Stella!'s odd punctuation, evoking Stanley Kowalski's bestial bellow in A Streetcar Named Desire, is puzzling, but never mind. The more noteworthy exclamations are not heard in the restaurant's fancy quiet. Rather, they're tasted -- in the pink bursts of salmon caviar against salty new potatoes in one dish, and again in a flashy handful of risotto decorated with hedgehog mushrooms, crabmeat, Brie and white truffle oil.
Stella!'s two dining rooms appear to have been decorated with the venerable hotel in mind, not Chef Scott Boswell's food. Bordered by brown walls, historical artifacts and decorative plates, they're like rooms in a European country house inhabited by people who spend Sundays fox hunting and evenings on degustations of wild game and old wine. Straight-backed chairs are upholstered in plaid, a gas fireplace flickers in one corner and when a horse-drawn carriage passes before windows facing Chartres Street, for a moment you feel transported to a more genteel era.
Then you realize that its cargo is a family of visitors from California and that there's a spoonful of wasabi mashed potatoes on your appetizer plate. Boswell's repertoire can jar you like that, his tastes as unpredictable as a grab bag. When I showed one guest a menu prior to dinner, he decided it looked like Asian fusion; another, attracted to the housemade ravioli, called it "Italian-inspired." After sampling the Oriental Tasting, the Tandoori-Spiced Atlantic Salmon, and the green tea ice cream on my first visit, I wasn't sure what the menu meant to represent. It unnerved me to see the Oriental Tasting's sushi-style condiments on the same table with bread and butter. Plus, without a tandoori oven available, the salmon was just a fish flavored with Indian spices. And fried wontons used in a stacked dessert with mascarpone creme fraiche were so chippy I couldn't help imagining how they would pair with salsa.
Over time, however, a forest-green bowl of spinach soup, buttressed with duck stock and lush like golf course grass, stuck in my consciousness like a forbidden dream. So did sweetbreads -- fried like heavy-battered chicken and juicy-clean like white meat -- which accompanied rosy-red lamb crusted with almonds and herbs. Then, memories resurfaced of diver scallops that my butter knife had cut like cream cheese. And then there were the two frozen triangles of unmelting ginger-orange cream coated with brittle, burnt sugar, which single-handedly solved the dessert dilemma: do I want creme brulee or ice cream? From the vantage point of a couple weeks, the eclectic selection of food and its nearly ground-sweeping quality seemed to say that Boswell cooks what he likes.
While Asian preparations and Eastern spices justify the "unique" in Stella!'s subtitle, "A Unique Restaurant," others demonstrate the chef's classical European training, his Louisiana roots and a more subtle but still-active kitchen imagination. A dark gumbo broth prickling with spice slicked shrimp, oysters, smoked chicken and andouille like melted chocolate. In a fabulous stinky-smoky dish showcasing a Stilton-slathered Angus filet mignon, apple-smoked bacon and scallion mashed potatoes, there was no telling where the beef began and the sweet bacon ended. In Boswell's world, there are more components on one plate than crabs in a trap. Still, when pink, fleshy escolar cooked in lobster butter shared a plate with pearl pasta, pinky-size crawfish tails, caramelized root vegetables, a salad of micro greens and a butter sauce redolent of tarragon, nothing tasted superfluous.
A consistent plasticky flavor to super-size shrimp and mushy risotto rice split at the seams were my meals' only glaring technical mishaps. The servers, disinterested on one visit and hovering on the other, didn't score so well. While one seemed to take extended smoke breaks, a second server opened additional bottles of bubbly water without request and responded to private snippets of my table's conversation he somehow overheard from across the room. Both did rise to the occasion when summoned to interpret the well-thought wine list, recommending a Stella Pinot Grigio from Italy and a lively Bordeaux-style Californian blend that slid down like velvet without the fuzz alongside all the white truffle oil.
Stella! opened with literary timing just prior to last year's Tennessee Williams Festival. While Boswell's restaurant doesn't seem to be influenced by the playwright beyond its title, at its best his food is plump with arty desire -- clearly prepared by an impassioned hand.