo (a patty of thick-cut, batter-fried bacon) was stodgy, and its three oddball accompaniments, teeny pork cracklings, a robust tomato sauce, and a delicate mozzarella gelato, clashed like matter and antimatter.
Discontentment threatened to set in, but the pace picked up with three adept main courses. The first was unctuous veal cheeks piccata with caperberries and petite rectangles of preserved Meyer lemon; the only thing the meat needed was more of that sweet-citrusy lemon to cut the richness. The second was a strip loin steak with a thick garlic-parsley topping and sides of fantastically sweet, pungent cipollini onions and crisp fried parsley. The third was the best: a sautéed branzino sided by a delicious red-pepper rouille.
The funny thing is that when we went back for lunch, we weren’t expecting anything extraordinary (it was lunch, after all). But the two salads we had were fabulous, both the simple, pristine arugula (with Sicilian olive oil and nibbles of house-made bufala ricotta) and the chunky heirloom tomatoes with a tall shot glass of chilled tomato broth topped by basil foam (a David Bull creation if ever there was one). My duck-leg confit had a wonderfully salty, concentrated flavor (like duck ham), and a friend’s predictable grilled panini of Italian cured meats and olive tapenade was deeply