Stella Sola

Houston
Stella Sola
Stella Sola, Houston
Photograph by Debora Smail

It couldn’t have been more than a minute into the meal when the six of us looked up and gazed incredulously into one another’s eyes. On every face was the same goofy smile that said, in effect, “Is it just me or is this some of the best food I’ve ever put in my mouth?” Then controlled pandemonium erupted as each person rushed to share and, more importantly, grab a sample off everyone else’s plate: “Here, try some of this!” “You’ve got to have a bite while it’s hot!” Then silence reigned, interrupted only by the sound of contented chewing.

Stella Sola—whose name means “lone star” in Italian and whose owners describe its menu as “Texan Tuscan”—has arrived on the scene like a bottle rocket. That the kitchen should be so accomplished so soon is astounding, not just because the restaurant is new but also because the head chef was given the boot two days before the soft opening. (To sum up: In November co-owner Bryan Caswell, the chef and driving force behind Reef, let highly regarded Jason Gould go over creative differences. Vaulted to top position was former sous chef Justin Basye, who came from Voice.) The contretemps was the talk of the local blogosphere, but Caswell, Basye, and the staff got their act together and have been turning out food that is as thrilling as anything I’ve eaten in a year.

A starter of butternut squash—filled ravioli managed to be both classic and contemporary: A warm brown butter—pear vinaigrette glistened atop the pasta packets, which were topped by the usual amaretto cookie crumbles and sided by leaves of arugula, which lent a subtly bitter counterpoint. A seafood appetizer (pictured) featured impeccably fresh black mussels, steamed in Lone Star beer—a “Texan” influence that seemed more symbolic than anything else—and finished in a wood oven for just a whiff of grill flavor.

But as good as the first courses were, the entrées were what made us giddy. Braised short ribs testified to the intense flavor yielded by slow, steady cooking. Heightening their fabulous meatiness was sautéed Swiss chard in an agrodolce sauce melding white wine, sherry, and sugar. Even better was the porchetta, a roll-up of pork shoulder sided by a schmear of ocher-yellow lemon mostarda. The sauce set off the meat the way pineapple sets off ham—brilliantly. Desserts, while fetching, seemed less ravishing than the other dishes (ya think we might have been too full to appreciate them?). My favorite was a whisper of pistachio pound cake, its color a gentle green, its flavor as heady as marzipan.

Now that Stella Sola is up and running, it will be fascinating to see how the menu evolves and how it incorporates Basye’s heralded expertise with cured meats and salumi (we saw tidy rows of sausages hanging in the “pork room,” as we took to calling it, but our waiter insisted they weren’t ready for prime time). The restaurant is obviously a work in progress, but if our meal is any indication of what it can do in the aftermath of chaos, imagine what it will accomplish now that order has broken out. Bar. 1001 Studewood (713-880-1001). Dinner Tue—Thur 5—10, Fri & Sat 5—11. Closed Sun & Mon. $$—$$$ W+

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