Dear Cafe Stellina,
Everybody loved you as a small cafe at 20th Avenue and Union Street in the CD. I kept hearing great things about you, Stellina. I stopped by once, and though I didn't try your reportedly delicious, simple menu, you were really nice. I was all ready to come eat and write about you when I heard of your impending move to 12th Avenue and Pike Street, to share the gorgeous Piston & Ring Building with another expanding local favorite, Osteria La Spiga.
And here you are, all grown up with your white tablecloths. You're lovely. Where La Spiga is grand, you make your corner of the retro-industrial-hangar space an embrace; you're both cozy and spacious, a neat trick. I love your scarred hardwood floor, your roll-up-in-warm-weather garage door, your painting of a deer with various birds perched in its antlers.
You've got so much going for you, and you're trying so hard, visibly, with your chef single-handedly making each dish in your open kitchen on two mismatched noncommercial ranges. It's not so difficult to write critically about a large operation or a faceless corporation, a restaurant where the effort's not so plain. To write this to you is very difficult, has involved much discussion, much agonizing; I have actually dreamed about you. At one point, I advocated politely saying nothing, letting you be. But this meant, probably, letting you cease to be. But again, you've got so much going for you, and you could have it so much better.
For your first few months, you were only open for lunch. You've now been serving dinner for some time, but the two menus are very similar, and the prices are the same. Your $16 potpie is bound to frighten and confuse lunchgoers used to the Elysian; $14 is fair for veggie curry at dinner, but at lunch, well, Ballet is right down the street. Yes, your atmosphere is orders of magnitude better—midday or nighttime, you're a wonderful place to be—but your lunch prices are too steep, unless your food is extraordinary.
About your food, Stellina... Your salad of discs of cool roasted beet ($6) is good, all deep purple with contrasting crumbles of feta cheese and fresh mint. Use more mint; its freshness interacting with the other flavors makes this dish. And put it on a different background; it disappears into its dark-colored plate when it should visually pop. (Those plates, while interesting, don't do many of your presentations any favors.) Your blanched asparagus salad ($8) with salty Gorgonzola and sweet caramelized garlic is good, too, but the pile of gratuitous mixed greens detracts from the look of it, feels a little random. Warm spinach salad ($10) was more cooked than wilted in places, but it's rich and decadent with its duck meat, goat cheese, pancetta, and garlic. Like all the other salads, it's dressed with balsamic vinaigrette—too strong a flavor for everything it's already got going on. A champagne vinaigrette would show that you're thinking about complementary tastes.
Another likable starter needs balancing: two polenta triangles topped with smoked salmon, crème fraîche, and caviar ($8). Bites containing all the elements are nice, but big pieces of plain polenta are left behind. Smaller stacks would work better, giving the polenta a toasty crust would add textural interest, too.
Your meat entrées taste hasty. Oxtails ($18) are underbraised, with clinging chunks of unrendered fat and onions that remain sharp instead of sweetened by cooking. A big, whole carrot—oven roasted, to dry effect—divides the meat from a heap of unseasoned basmati rice. Stellina, plain white rice isn't going to fly. Lamb shank ($18) meets the same tragic fate: lacking depth of flavor, alternately stringy and fatty, the tomatoes in its ragout still acidic, served with more plain rice. These dishes want slow cooking; they want their flavors coaxed out a little more.
A few other main dishes long for a little more seasoning, a little more spice. I feel weird having to say it, but Stellina, you need to taste your food, interrogate it, ask it what and how much and why. The gravy in your aforementioned potpie—good-looking with its big rectangular pillow of puff pastry—lacked its promised sherry-nutmeg flavor, and could've been reduced to a creamier thickness. Your hominy/tomato/green-chile stew ($12) would love more spicy heat, less thick, melted cheddar; like plain white rice, orange cheese is not au courant. (This stew also tasted poisonously of overheated Teflon; you replaced it with another dish, but there's a reason busy restaurant kitchens don't use nonstick pans.) Mussels ($14) have a creamy cilantro sauce squeeze-bottled nonsensically over the shells, clotting on the surface of the broth. In the broth: unwieldy, underdone corn on the cob; mushy potato; gritty chorizo; a lot of unopened shellfish.
Your desserts ($5) feel like afterthoughts: a grainy milk-chocolate mousse-pile with two underripe strawberries, and a triangle of sandy-crusted, sour organic blueberry tart alone in the middle of a plate. Maybe farm them out for now, offer more options?
Sometimes your servers struggle to describe your food or your bargain-priced wines. People are coming to check you out, Stellina, but pretty is as pretty does. You've got to make it worth their while.