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Suddenly Stella's

[whitespace] Gregory Michael Hallihan
Michael Amsler

Reflecting on success: Chef/owner Gregory Michael Hallihan has earned the right to relax.

Culinary comfort in a cozy rustic setting

By Paula Harris

STELLA'S CAFE in Sebastopol is booked solid every night. It's not a tourist destination (shhh! so far), but the restaurant has been consistently packed with locals in the know since its opening several weeks ago. After three attempts we finally scored a reservation and were eager to discover what all the fuss is about.

Situated in a space reminiscent of an old apple barn that used to be Mom's Apple Pie (that venerable pie shop is now next door), Stella's Cafe is a funky, relaxed place. It's like eating in a warm, upscale farmhouse.

There are several adjoining rooms. The entrance area boasts large, rustic wooden benches, a roaring wood stove, and a friendly open kitchen, where a seemingly permanent throng enjoys wine and supper at the counter.

Many patrons seemed to be foodies of a more casual ilk: local producers, retailers, young winemakers in their Eddie Bauer flannel shirts and sturdy hiking boots, and, yes, other restaurateurs curious about the competition.

We were seated in a small narrow dining room in back. The wooden wall on one side gives almost a log-cabin effect. There are shiny warm wood tables, teal and burgundy curtains swathing the windows, fresh flowers, and tea lights in decorative flat metal holders.

A table of older women--relaxed literary-looking types--were telling each other stories of their trips to Europe. There was much toasting and laughter.

A couple of electric floor heaters glowing bright orange at either end of the small room completed the picture. The only cold effect came from the painted bare floor. Nevertheless, during a dramatic stormy night this would be a great setting, where you could hunker over a bowl of steaming soup as the rain daggers slashed at the windows.

The comfortable level may be gauged as somewhere between our two local "Willow" restaurants; Willow Wood Market Cafe in Graton and Willowside Cafe in Santa Rosa. It's no surprise to discover that Stella's chef-owner Greg Hallihan most recently worked at the latter eatery.

The compact menu appears to rotate every two weeks. Out of the six entrée choices, two were vegetarian. There's a reasonably priced wine list, and a tasty selection of from Village Bakery graces the bread basket.

Half a plump steamed artichoke served warm ($4.75) was a pretty plateful indeed, all shades of green, red, and purple. The half artichoke exposed its layers, revealing a scoop of purple-black niçoise olive tapenade inside. Fresh (actually crunchy) salad greens, chunks of tomato, spears of asparagus, and slices of sweet, earthy beets completed the impressive dish.

The soup of the day ($3.95) was a rich, soulful lentil and carrot combination. Comprised of rose-brown lentils, carrot dice, and a whole bay leaf lurking at the bottom, this soup was as thick and satisfying as a stew.

The forest mushrooms ($12.95) featured decoratively piped mashed potatoes slathered with hearty mixed mushrooms and shallots in a rich wine sauce--a vegetarian's answer to coq au vin or boeuf bourguignon. The menu touted a basil and garlic potato purée with this dish, but alas, there was no sign of any basil or garlic in the plain mashed spuds.

Perhaps I misinterpreted the menu's description of my dish: "Pan-roasted chicken with Dijon and truffled mash potatoes" ($13.95), for I expected the mustard to be a flavoring enhancing the potatoes. Once again the spuds appeared to be plain. The Dijon was in the form of a thick yellow sauce coating the chicken with an overpowering flavor. Once I'd scraped that off, the rest of the dish was good.

We were disappointed there was no Mom's Apple Pie on the dessert menu, but comforted ourselves with a mocha crème brûlée ($5.95), with an intense coffee flavor; and a warm, cinnamon-kissed poached pear served with a pastry puff, caramel, chocolate, and local ice cream from Screamin' Mimi's.

As the background music slipped from mellow Frank Sinatra to soothing Windham Hill-type "massage music," we drained our glasses of Benziger 1997 merlot ($5.75) and pondered who Stella could be. A food muse? A figment of someone's imagination?

Our jovial waitress came to the rescue. "Stella isn't fictitious, more like mythical," she claimed with a mysterious glint in her eye. And she refused to elaborate.

Hmm, we may have to go back soon to find out more.

Stella's Cafe
4550 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol; 823-6637
Hours: Wednesday-Monday, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
Food: Culinary comfort featuring local produce; very vegetarian friendly
Service: Amiable
Ambiance: Upscale rustic and quite cozy
Price: Moderate
Wine list: Moderately priced, good local selection
Overall: 3 stars (out of 4)

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From the December 30, 1999-January 5, 2000 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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