It will be three years in July since Stella Van Buren, 550 N. Van Buren St., opened its doors, serving up a menu of Italian dishes, steaks and seafood in its bright, well appointed dining room at the Westin Hotel.
April will also mark two years since Zach Espinosa, longtime chef for the Bartolotta Restaurants, took the helm at the restaurant, building a strong kitchen team including chefs like Patrick Fuller, former Bartolotta chef and executive sous at Comet; and James Dixon, a Bartolotta’s alum who recently spent a number of years working in kitchens in New Orleans.
"We’re really at the point now," says Espinosa, "Where we’re able to forge a solid identity for the restaurant. I’ve got a great team, and we have everything we need to be among the best restaurants in the city and to really cater to the needs of local residents."
It’s an important task, especially as Milwaukee becomes the focus of high profile events like the upcoming Democratic National Convention. And it’s not one Espinosa takes lightly.
"I want to make sure I’m doing my city justice," he says. "I want to help Milwaukee put its best face forward. We don’t need to be fly-over country. We’re going to be a city on the forefront of global news. And it’s an opportunity to really showcase what we do."
We had the good fortune of tasting through a number of dishes on Stella's new spring menu, and from what we can see, Espinosa is definitely delivering on his goals.
Among the new offerings on the lunch and dinner menus are numerous mouthwatering appetizers, including crab and artichoke bruschetta featuring shaved red onions, roasted tomatoes and fresh crab on a bed of bernaise sauce ($12).
"You can take the boy out of the seafood restaurant, but you can’t take the seafood restaurant out of the boy," Espinosa says with a smile. "I was at Harbor House for six years, and that’s really where I found my identity as a chef. So, I’m focusing on bringing some really great new seafood dishes to the menu at Stella."
"This is a really fun, light dish with unexpected ingredients that just happen to really work together," he says. "You’ve got the sweetness of the crab and the red onion and the acidity of the artichokes that balances out the bernaise. It’s just really beautiful and harmonious."
There are also P.E.I. Mussels bathed in a sauce of white wine, garlic, chilis, garlic, cream and roasted tomatoes and served with grilled ciabatta bread for soaking up all the flavorful broth ($16).
"It’s our take on mussels marinara, but we’re really leaning in a more fresh direction," says Espinosa. "Every day the mussels here are delivered fresh. And that’s where it starts. You need that merroir – the flavor of the ocean – and if they’re not that fresh, you don’t get that, and no amount of ingredients can remedy it. Here we’re just using five really simple ingredients, and each one of them lends something."
Plenty of pasta
"If you look at our menu, we’re dominated by fresh pasta," says Espinosa. "And I don’t think people know that every day we’re making fresh pasta here."
Among the offerings featuring Stella’s freshly made pasta, you’ll find a variety of options from housemade baked lasagne ($19) to new dishes like vodka marinara featuring rigatoni served with spicy lamb sausage, broccolini and pecorino romano ($21) and pancetta gemelli with marinated artichokes, asparagus, pancetta, spinach, aged provolone and buerre monte ($19).
"I’d love to take all the credit for this one," says Espinosa of the gemelli. "But this dish is really Patrick [Fuller’s]. It’s probably the best pasta on the menu. It has an earthy richness from the herbs and the pancetta. There’s smokiness and meatiness.. and then you get the really rich flavor from the aged provolone alongside the acid and freshness from the artichokes and asparagus. There are a ton of new pasta dishes on the menu, but this one is really special."
The Chef’s Select Cut
"Beyond that," says Espinosa, "It’s about the steak."
He points to the Chef’s Select Cut, an offering which changes out every couple of weeks and varies from choice cuts of lamb to various presentations of beef with average pricing between $30 and $60.
"This option is a great opportunity to really engage our guests," he says. "We’re fortunate to have a partnership with a truly premium-tier meat company: Meats by Linz. Over my career – and particularly during my time at Mr. B’s, I’ve worked with numerous high grade meat purveyors. But the consistency and dedication they have to a superior product, it’s absolutely beautiful. They’ve spent over 30 years siring cattle and using expert animal husbandry to produce a premium heritage angus beef, and you can really taste the difference."
