The last time I was in a restaurant that looked like Stella’s on 16th, I wasn’t in a restaurant. I was in a food court in the Newark airport. Granted, it was a very nice food court, with burgers and ramen and snacks that are just healthy enough — look, chocolate-covered quinoa puffs! — to make you feel good about the price you’re paying for them. Stella’s isn’t a food court, but with a footprint of nearly 10,000 feet, it feels like one, sprawling across the ground floor of an office building by Union Station. It has four entrances, five ordering points and separate areas for pastries, coffee, high-end snacks and ready-to-go fare. But this market-restaurant also has two open kitchens, and that’s your first clue that Stella’s is far more than it seems.
Here’s another clue. At that food court in Newark, when my daughter asked the head cook if the patty in the burger was gluten-free — just the patty, mind you, not the bun — he said, “No, there’s dairy in it.” Huh? Since when are gluten and dairy the same thing? When I asked a similar question of the chef at Stella’s, I got a much better answer. The patties are gluten-free, made of 100 percent beef. I even learned the name of the supplier, which is handy if you have serious food issues.
Such attention to detail is just one of the things that makes Stella’s a welcome addition to the Union Station neighborhood. Also welcome are its patio with couches, fire pits and a summer concert series. But what’s most important is what’s going on in those open kitchens.
Many restaurateurs start with dinner and build from there, perhaps adding brunch once the kitchen finds its groove; few start with three meals a day, seven days a week. But breakfast was always in the cards, according to Brian Cohen, who owns the eatery with his wife, Dawn “Stella” Cohen. And not just because of the hordes of millennials, empty-nesters and office workers who live and/or work nearby and get just as tired of cereal at home as the rest of us. The restaurant was born out of breakfast, from a conversation a few years ago about Stella’s grandmother’s pancakes, which are saltier and less sweet than most. (When I had them at Stella’s, they were indeed those things, but also strangely chewy.) One thing led to another, and it was only a matter of time before Brian — whose 25-year career included owning two other restaurants and a kitchen-supply company — came out of semi-retirement to start the restaurant that would serve them.
The weekday breakfast menu, served until 11 a.m., has dishes that could and should be served all day, from a yogurt bowl loaded with fruit, granola and a dark-purple acai purée that’s deeply sweet and fruity like port, to custardy French toast with thick slices of brioche, whipped cream and blueberry compote. Then there’s a loose interpretation of panzanella, more salad than bread salad, with bread that serves as croutons, plus fried eggs, roasted vegetables and greens. Props to chef Thach Tran for recognizing that not everyone wants sausage, eggs and potatoes in the morning.
And what do they want the rest of the day? Farrotto (like risotto, but with farro), the grains swirled in chicken stock to order, then sprinkled with parmesan, which melts over the toasted farro, asparagus and peas; you’ll love it for the same reason you love French onion soup. A deep-fried chicken breast — not the increasingly common thighs that have more flavor but also make for smaller portions — with a spicy, garlicky shell; the resulting sandwich is so fat, it’s hard to get your mouth around. Order it only when you’re with good friends, the ones who have seen you at your worst and love you anyway. The toppings are sure to slip off embarrassingly, defying efforts to make order out of chaos as you lose a pickle, maybe part of the OLT (onion, lettuce and tomato), most definitely a puddle of sriracha aioli.
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Meatballs, whether alone or topped with house mozzarella on a meatball parm’s baguette, have the fennel seeds you expect and the golden raisins you don’t. Don’t knock the combo until you try it; the sweetness works for reasons similar to why black pepper works on strawberries. (Still, the sandwich could have used more sauce to meld the meat and bread, one of the rare hiccups that occasionally crop up here.) Brussels sprouts form the basis of a satisfying lunch when tossed with romaine, peanuts and preserved lemon vinaigrette. A chicken Waldorf sandwich is stacked with all sorts of unlikely but ultimately harmonious ingredients, like arugula, pistachios, avocados and cucumbers on jalapeño-cheddar bread. The tabbouleh isn’t authentic — far too few herbs for that — but the chewy, mint-flecked buckwheat makes a good accompaniment for the roasted half-chickens, which fly out the door as office towers empty and people pick up dinner on the way home.
This is real food, not food-court food, and it comes courtesy of a team you’d expect in a sit-down. Leading the way is executive chef Tran, a native of Vietnam who rose through the ranks to work as executive sous at ChoLon and culinary director of Uncle Joe’s Hong Kong Bistro. There’s also MJ Szymanski, a pastry chef who arrives at 3:30 a.m. to bake croissants, doughnuts and rainbow-colored macarons that are good on their own and even better when pressed around a scoop of gelato. Just as important are the prep cooks who arrive a bit later to work on the mountain of vegetables that form the backbone of Tran’s menu, which is global and pleasantly healthy.
So forget the fact that Stella’s looks like a food court. Even in our highly informal era, when chefs are just as likely to run fast-casuals as sit-downs, and when today’s food halls are incubators for tomorrow’s restaurants, there’s still a bias against food courts. (That’s why food halls are called halls.) If you don’t force the thought out of your head, you’ll make assumptions that the folks in charge are somehow less experienced, that if they’d been around longer they’d be running a restaurant with splashy fennel pollen and $30 entrees. But the food at Stella’s on 16th indicates that the team here definitely knows what it’s doing: creating a spot that’s as integral to the fabric of the growing neighborhood as a grocery store, bank or gym.
Stella’s on 16th
1550 Wewatta Street
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday-Sunday.
Select Menu Items
Breakfast panzanella $10
Acai bowl $8
French toast $10
Grandma Jean’s pancakes $9
Brussels sprouts salad $9
Meatball parmigiana sandwich $12
Crispy chicken sandwich $12
Chicken Waldorf sandwich $9
Buckwheat tabbouleh $5