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First look: Stella Neighborhood Trattoria 

Casual Italian in Grant Park

We've been waiting impatiently for Stella Neighborhood Trattoria (563 Memorial Drive, 404-688-4238) to open for months. Located in a new condo building called Oakland Park, the restaurant joins a string of others serving Grant Park and Cabbagetown.

Stella has been opened by Rich Chey, who also created Doc Chey's Noodle House and Osteria 832 Pizza & Pasta. I've never been very fond of Doc Chey's, probably because I'm so accustomed to eating noodles in authentic ethnic restaurants, but I do enjoy Osteria 832. It's an uncomplicated, inexpensive trattoria serving thin-crusted pizzas with interesting toppings. The pasta sauces, especially the puttanesca, are all good, too.

Stella hosted a so-called "soft opening" last week for friends and family only. We unsuccessfully tried to beg our way in, but the place was slammed. (Someone's got a lot of friends.) We returned on Monday night, the restaurant's first day of business. Normally, I wait a few weeks to try a restaurant but I was pretty confident – knowing Osteria – that Stella would be a good experience. I was right.

The restaurant is easy on the eyes. It seats 80 inside and the same number outside, where you have a view of Oakland Cemetery, across the street. The interior features the now requisite extra-long bar, at which you can eat as well as drink. There's lots of dark wood, tables and booths. It's all very casual but definitely swankier than Osteria's decor. The restaurant's design and building cost $500,000, according to a May 2007 report by the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

I give immediate props to the servers, all decked out in black T-shirts illustrated with stars ("stella" means star). They were speedy, knowledgeable and friendly – not what you usually encounter in a restaurant's first night, even after a few trial runs.

The food did not disappoint us. For the present, Stella is serving only its "base menu," according to our server. Soon, there will also be a monthly menu of specials featuring seasonal and locally grown ingredients. There were no desserts offered the evening of our visit, but those are planned to join the menu soon, too.

Like Osteria 832, Stella features crispy, thin-crusted pizzas. The dough is hand-thrown, something fairly unusual for thin crusts in our city. Wayne tried a red pizza with Italian sausage and Gorgonzola cheese added for a few dollars.

Only individual-sized pizzas are offered, all less than $10. I'm not sure how this will fly with the family crowd that shows up in many Grant Park restaurants. At nearby Grant Central, I see families divvy up a large pizza for substantially less than they'll spend at Stella. (Then again, Stella also plans a kids' menu.)

My own entree was beef short ribs braised in red-wine sauce with root vegetables and served with "locally ground polenta." This dish, or something similar, has appeared on a lot of menus in our town but this is among the best, especially for its $13 cost. The ribs were meaty, not cooked into fatty jelly, and their sauce was dense and perfect for the crumbly triangles of polenta.

We also sampled two starters. Wayne chose an arugula salad with shaved Parmesan and a lemon vinaigrette, and I went for the addictive potato and cod fritters fried in a coating of panko and served with lemon-garlic aioli, hot pepper sauce and microgreens. Don't miss these.

At meal's end, learning there were no desserts and still being hungry, I ordered a plate of calamari at our server's suggestion. I am honestly sick of calamari and would be happy not to eat it for several years, but Wayne loves it. Stella's is remarkable – tender, hot, barely crispy, served with the same aioli that accompanied the fritters.

We're glad to have the restaurant in Grant Park. Besides the good food, Chey's restaurants are commendable for their community involvement. Proceeds from Stella's rehearsal evenings were donated to the neighborhood charter school for repairs to the play field.

New Latin bistro

Chiloé Latin Bistro (1950 Howell Mill Road, 404-350-5777) has opened in the building where Ryan Aiken operated Misto and, before that, Burrito Art. Chiloé's owner also has a restaurant in Florida.

Named after an island off the coast of Chile, the restaurant features a menu of dishes from throughout Latin America. Don't go expecting anything like Tierra. The food here isn't awful, but it is mediocre at best and not the least bit esoteric.

I started with a large sampler platter at the server's suggestion. I didn't take the time to look at the menu closely or I would have realized I had ordered a huge quantity of fried food. It included flautas, chili "poppers" and chicken fingers arranged pinwheel-style over a layer of quesadillas. The "poppers" were the usual jalapeños stuffed with grim yellow cheese. I ate about half the plate's contents.

Wayne ordered the better dish – a big plate of ceviche surrounded by chunks of fried yucca. The ceviche was juicy and tart and the yucca was freshly fried. However, it wasn't served with any kind of sauce. Wayne asked for some mojo but contented himself with some vinegar.

For entrees we both ordered steaks. Wayne picked the "bistec pobre" – grilled flank steak served with two fried eggs, French fries and onions. I ordered the "picanha" style, top sirloin under a salsa vinaigrette, served with white rice and black beans. Wayne's dish was good. Mine would have been better had it been served medium-rare, as I ordered it. Instead it was literally raw in the center. Black beans were completely flavorless.

The restaurant was empty except for two other people when we visited. When I took a few snapshots for our blog, OmnivoreATL.com, the owner of the restaurant demanded to know why I was photographing his food. An argument ensued, with Wayne eventually playing mediator by assuring the man that I was not there to steal his menu and style.

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