When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out — and let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened, sampling a few items, and satisfying curiosities (yours and ours).
Location: 3160 East Camelback Road
Open: About two weeks
Eats: American, Italian
It's been a tumultuous year at 3160 East Camelback Road, previously the home of the Biltmore neighborhood standby, Central Bistro. In January, owner German Osio sold that restaurant to a new group, who initially planned on keeping the concept intact, but then introduced a new chef and menu, before shuttering the place completely over the summer. Now, the space is home to a new restaurant, Stella — though "new" may not be the most accurate word, as this eatery aims to fill almost exactly the same niche as the restaurant before it.
Led by executive chef Robert Ekhardt, Stella offers a menu of American cuisine that's filled out with Italian favorites ranging from pizza and spaghetti with meatballs to focaccia and lasagna. The interior of the space has been updated some, but retains the sleek, stylish design fans appreciated when the space housed Central Bistro. New flooring and booths along with large windows and limited overheard lighting make Stella both a sunny daytime lunch spot and a dimly lit date destination by night.
During our visit last week, our server told us the chef hadn't been satisfied with everything on the menu and was therefore not serving several dishes, including two pastas, the focaccia appetizer, and any of the restaurant's sandwiches or burgers. On the server's recommendation, we started with the grilled artichoke hearts ($11) and an order of pretzels.
If you were hoping Stella's artichoke appetizer would make a suitable substitute for Central Bistro's well-loved wood grilled artichoke, you're out of luck. Stella's starter is more complicated and less enjoyable; tender artichoke hearts come buried under slices of salty prosciutto with slices of melon sitting on alongside. Trying to assemble balanced bites of fruit, meat, and vegetable may leave you wondering when eating dinner became so much work.
Pretzels ($10) were better and came sliced down the middle and stuffed with swiss cheese, garlic, and bacon. The sheer simplicity of this appetizer — cheese, carbs, and pork belly, which could be unceremoniously dragged through a nice whole grain beer mustard — only made it more enjoyable.
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From the pasta section of the menu, we tried the classic bolognese ($16), again, at the suggestion of our server. The dish was one of the most memorable of the night, taking a classic and adding some unexpected elements. Thin spaghetti noodles were tossed in a rich bolognese that wavered nicely between sweet and savory thanks to the addition of cinnamon and cumin. A bit of brisket also added texture to the meat sauce.
The halibut entree ($28) makes a pricey dinner, but also a satisfying one. The mild, firm fish was served with a thick pine nut and Parmesan crust over a bed of roasted cauliflower and a squash cream sauce. The delicate flavors of the sauce and cauliflower complemented but didn't overpower the fish, making this a simple but ultimately well-executed entree.
By the time we'd finished our meal around 8 p.m., the restaurant's dining room had almost emptied entirely despite being lively and crowded around 6:30. Perhaps other tables were already aware the restaurant gets so dark that it's sometimes difficult to see your food after the sun goes down.
Or maybe Stella is just the right fit for early-bird diners.