Saturday, April 9, 2011

It is an unseasonably warm evening and my friend and I are headed out for our annual birthday celebration together. Our restaurant of choice this year? Stella's Southern Bistro in Simpsonville. Since we had a reservation, we were taken directly to our table when we arrived at 7PM.
The decor is reminiscent of a coastal cottage. Soft blues on the wall with white trim, large mirrors reflecting light and space, and tastefully placed gold stars. Small blue glass lamps on the table set a relaxing mood.
As quickly as we sat down, a waiter arrived and filled our glasses with ice water. A simple, straightforward menu with a small daily special menu was the recipient of instant attention on our part. A warm roll wrapped in a small wicker basket kept us company as we deliberated over our choices. Our server was patient and well-informed and very likeable.
My friend ordered the daily special salad, a spring asparagus and pickled shrimp salad. Her entree was the special du jour flounder topped with crab and accompanied by baby green beans and rice.
My first choice was a Charleston crab soup, the Stella's sampler plate, and for my entree, since I couldn't decide, I asked the waittress to have the chef send out whatever he wanted to. That is my idea of adventure, and I must say, it turned out very well.
To avoid repeating "her" and "she" too much, I shall refer to my friend as "Susie" until I am sure she is OK with me blogging about her in such a public forum.
Susie's salad was a feast for the eyes. On a bed of locally grown baby bibb and romaine lettuces, were tender spears of asparagus, the first of the season. Perched on that was a pile of pickled shrimp, chopped egg, and over all was drizzled a sherry viniagrette. Now I know that pickled shrimp sounds wierd, but you really should try it. It has absolutely no relation to any jar marked "pickle" that you have ever picked up in the grocery store. The recipe is one from the "Charleston Receipts" book and, according to our knowledgable server, the oldest cookbook in the United States.
My soup and sampler platter arrived looking delicious. Now I admit that I am not really a fan of tomato-based crab soups, but the combination of sherry broth, cream, and blue crab meat kept me coming back to very unexpected flavors. It is a "must try" dish. The sampler platter was arranged simply with crab dip, pimiento cheese, fried green tomatoes, pickled okra and garlic toasts. The toast was a real star with a delicious smoky grilled flavor that played well against the creaminess of the crab dip. The fried green tomatoes seemed to have taken a bath in salty brine which, accompanied by a crunchy crust, led to tender tomato perfection. If you like okra, which is not my favorite, you will absolutely love the spicy pickled okra on this plate. The flavor was great, and even I enjoyed my quick foray into a truly southern food. The absolute star of the show was the pimiento cheese. A thick homemade creamy distraction, it started with a sweet note of cream cheese and ended with a sharper note of cheddar, all with a hint of the fresh pimiento peppers scattered throughout. You have never had pimiento cheese like this, and that alone was worth the trip.
Susie's flounder arrived looking fresh and juicy. It was cooked perfectly, with a pile of fresh crab crowning it. Underneath were baby green beans and rice. It takes real skill to cook fish that perfectly, and she cleaned her plate.
My culinary adventure arrived in the form of a pork chop that looked to be a mile thick. The accompaniments were BBQ red peas, fried okra, Adluh Mills baked cheese grits topped with scallions and a smear of preserves, and ham hock au jus. The pork chop was Chef Scholz's proof of passion for food. It was rubbed with a dry BBQ rub and perfectly charred for flavor and texture on the outside and perfect tenderness on the inside. He has the ability to combine flavor and balance in every dish. I have never experienced both of those so consistently through a meal before. These baked cheese grits are worth whatever he chooses to ask for them. (Which, by the way, is not an unreasonable price at all). I have never seen such creamy goodness associated with the grit family before. Definitely a Top Ten dish for anyone's culinary adventure. The BBQ red peas brought the perfect balance of vinegar and spice to prevent the grits from being cloying or the pork from being overly rich.
Now, no dinner is complete without dessert. I am pretty sure that is a law somwehere. If it isn't, it should be! For dessert, Susie had the pineapple upsidedown cake with vanilla bean ice cream. The cake was unbelievably light and delicious, and I am still puzzling over the flavors I couldn't quite pinpoint.
I chose the banana pudding brulee, and it is exactly that--banana pudding topped with a creamy pudding custard bruleed to perfection. My only negative comment is that I wish there had been fewer bananas, because my favorite part of both banana pudding and creme brulee is the creamy custard, but that is a totally subjective taste. Now, it didn't seem right not to share some of the delicious goodness I was experiencing with my family so, in the interest of being surrounded by happy people and for the sake of sacrificing for the blog, I ordered a piece of their grasshopper cheesecake and the peanut butter pie. The grasshopper cheesecake is a confection of cheesecake, chocolate mousse, and mint cream. The peanut butter pie is topped with all kinds of peanutty chocolaty goodness. Tomorrow after lunch I shall throw caution to the wind and eat them for the sake of my readers who have a right to know whether or not they should have some too.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Time with friends and good food is never wasted, and I couldn't have found a better way to spend my Friday night. As the night wore on, it did get rather noisy as patrons began filling the restaurant in groups, but it was a small price to pay for a culinary journey that just got better and better. I would definitely recommend this for anyone. It is a good night out, as you could both eat well and still pay less than $100. Great for date nights or celebrations.

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