This Quite The Pair column marks the 100th I’ve written since it debuted almost two years ago. In reaching this milestone, I have come to a certain number of realizations:
- I have happily eaten my way through a good portion of this city.
- I have tasted 100 local dishes spanning almost every cuisine imaginable.
- I have paired 300 wines, beers and/or cocktails.
- There are still copious numbers of restaurants on my list that I have yet to dine in.
These facts culminate to an awareness of how fortunate I feel to live in such a flourishing food city.
By nature of my livelihood, I typically dine out more than I eat at home, and I’m often asked for restaurant recommendations, especially where I like to go when I’m off the clock, when I’m heading out with friends and family and selecting food-and-wine pairings for my own enjoyment. As such, I thought it might be fun to break the mold a little this week and deliver a deeper look into my dining-out decisions and pairing approaches.
There are a multitude of factors I could list, but the short and sweet of it is that I go where I know I can get remarkable food (preferably with an emphasis and appreciation on local ingredients), a notable, well-executed (but not overly pretentious) wine list and a warm, engaging atmosphere suited for laughter and conversation.
One of my go-to spots for an exciting, albeit dependable, food and wine experience is Stellina. Intimate enough to give a neighborhood feel, Stellina steps outside the standard with a commitment to a variety of locally sourced protein and produce as well as a weekly changing menu consisting of handcrafted pastas, skillful starters and creative entrees. While it’s no secret that we St. Louisans know what we like and like what we know, my inner food geek is elated to receive a new and inspired dinner menu in my inbox each Friday from chef Jamey Tochtrop.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I am indeed friends with the chef. This is an inevitable theme in my world; I regularly dine where my friends work. It’s the nature of the business. What further improves these circumstances, though, is when those same restaurants would easily fall in your top spots of the area even if you didn’t know the owner.
Knowing I will rarely see the same dish twice, I appreciate that I can voyage into a variety of culinary adventures with each visit. But you can guarantee, one thing usually stays the same, I will start with a glass of bubbles. This is generally true of just about any restaurant I step foot into. I have always found it interesting that traditional table service consists of requesting a drink order before we decide on any food. Perhaps it stems from the days more common of beginning a meal with a cocktail, which I often do as well, but if you are only planning on a drink or two with dinner, this initial decision should weigh heavily with your menu choices. Starting dinner with sparkling wine is not just for celebratory purposes, a flute filled with bubbly, in this case a Prosecco from Italian producer Adami (NV, Veneto Italy, $7 by the glass), is the perfect palate refresher to prepare for an evening of fresh flavors and complex textures. It rejuvenates your taste buds with crisp tartness and a fruity fizz. An added benefit is that sparklers are versatile wines for food pairings and often a flexible choice for many appetizers.
Knowing that Stellina fully embraces the locavore attitude, utilizing area farmer favorites such as Claverach, Double Star Farms and Berger Bluffs as well as produce grown in their own garden plots, I start with one of their salads. This week features a Caprese. Vine ripened tomatoes hand-harvested from Tochtrop’s backyard, freshly picked basil from his herb garden and housemade mozzarella are drizzled with brightly-flavored basil vinaigrette. Tasting the bloom of summer with every bite, I look to the wine list to find my preferred styles to pair with tomatoes and greens. As I have mentioned before, high-acid whites are a seamless complement to both. The addition of the mozzarella cheese had me craving something with a touch more body, so my final choice with my salad went to the Vermentino (LaSpinetta, 2010, $9.50 by the glass). Grassy notes united with citrus and stone fruit tones meld with the salad to create an herbal yet sweet vegetal combination.
Now, as you probably already know, a stop into Stellina would not be complete without a taste of the organic, handmade pasta. Likely known best for his agnolotti, a freeform filled pasta, Tochtrop changes the fresh, seasonal filling weekly. Playing into the bounty of the season, the current contents of his “peas and carrots” agnolotti are pureed roasted local carrots, mascarpone cheese, orange zest and nutmeg. This slightly sweet rendition is finished with a topping of dazzling green pea tendrils and a sumptuous nonetheless light pool of dill butter sauce. Sounding so simple yet tasting both multifaceted and somehow straightforward. I immediately implored a wine that found a balance for the consistency of the pasta while accentuating the nuances of the delicate stuffing. Despite being a surprising find on a list rooted in mostly Italian wines, the Viño Cobos “Felino” Chardonnay from Argentina (2011, $8 by the glass) settles nicely into the menu. Slightly floral with hints of orange blossom, the naturally creamy white wine displays vivid fruit notes that highlight the dynamic though familiar flavors of the dish.
