Wednesday, August 19, 2009

On Stella! and a hill of beans

Posted By on Wed, Aug 19, 2009 at 12:36 AM

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In Friday's paper, Times-Picayune food critic and “Lagniappe” saving-grace Brett Anderson made no bones about it: Scott Boswell’s Stella! is the best restaurant in New Orleans. Today Anderson penned a follow-up blog elaborating on some of the article’s myriad comments, which, he writes, ranged from “enthusiasm” to “disdain.” (Pity the poor scribes who must answer to disdainful responders.) His effusive position is one I shared for a while, both before and after Hurricane Katrina, but the rare five-bean review felt to me like a latecomer — not as accurate as it would have been had it appeared in, say, August 2007. (In Anderson’s defense, T-P only resumed counting beans last summer.) Stella! may still serve the most exquisite food in New Orleans, but the city’s clear-cut top restaurant it’s not. Here’s why.

Just about everything Anderson writes about the cuisine at Stella! is true. Boswell is a magician of the menu, he employs kitchen technicians of the highest order, and his obsession with exotic, premium, globetrotting ingredients is the primary reason — or perhaps the best rationale — for paying the exorbitant, Manhattanesque prices he charges for his meals (appetizers, $12 to $49; entrees, $32 to $49). The problem is that most of the dishes Anderson genuflected for made their debuts years ago: five-way duck, composition of heirloom tomatoes, miso-sake sea bass, Saint-André and ganache on brioche, butter-poached lobster. Regardless of the quality of some of those (and the lobster, as Anderson notes, is particularly exceptional), this is too stagnant a roster for someone with Boswell’s creative gifts. Put another way: How many times is the average diner — even the average fine-dining diner — expected to fork over an aggregate $70 for the same amuse-bouche-sized lobster, egg and truffle starter ($21, served in an eggshell) and tail/claw main course ($49)? This may be of no concern to a company-financed food critic, but Stella! is pricing itself out of the New Orleans market with plates older than its youngest patrons. A dish similar to the truffled Parmesan gnocchi appetizer Anderson loved (“blanketed with black truffle shavings”) carried a fair-enough tag ($14) the night I ordered it, in early 2007. That option of shaved truffles, however, set you back an additional $25.

It’s on the less-consequential matters of service and surroundings — never Stella!'s strong points — where Anderson seems to be fighting back his critical impulses. “The conservative aesthetic helps to ground Boswell's often edgy creations,” he offers magnanimously. I still think it’s maw-maw. In my experience, numerous visits have revealed a pendulum of server styles, either proficient but pretentious or engaging but unhelpful. Writes Anderson: “The white gloves donned by the staff would register as an ironic affectation at most modern restaurants. Here, they are a reflection of the seriousness with which the front of the house approaches its charge to deliver deferential, expert service.” Fair enough. I still say they make everyone look like mimes.

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