Currently, the menu features a 20-ounce chateaubriand "for two," a center cut filet served with roasted mushrooms and the guests’ choice of sauces (creamy horseradish, red wine jus, bearnaise or marsala peppercorn cream) for $90.
"We season the filet with kosher salt and rotate it through the broiler with coats of garlic butter every time we turn it," says Espinosa, "So, you get this really delicious crust on the exterior. Then we give it a good rest before slicing it and adding roasted wild mushrooms. Right now we’re using a mix of beech, oyster and portabella, so you get a really beautiful mix of robust and delicate flavors."
"The inevitability when you order something like this is that you end up with varying levels of doneness along the filet, since the filet is thinner on the ends," says Espinosa. "If you order it medium rare, it’s the dead center that will be true mid-rare. So, if you’re eating it all at once, I always tell guests to order it exactly how they’d like it. But if they are thinking they might have leftovers they’d like to enjoy later, I always say they shouldn’t be afraid to order it a bit more rare."
Espinosa notes that the dish easily feeds two hearty appetites, but that – because it features 20 ounces of filet – it’s also a great option for sharing with a larger group.
"Order it with the Mediterranean Branzino, and you can easily split it between four people as sort of a surf & turf option," he says.
Virtuous (or indulgent) Brunch
Stella has always had a great brunch menu, complete with memorable brunch cocktails (and mocktails) like the Stella Bloody Mary, the Hickory Smoked Sazerac and the Cello-Mosa featuring housemade limoncello, citrus and bubbly.
But there’s officially a brand new brunch menu showcasing items like quinoa cakes and poached eggs with parmesan, spinach and arrabiata sauce ($11); a rosemary ham and fontina omelette ($13); and more healthful-minded options like the quinoa power bowl featuring a mix of quinoa, kale and cabbage with almonds, goat cheese and a red wine vinaigrette. It’s topped with a whole sliced avocado and a poached egg ($11).
"I’m the son of a dietician who also worked with oncology patients later in her career," says Espinosa. "So I appreciate and understand the benefits of healthy cooking. This is one of those dishes that’s fun and delicious; but you can feel virtuous about it. You’ve got the healthy fats of the avocado, and the protein from the egg, which also has the yolk that brings everything altogether. The goat cheese adds tanginess and the micro arugula gives you a bit of a peppery bite. It’s got everything you want in a great dish."
Of course, you can counter all that good protein and fat with the ultra comforting Uovo & Polenta featuring a poached egg atop cheesy polenta with crispy prosciutto and Grana Padano cheese ($12).
"This screams Milwaukee brunch food," says Espinosa. "It’s a big bowl of warming goodness. If you have an angel on one shoulder, this is the devil on the other."
It starts with imported Italian polenta, which is cooked with chicken stock, water and 12-month aged Tallegio cheese.
"The cheese has a really nice milky richness and a tiny bit of mushroomy funk," he says. "And it’s perfect when mixed with the creaminess of the poached egg yolk, the crispy prosciutto di parma and the excessive sprinkling of Grana Padano. The final dusting of cheese gives you this amazing aroma against the heat of the polenta… "
Espinosa pauses. "This is the sort of dish that makes me want to pull out one of my favorite ‘Fight Club’ quotes," he says, "‘I felt like destroying something beautiful today.’"
Enjoy it al fresco this summer
If you’ve been past The Westin lately, you may have noticed some construction going on near the front of the building. That’s because, beginning this summer, you’ll also be able to enjoy your Stella Van Buren experience on one of two third floor patios.
The patios, which are being constructed on either side of the dining room (one with access through the bar, the other through the private dining room), will boast Westerly views and breezes all summer long.
Stella Van Buren is open daily from 6:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. with lunch service beginning at 11 a.m. and dinner service after 5 p.m. Happy hour takes place Monday through Friday from 3:30 to 6 p.m. Brunch is available Saturday and Sunday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. in the dining room and until 4 p.m. in the bar.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.