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First Bite

Restaurant review: Stella's Cafe in Forestville

Devil's in the details at Stella's

Editor's note: First Bite is a new concept in restaurant writing. We invite you to come along with our writers as they—informed, intelligent eaters like yourselves—have a simple meal at an area restaurant, just like you do. This is not a go-three-times, try-everything-on-the-menu report; rather, this is a quick snapshot of a single experience.

When I heard that Stella's Cafe had moved to the Russian River Vineyards site, I was thrilled. I hadn't much liked the former occupant, Topolos, but the grounds were almost reason enough to go there. And so it seemed that my dream had been answered when one of my favorite local restaurants moved in. Because I was--I mean I am, that is, I was--a big Stella's fan.

What happened? I don't know, but when I ate lunch there the other day, something was off—in some cases, quite literally. It's still a very lovely location, with arbors and a (dry) water feature, flowering vines and arching trees, but the restaurant's petticoats were showing. Here, a ladder was left up. There, some tools were scattered around. It was as if they rushed to open before the paint had dried, although it's been months. As for the food, let's just say it was uneven.

My lunch date, Jude, and I ordered plates to share. Served with red pepper aioli, the Dungeness crab-rock shrimp cakes ($13.95) were yummy, but the accompanying guacamole had the dank dark taste that indicates old avocados. The pork satay ($8.95) was bone-dry like some seriously desiccated moose pemmican and tasted overpoweringly of spice rub. The Thai-spiced Alaskan pea sprouts that accompanied them offered a good counterpoint, however. The roasted artichoke ($8.95) was covered in breadcrumbs that didn't work at all. We scraped them off and found the artichoke underneath oily, but Jude assured me that artichokes are merely dip vehicles, and she thought that the accompanying lemon garlic aioli was mighty tasty. No complaints, thank goodness, about the Thai prawn salad ($13.95), its juicy marinated prawns dressed with spicy peanut sauce.

There's still a lot to like, if not love, about Stella's. Chef and owner Gregory Hallihan's menus are eclectic, blending flavors from Asia, the Middle East, New Orleans and Europe. The wine list emphasizes young California wines with reasonable markups. The pours ($8–$10) are huge and the waitstaff could not have been more congenial and helpful, bringing us a small taste of the soup, righting our wobbly table (was unevenness the theme for the day?), going to the kitchen to answer questions about ingredients. The dining room looks sleek and inviting, with a fireplace for cold weather. But the real draw is the patio, where you can imagine you're seated on the terrace of a Tuscan villa.

So what happened, and can I learn to love again? Maybe we can chalk up the flaws to growing pains or moving mishaps or a rough transition or simply an off day. Maybe Hallihan is putting more energy into Elmo's Steakhouse, his brand-new venture just opened at Stella's old digs? Quien sabe, but I miss the Stella's I knew and loved, the inspired, every-detail-delightful Stella's, and though I remain faithful, I am a little shaken. I'll probably go back, but I'll need to be wooed.

Stella's Cafe, at the Russian River Vineyards, 5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Forestville.

Lunch, Monday and Wednesday–Saturday; dinner, Sunday–Monday; brunch, Sunday only. Closed Tuesday. Phone 707.887.1562.

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Quick-and-dirty dashes through North Bay restaurants. These aren't your standard "bring five friends and order everything on the menu" dining reviews.