Stella’s in Alexandria is a bit off the beaten Old Town path — it’s in an outdoor office and shopping center close to the King Street Metro station — and might be missed by those not in the know.
Once you’ve tried it, though, chances are you’ll come back for more because Stella’s has stellar service, great food and nice (if a bit unimaginative) decor and ambience.
The warm, orange-colored walls are adorned with framed posters of old movie stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart.
Though the decorating scheme isn’t terribly exciting, the space is very comfortable and roomy, with high ceilings, an extensive bar counter and enough floor space to accommodate tables for 190 people.
Stella’s also has an outside courtyard with seating for about 100 guests.
The menu is contemporary American with choices ranging from sashimi to filet mignon. Starters include a soup, which sometimes is gazpacho, so refreshing on a hot summer night.
Stella’s version of the Spanish favorite is good, but not great. It’s full of chopped fresh vegetables, including onion, cucumber and tomato, as it should be. But it tastes a bit heavy on V8-like canned tomato juice and a bit light on the garlic and chopped jalapenos.
Another light, fresh starter — and a better choice — is the house salad of baby spinach tossed with a generous portion of blue cheese, toasted pine nuts and maple-raspberry vinaigrette.
All soups and salads come with tasty, freshly baked bread — white and walnut-studded.
Sesame-crusted ahi sashimi is another good summery starter for those who like raw fish. A few slivers of delicious raw tuna are served with daikon sprouts and sesame dressing.
This dish is a true appetizer — there is very little of it, but enough to entice the palate for the next course.
The same is true for the bourbon-seared prawns: three large, spicy prawns on a large white plate. It’s not exactly a filling dish, but it does an excellent job of whetting the appetite.
While the starters, by virtue of their small size and excellent preparation, are a mere hint of what’s to come, the main courses are generous.
The filet mignon New Orleans comes with two fried oysters, a cream sauce with spicy tasso ham, asparagus and a mashed-potato cake. The high-quality filet, if a bit on the thin side, was prepared just as ordered — medium rare, which in other places often becomes medium done.
The seafood carbonara — the favorite Roman dish done with a seafood twist — consists of spaghetti drenched in eggs and pecorino cheese and peppered with crawfish and scallops. It’s light and yet flavorful, a perfect summer choice.
The entrees include the mandatory crab cakes, served with cheese grits and corn, and a rack of lamb crusted with walnuts and cinnamon and finished with cabernet demi-glace.
Most entrees are served with a vegetable and a starch. During the summer months, however, some dishes will lose their potatoes and pasta in favor of more vegetables, our excellent waiter said.
What’s most remarkable about Stella’s is its perfect service. The food is very good, and the decor is fine, but the service is extraordinary.
Our waiter was informative about the dishes, beers and wines (wine by the glass starting at a fair $5.50) but never pushy. Our glasses were never left empty, and our dishes were removed quickly and quietly.
Let’s not forget the desserts, which also deserve high marks. They are all made in-house, except the ice creams and sorbets, and they are scrumptious.
The blueberry crumble, which sits in a crispy, sweet pastry shell and comes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, is amazing, and the chocolate decadent cake is right up there, too, among fabulous flavor sensations.
Stella’s gives guests excellent value for their money as the service and food easily could belong in a more upscale setting. As the name indicates, this is a bright-shining star in the restaurant sky.