Airy, modern Stella Van Buren bucks the stereotypical man-cave steakhouse ambiance.
WHEN THE THIRD WARD’S 10-year-old Hinterland closed in August, one reason the gastropub’s owner cited for the shuttering was the intense pressure of the dining market here. The Third Ward and Downtown are far different today than they were a decade ago. Now all eyes are on Downtown, with catalysts like the new Northwestern Mutual tower, the Bucks arena and soon-to-be 44-story mixed-use Couture building. In theory, this will attract more visitors, the raison d’etre for another swanky hotel – the 220room Westin, connected to the U.S.
While the Westin opened this summer with less fanfare than the Third Ward’s Kimpton Journeyman the year before, the Westin has put a similar emphasis on its status as a dining destination, with its
STELLA VAN BUREN. It’s a modern ItalianAmerican steakhouse that doesn’t pay homage to men in smoking jackets who indulge in a post-meal snifter of cognac. (That’s the antithesis of, say, nearby Rare Steakhouse on Michigan Street.) The light-suffused, 45-table dining room is neutral-hued and comfortably furnished with curvy booths and plush banquettes. Serving staff, dressed in the same soft room colors, sets the casual but professional tone.
In the local dining landscape, Stella shoots for the “every diner” base, as hotels often do. A James Beard Award-nominated corporate chef co-created the menu, which contains some good dishes and others that are missing luster. Both lunch and dinner menus feature an array of bruschetta, which could function as an appetizer or a light meal. The chewy, lightly charred bread sets a strong foundation for winning toppings like goat cheese with strawberries, smoked almonds, arugula and truffle honey ($8); and burrata cheese with heirloom tomato, basil and white balsamic vinegar ($11). Another topping, spicy tuna tartare, has a creamy-crunchy salsa-like consistency combined with chopped avocado and pistachios, but the clementines in it add an off-putting acidy sweetness ($13).
Reminiscent of breaded calamari steaks I’ve loved at Italian joints, the squid fries are tender, thick, unfishy sticks ($11), if not quite as succulent as the best of memory. Dip them in tangy lemon aioli. A very mild red sauce covers the dense, albeit delicate meatballs, good with grilled slices of ciabatta ($10).
Salads cross over from lunch to dinner menus (and quite a tasty mountainous toss is the Tuscan kale, with Brussels sprouts and roasted grapes in a Parmesan vinaigrette, $11), as does the fine (but not exceptional) burger ($15, topped with fontina, balsamic onions and tomato jam). On the lunch menu, a grilled chicken sandwich ($13) retains the yearned-for summer-like charred flavor through the generous application of sour cherry mostarda, melted smoked mozzarella and caramelized onion. The problem is just too much onion – it makes the sandwich a drippy mess.
Another day-to-evening menu crossover, the sensational al dente house-made spaghetti with gulf shrimp ($19 lunch; $23 dinner), is tossed in a spot-on heirloom tomato-basil sauce. And Stella being a steakhouse, the caliber of beef (USDA prime) is central. That’s clear in a marbled, full-bodied 22-ounce dry-aged rib-eye, its sea salt-seasoned crust very simple but flavorful ($49). Buttery fried Brussels sprouts and chunky smashed rosemary-garlic Yukon Golds are exemplary companions ($8 each).
Industry people rarely point this out when they’re detrimentally affected, but competition pushes everybody to work harder. The arrival of higher-end hotels with ambitious restaurants (the Kimpton Journeyman, for one) raises the stakes for other local hotels. The Westin’s model isn’t without flaws, but with time and a little effort, it has great potential.
Clockwise from top: shrimp spaghetti, bruschetta with goat cheese and strawberries, smashed potatoes, bone-in rib-eye, classic meatballs, fried Brussel sprouts