For someone who eats out as often as I do, it might surprise you that I eat relatively small portions. I am a huge fan of sharing plates with my fellow diners. I like to taste as many different dishes as I can, but alas, I cannot possibly get through three full-size servings despite my best efforts. That being said, I usually cannot refrain from dishes that speak to me and the shifting selections of entrees on Stellina’s weekend bill of fare frequently grab my attention. One should not be fooled to assume the restaurant’s notoriety for pasta limits them into an Italian cuisine corner. New American takes on fresh seafood and local meats grace the menu in both classic and inventive style.
Generous cuts of Alaskan halibut rest atop a mound of jasmine rice, surrounded by multiple varieties of summer squash straight from Stellina’s farm and given a “sauce” of local cucumber sorbet. Hearty for the sake of a warm weather fish dish, the plate seemed to teeter between both white and red wines. Naturally, I began my pairing journey with the lone rosé on the list (2011 Triennes, Provence, France, $7.50 by the glass). My adoration for dry, pink wine is no secret at this point, but I unswervingly make my best attempt to convince you, dear reader, of its steadfast food-pairing capabilities. Light in color but heavy in elegance, this rosé from southern France packs a punch with seductive red fruit notes - red-wine lover’s white-wine pairing and the white-wine lover’s red-wine pairing.
Of course, finding a proper red-wine match for the halibut was an obvious intention of mine, both for my love of diversity as well as flexibility in pairings. The notion that seafood and red wine do not go together is beyond obsolete. The trick is to balance the texture and weight of the fish with the body of the wine. Pinot Noir is often a comfortable answer, but no need to limit ourselves to one single varietal. Italian-based Dolcetto (2010 G.D. Vajra, Piedmont Italy, $8 by the glass) can offer an array of characteristics that favorably cooperate with a dish such as this. Intended to be consumed young, this charming grape brings concentrated cherry and blueberry notes with a stable but not overpowering equilibrium of both acidity and tannin.
I try to resist the craving for post-dinner provisions on a regular basis, but Stellina offers rotating seasonal desserts that call out to me. From chocolate mousse domes with salted caramel ice cream to that week’s freshest farmer’s market fruit turned into tarts, a final menu look following an extravagant savory meal will certainly test your self-control (or possibly waistband). Complementing cordials and dessert wines round out the temptation. Might I suggest taking a detour from wine and enjoy the Amaro with your chocolate or limoncello with a sweet berry-based concoction.
I am a lover of food and wine, but also, I am in love with the experience of it all. I revel in the stories behind the dishes, the sources of the ingredients, the origins of the wines and the inspiration of the chef’s creations. Dining out for me is more than just my job, more than just a column I am employed to write. Every facet of a restaurant encounter helps to shape my future experiences, expand my education of food and wine, and, ultimately, influence my overall epicurean outlook. Getting to share these with you, along with my pairing recommendations, are a highlight of my week, and I fully appreciate every moment, word and taste.
- Caprese Salad, $8.95
- Peas and Carrots Agnolotti, $13.95
- Pan Seared Halibut, $28
- NV Adami Prosecco, Veneto Italy, $7 by the glass
- 2010 LaSpinetta Vermentino, Tuscany Italy, $9.50 by the glass
- 2011 Viño Cobos “Felino” Chardonnay, Argentina, $8 by the glass
- 2011 Domaine Triennes Rosé, Provence, France, $7.50 by the glass
- 2010 G.D. Vajra Dolcetto d’Alba, Piedmont Italy, $8 by the glass
Stellina, 3342 Watson Road, Lindenwood Park, 314.256.1600, stellinapasta.com
Every Wednesday, STLwinegirl Angela Ortmann helps you navigate wine and beer lists at restaurants around town and suggests the best by-the-glass pairings with certain dishes. Through her event and consultation business, she is dedicated to enhancing your food and wine experience. Missed one of her columns? Check them out here.