Pierre Gagnaire, Scott Boswell and Daniel Boulud at Starchefs ICC 2009
Scott Boswell is a man driven to be the best at what he does. He has spent stints at many of the country's and the world's best restaurants from NYC to Chicago to Paris to Tokyo and many places in between, all in an effort to learn in order to apply to his own personal craft. His globetrotting with a purpose is evident in his food. Chef Boswell has become known for seeking the best ingredients from wherever he can find them. I can only imagine that his Fedex bills for his flagship restaurant, Stella! are larger than many a restaurant food budget. Despite his global outlook, Stella! remains a restaurant of New Orleans, blending his exotic ingredients with local techniques, foods and tradition.
Stella!, a difficult restaurant to categorize. Including influences from his native New Orleans as well as French, Italian and Japanese, Stella! is none of those nor is it like any other restaurant that I have been to. The room is cozy and comfortable, reminding me of a French country restaurant. The service is polished and formal, more reminiscent of a European location than most of its American cousins, yet despite its relative formality, it is neither stiff nor condescending.
I arrived with my wife and son on the Friday evening before Chef Boswell and his lovely wife, Tanya, were to leave for Spain to celebrate their second wedding anniversary at elBulli. It was no accident that I dined there on that evening. I met Scott Boswell and his lovely wife, Tanya, in NYC this past September at the Starchefs ICC. We discussed New Orleans and the fact that I would be visiting for a medical meeting as well as to see our son, who is attending Tulane. Stella! had already been on my radar for some time, which had been accentuated this past spring when my wife and son dined there without me while on a visit for his college orientation. It was in NYC that I learned that the Boswells would be leaving the day after my wife and I were to arrive. Happy that we would have at least one night's overlap, I made my reservation for that night.
Our flight to New Orleans was delayed out of Tampa putting us a half hour late for our reservation. I was starting out the evening a bit irritated and that is never good. I called ahead to the restaurant. They told me not to worry and once we arrived, we were seated without a hitch. Now settling down and relaxing, I was in a mood to welcome a nice Pimm's Cup, while my wife enjoyed a glass of Piper Hiedsick Champagne. We elected the 7 course tasting menu at $115pp to give us a sense of the restaurant's breadth. With that, my wife and I opted to indulge in the wine pairings for an additional $75pp.
With few exceptions, I have always preferred oysters simple, unadorned and tasting of the sea, abetted only by a bit of lemon. Our first amuse at Stella! consisted of an oyster that pushed that envelope and cast it aside.I smiled when I tasted the Alaskan oyster on the half shell with pickled ginger wasabi granita. This had balance, flavor and somehow maintained the flavor of the oyster, all the while enhancing it. I knew that we would be in for a good show.
A second amuse followed. While the first amuse didn't really speak of New Orleans - the oyster was from Alaska and not the Gulf - this one did employ a local element, even while displaying Chef Boswell's multicultural finesse. Kimchee spiced Louisiana gulf shrimp with crisp taro root & mango champagne purée combined one of the area's great products - shrimp- with a veritable multicultural kaleidoscope, that somehow worked and worked beautifully maintaining great harmony and balance both in flavor and texture. Chef Boswell has developed a reputation for kimchee, as displayed on Daniel Boulud's After Hours with Daniel, the show that first really brought Chef Boswell and Stella! to my attention. This was my first taste of any of Chef Boswell's kimchees and it was a good one. It wouldn't be the last.
One more amuse followed. This was a crisp kabayaki won ton with coconut curry & sweet red chili. It is clear that Chef Boswell is comfortable with Asia. Each of the first three bites incorporated Asian elements and incorporated them effectively. The first clearly contained a strong Japanese influence. The second a pronounced Korean influence and the third Japanese and Thai.
His Asian theme continued into the first official course of the Tasting Menu, Tempura Tsukiji Market Japanese Anago with Last of the Summer Spicy Melon Kimchee, Aguni Sea Salt Flowers and Spicy Sweet Red Chili. This was a sensational course that I already highlighted a Taste of the Week. I was particularly blown away by the texture and taste of the fish's crispy spine.
