What's better than eating outside on a summer night? That's when L.A. really does seem like a paradise. You're under the stars. The humidity's negligible. You'd have to try hard to rustle up a mosquito or two. And if there's the tiniest nip in the air, well, there's always last year's pashmina to throw over your shoulders.
Come evening, Cafe Stella in Silver Lake spreads out into the courtyard behind Sunset Junction. The discreet neon sign sprouting from the funky burnt orange building shows a red star with Cafe Stella spelled out in blue against the sky. Tables are set out in rows, with white cloths flung on top and French bistro chairs woven in a plaid of red and gold. Potted olive trees, oleander and lavender mark the perimeter, and overhead, strings of amber turn the courtyard into a tiny square.
At a turquoise-painted table, a group of friends enjoys aperitifs. One sips a tall glass of Chimay, the wonderfully complex Belgian beer, the others a pretty rose-colored Kir. From the sidewalk, you can look down into the first of two small rooms, each more bar than dining room, with only a handful of tables. At the small bar cluttered with bottles, flowers, bric-a-brac, a couple hold hands, ardently gazing into each others' eyes. In terms of romance, Cafe Stella will definitely do in lieu of an airline ticket to Paris. Two stools over, hipster Francophiles and assorted expatriates lean forward, intent on their conversation, their glasses of rouge forgotten, their hands itching for a cigarette.
The French use cafes as their extended living rooms. And if Cafe Stella were open for lunch, or all through the afternoon, it would be the kind of place where the neighborhood's writers manque would spend the afternoon, nursing a bitter coffee or a citron presse, scribbling in their moleskin notebooks. But alas, it's only open for dinner.
Never mind. Cafe Stella feels so much like a raffish cafe in a hip Paris quartier that you don't even expect great food -- and somehow, that's OK. Along with some of the world's greatest restaurants, France is filled with perfectly ordinary little cafes and bistros, many of them with food that can only be described as mediocre. Cafe Stella would fit in perfectly.
The menu is brief and to the point, supplemented by the specials scribbled on blackboards hanging outside and in. Look there first, because the dishes inevitably sound more interesting than the mundane ones on the regular menu. Waiters will give you a verbal run-through too.
The cafe is one of the few restaurants I've ever found in this country that has pepper grinders and salt on the table. It may not seem remarkable, but it's such a relief not to have to go through the ritual torture of having a yard-long pepper mill waved in your face and someone demand to know whether you'd like pepper -- before you've had a chance to try a bite.
One of the best ways to start a meal at Cafe Stella is with a charcuterie plate served on a wooden board. Usually, it's a little jambon cru (raw-cured ham), some rosette (a type of salami) and another serviceable dry sausage, plus a slab of pate de campagne, which you can order on its own as well. This is one pate that really tastes like the rustic pork and liver terrine it's supposed to be; the puckery cornichons are a perfect foil.
What is more French than chevre? Here, you can have creamy fresh goat cheese spread on a baguette with a little tapenade, the ever-ready puree of wine-dark olives, garlic and olive oil that is a staple of the south of France. The mesclun salad that comes with it, though, is a little sad: tired baby greens tossed in a dreary balsamic dressing.
A small round of chevre works to better effect, crusted with pecans and warmed in the oven. The quality of the goat cheese, though, won't make any converts: This one is as generic as they come, so lacking in character that anybody who loves chevre will be disappointed. Why the kitchen insists on serving a cheese of such poor quality when one of L.A.'s best suppliers, the Cheese Store of Silver Lake, is right next door is perplexing.
That indifference to the quality of ingredients runs throughout the menu, from the salad greens and vegetables to the seafood and meats.
It's hard to fathom why anyone would create a special around woody white asparagus. Well, maybe it wasn't meant to be the star, but it certainly stuck out in the company of marinated baby artichokes, which were quite good, and sliced red and gold beets.
The soup of the day, thankfully, is not the ubiquitous vegetable puree. One night I had a subtly delicious mushroom soup made with just brown mushrooms, stock and a little cream (I doubt the words "no meat, no dairy" ever passed the lips of a waiter here). Another night, it was a chilled tomato gazpacho, which would have been incredibly refreshing if it hadn't been over-doused with vinegar.
And if you must, there are escargots in plenty of impossibly rich, garlicky sauce. That baguette was just made to soak it up.