Written by Greg Elwell
Stylish Eats reviews are brought to you by Steven Giles Clothing, the menswear store for those with discerning taste. Style extends well beyond the confines of clothing, so Steven Giles is teaming up with I Ate Oklahoma to bring you reviews of eateries with a refined palate across the state.
Before you ever set foot inside, Stella Modern Italian Cuisine makes a statement. Alongside some other buildings on North Walker Avenue, the restaurant seems to stand taller with a rounded entryway stacked high with layers of glass. Inside, guests are treated to a circular waiting area with a view of the pizza oven blazing away. Past curtains to the right and a hallway to the left, there are a few well-appointed dining rooms to accommodate parties big or small.
But when the weather is right, the best seat in the house is actually slightly outside the house. Stella recently installed a new patio area, replete with outdoor fireplace, and it’s a really lovely spot to enjoy Oklahoma City’s too-few spring days with a glass of wine.
There’s an easy elegance to Stella, or at least it looks easy. I’m sure owner Lori Burson puts serious work into making the restaurant as welcoming to those dressed for a night at the symphony as it is for schlubby food writers and their ilk.
It’s kind of cinematic, if that makes sense. Something about the way the light filters through the windows and the servers share conspiratorial smiles with patrons and the long, cool bar make it seem like you’re living in a movie…or at least in the background of one.
But whether or not the cameras are on, the star of the show is executive chef Melissa Aust’s menu. Time slows down when the server approaches the table, because you know you’re in for a treat.
Aust is definitely a believer that we eat first with our eyes, because she doesn’t let less-than-appetizing dishes escape her kitchen. Her palate is matched with her eye for color and design, ensuring the plates that are set in front of you will be as visually appealing as they are delicious.
The menu at Stella isn’t expansive, but fewer choices don’t exactly make it easier to choose. One luxury you can enjoy, at least, is the understanding that whatever you get, it’s going to be good.
As an appetizer, I can think of few I’d rather share (or keep to myself) than smoked salmon rillette ($14). The plate is like a lovely Italian picnic of lightly pickled vegetables, mizuno salad, toast points and a jar of salmon rillette.
What is a rillette? I’m glad you asked! It’s similar to a pate in some ways, but instead of liver, it’s meat that’s slowly cooked in fat until it’s so tender it can be shredded. It basically becomes a textured pink paste, perfect for smearing on toast.
Everything on this plate is wonderful. The green beans, caper berries and red onions are tasty, but the carrots absolutely blow me away. Perfect texture. The pickling gives it a mild fruity sourness and the crunch is entirely satisfying. I’m kind of obsessed with those carrots. I keep checking Facebook to see if they’re in a relationship with anybody.
The roasted veggie pizza ($13) is another great meal for one or a starter for two or three. The crispy, crackery crust has a satisfying snap and pairs well with the gentle sweetness of the charred artichokes and onions and bell peppers.
Have you ever tried vegetables? I ask that semi-seriously, because there are a lot of people who don’t, as a rule, ever eat vegetables. Ease yourself into this bold new world of food with vegetable risotto ($12 at lunch/$18 at dinner).
First thing you’re hit with is a serious pop of umami flavor — the rich taste usually associated with meat — followed by a gloriously mild green sweetness from sweet peas and asparagus. The slow-cooked rice releases its starch into the broth to create a creamy sauce that ties the dish together. Marscapone adds a salty burst that compliments the overall nuttiness of the risotto. It’s incredibly satisfying, but not heavy on the stomach.
Maybe it’s because of my toxic masculinity or because I was born without a soul, but I’ve never been particularly conflicted about eating cute animals. You don’t need to dress it up with “game” or “venison” or “mutton” for me. I’ll eat a deer. I’ll eat a lamb.
And I did eat a lamb at Stella. If the lamb T-bones ($32) trouble your conscience, that’ll end shortly after the first bite. The perfect fatty, juicy, meaty goodness of the lamb will push your worries to the baaack of your mind.
Kudos to Aust for this dish. The char is glorious and the blend of seasoning, including a touch of fennel in the vinaigrette on top, is perfection. There’s a lot going on there, but not in a “this is a jumbled mess” kind of way. It’s a lot of layers of flavor that are all pushing the dish in the right direction. Everything is distinct, but it works together.
The lamb is served atop a bed of red pepper quinoa. It’s mildly sweet and warm and hearty and it soaks up every bit of stray juice that escapes the T-bones.
Also, let’s talk about etiquette: If you don’t have the self-confidence to pick up this bone and strip all the meat off of it, you better take it home. I’m not a big believer in judgement, but wasting any little bit of this is definitely a sin.
New to the spring menu is wild boar bolognese ($14 lunch/$18 dinner) and I hope chef Aust can find a way to keep it around for a while. The pork has a soft sweetness to it and a touch of spice that I found comforting. The fettucine was tender and soaked up the herbaceous sauce for a beautiful bite.
For a more straightforward meatiness, the long-lived braised beef short rib pasta ($14 lunch/$22 dinner) is as tender as a sonnet written by a teddy bear about its favorite blanket. The rigatoni is a great base for the spicy pomodoro sauce and piles and piles of succulent fall apart beef. There’s a reason short rib is so beloved by chefs. It can become anything from pot roast to Korean barbecue to this deeply flavorful and complex beefy delight.
I’m going to tell you right now that you probably don’t have room for dessert. I didn’t. But you can’t let a little thing like being physically unable to move stop you from the Stella candy bar ($8).
It will not look like a candy bar, I should warn you. There will be a long rectangle of chocolate ganache, but then there are swirls of peanut butter mousse and a scoop of sea salt and caramel gelato and crisp pieces of vanilla honeycomb. Mix and match as you please, but here’s the upshot — it’s like eating the most decadent Snickers bar ever. Share this with someone. Do not try to take it on yourself. Grab your half-elf and your mage and roll a 20 and just hope you can handle this level of richness.
Burson has built a stellar restaurant in Stella and under the inspired hand of Aust, this has become a must-visit spot in Midtown and all of Oklahoma City.
Stylish Eats are sponsored by Steven Giles Clothing, a high-end men’s fashion store in Classen Curve providing expertly tailored suits, timeless casual wear and everything in between. Visit them online at stevengilesclothing.com to schedule a fitting or stop in at 5850 N. Classen Blvd. to browse their selection in person.
Read more of Greg’s reviews at http://iateoklahoma.com/reviews