The remainder of the meal highlighted more western influences with touches from France, Italy and New Orleans. Roasted Heirloom Potato Puree with Applewood Smoked Bacon Lardons, Fingerling Potatoes, Truffle-Scented Petite Brioche Croutons and White Alba Truffle Créme Fraiche Caviar was simply heaven on a spoon. This dish was purely hedonistic with each of us sitting back in our chairs and saying, "wow!"
Canadian Lobster Roe Farfalle with Lobster, Steamed Edamame, Local Scallions and Cognac Soy Cream was another dish with multiple roots, put together in an entirely unique Scott Boswell fashion. It was delicious!
The Pan-Crisped New Zealand Yellow Snapper with Louisiana Crawfish and Local Corn Maque Choux, Sour Cream and Onion Butter and White Cheddar Popcorn Snow was one of those dishes that is busy and complex but pulled together by a single ingredient. In this case the single ingredient that elevated this dish beyond the merely excellent was the white cheddar popcorn "snow" that had "fallen" all over the plate. It provided additional salt, umami and sourness that made everything work. I could not get enough of scraping this Vita-prepped popcorn onto my fork and into my mouth along with the other elements on the plate. When I realized what this magic ingredient was, I couldn't help but laugh. The inclusion of this element into the dish was sheer genius.
The Crisp Palmetto Pigeon Breast and Seared Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Five Bean Cassoulet, Tempura Local Okra, Wilted baby Mustard Greens and Squab Jus Pepper Jelly was the one dish of the evening that I had some mixed feelings about. The squab itself was spectacular. It had been cooked in a CVap to a perfect temperature after it had been rolled and glued together with Activa into a desired shape and finished with a quick fry to achieve a perfect exterior. It was squab perfection. The foie gras was another beautifully prepared and delicious element. The one part of the dish that I felt was not quite up to the rest of the plate nor the rest of the meal was the five bean cassoulet. While flavorful, it lacked the same degree of elegance present throughout the rest of the meal.
The Delice de Bourgogne Grilled Cheese Sandwich with Petite Mache Salad, Tossed Almond Brittle and Wild Huckleberry Compote displayed more humor as well as skill and finesse. This was a variation on Chef Boswell's famous Grilled Cheese and Chocolate Sandwich.
The last course, dessert, stayed rooted in the world of savory, bss.ut extended its reach into the realm of the sweet. Chocolate Chip and Summer Truffle Ice Cream with Truffle Panna Cotta and Raw Truffle Honey reminded me of one of my favorite pastry chefs, Sam Mason, in the way sweet and savory was so expertly combined. This dish could have been just as comfortably served as a savory course by toning down the sweetness element just a little bit more. As it was, it contained just the right sugar level to make it a dessert without overdoing it and becoming cloying.
The petit fours that finished the meal concluded it perfectly, a fitting end to a spectacular meal.
I was totally impressed by Stella! In addition to the wonderful food, the wine pairings chosen by sommelier Josh Prados were right on, mixing interesting, lesser known wines that worked well with sometimes difficult pairings. New Orleans is fully back to being a wonderful city for dining. I ate very well throughout the week we were there, but without a doubt the finest meal I had and perhaps the finest meal that I have ever had in New Orleans was this one at Stella! In addition to every dish being delicious, beautiful and expertly prepared, each had style and originality. They all had major elements to set them apart from other restaurants. One will not find this meal anywhere else but at Stella! Each dish spoke of Chef Scott Boswell's creativity and unique approach to food. Each one displayed his experience and familiarity with a multitude of styles and ingredients, but in such a way that they all made sense. Each dish was interesting to the palate, the eyes and the mind. Add smooth, professional service and a warm dining environment to the mix and the result is a stellar meal. It is no wonder to me that Stella! was just rated the top restaurant in New Orleans by Brett Anderson of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.