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The Tsoureki Vyssino, Stella's version of French toast could pass for dessert.
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Braised lamb shank
In a decade of writing about food, I have never written about Stella Dikos, other than to bemoan the closing of the last restaurant bearing her name, and that was in 2005. Passing judgment on a family that is so supportive of its community and whose restaurants have played a starring role in Richmond's dining scene for so many years was a responsibility I avoided.
But this restaurant is different, and I felt it the first time I visited. It's a stunning space, created from the ground up on a vacant lot in the middle of a charming residential neighborhood right off of Monument Avenue. Between Stella herself, her late husband, Stavros (Steve) Dikos, their daughter, Katrina Giavos, her husband, Johnny, and his family, and the Giavoses' children, Constantine (Dean) and Maria, the clan has owned, run or been involved with 11 restaurants over the span of more than 20 years. The planned opening of The Continental Westhampton on Grove Avenue in December will make it an even dozen. But this Stella's, the third incarnation of a local dining institution, was an opportunity to build a dream.
There is a flower arrangement the size of a small child on the end of a bar that runs the full length of this lively bottega. Vintage black-and-white films are artfully projected on one wall. The palette is soft and neutral, allowing the honeyed warmth of the bamboo wood that is everywhere — tables and some walls — and the uplit terra cotta pots at the ceiling's edge to add to the flattering glow. Cement floors, a marble-topped bar and a tin ceiling create a sense of timelessness, but probably contribute to a noise problem on especially busy nights. Recently installed sound-proofing panels help considerably, but don't sit at the bar-height community table if you are looking for an intimate experience.
Stella's is the current "it" restaurant, so reservations for popular nights should be secured weeks in advance. Luckily, the website provides an online service to facilitate this task.
On a recent Sunday morning, my friend Suzanne joined me for a small feast. Portions are generous, and prices for both brunch and dinner are very reasonable, topping out at $12 and $25 respectively. Manouri, a Greek cheese similar to feta but creamier and less salty, appears in many selections on the extensive brunch menu, which includes everything from an open-face lamb burger with tzatziki, to a classic Greek salad, to an omelet loaded with jumbo lump crab meat. (For dinner, one of the specials was shiitake mushroom soup, a rich and dreamy cream-based soup with chunks of crabmeat so big it was decadent.)
The Tsoureki Vyssino, their version of French toast, was equally indulgent. The Greek Easter bread topped with toasted pistachios, sour cherries and whipped Greek yogurt could have passed as dessert. Delicious. The sausage skillet was hearty and flavorful, featuring loukaniko sausage, a pork sausage with garlic, fennel and orange peel. The addition of tomato, onion, crispy potatoes and two fried eggs made the dish colorful as well as filling. A frappé, traditionally made with foamed instant coffee and evaporated milk, was the perfect pick-me-up and not too sweet.
The service is top-notch, and all of the Greek standards are there. Unlike the previous Stella's, the dinner menu offers more small plates, and entrées come à la carte. The appetizers, or meze, are meant to be shared. Standouts include the fried calamari served with an excellent purée of garlic, potato and lemon for dipping; the dolmades, homemade grape leaves stuffed with rice and herbs; and Stella's hummus and tabbouleh (truly the best I've ever had) served with warm pita triangles.
Two versions of moussaka, the traditional, with layers of sautéed eggplant, ground beef and baked with béchamel sauce, and a vegetarian alternative starring artichokes, are offered. While both were delicious, the standard is the one I remember and will come back for again. The oh-so-tender braised lamb shank was both giant and excellent, but could have benefited from more seasoning. The filet mignon, grilled and served with a creamy sherry-Dijon sauce with the much-appreciated lumps of crab, was a home run. The chicken souvlaki is simple, yet tasty, served with a side of fried potatoes that had a yummy, crunchy crust but weren't at all greasy. A special of grouper with sautéed fennel was light and flavorful, though the side of orzo was slightly overcooked. Delicious homemade tomato sauce on this rice-shaped pasta rescued the dish.
Desserts are especially noteworthy. I've tried the chocolate-hazelnut baklava, a scrumptious variation on the best-known Greek pastry. The phyllo was delicate and not at all soggy, so I knew it was very fresh. Chocolate mousse is smooth and fluffy and studded with small chunks of milk chocolate.
While aspects of Stella's on Lafayette are pleasantly familiar, this version embodies the collective kitchen and design experience of an entire family. And what a talented family it is.
1012 Lafayette St., 358-2011
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $12, dinner entrées $12 to $25, desserts $6
Hours: Lunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday; dinner is 5 to 10 p.m. Monday to Thursday, and 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with small plates and drink specials from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Friday; Sunday brunch is 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.