Saturday, March 27, 2010

Stella's Family Restaurant - Burlington, NJ

Here is a restaurant that we have driven past countless times, and have never really thought about stopping in, and I have no idea why. We recently however received and e-mail from owner Lana Pinho, asking us to come in and review her restaurant, so why not! Her e-mails were very warm, and she sounds like a nice person, so I asked her via e-mail to make a reservation for us earlier in the week for tonight. Ms. Pinho had mentioned that she recently hired a new chef from New York City, so we figured we would give it a shot.

In doing my pre-visit research, I noticed that the menu at Stella's varies, and I would say that most of the menu is Italian, and a portion of the menu is Portuguese as well. She has a wide array of appetizers, salads, soups, pasta's, baked pasta's, chicken, steaks and chops, veal, and seafood. They also have a large selection of hot and cold sandwiches, wraps, pizza's, calzones, etc. The menu is quite large, and Stella's is BYOB, something we are always searching out.

We arrived just before our 7PM reservation, and took the last spot in the parking lot. The place was jam packed, and there were many people picking up takeout. When you first walk in the door, you notice the takeout section of the restaurant to the left, and walk into the dining room through the door on the right. We were greeted at the door by the very friendly staff, and I don’t know if this is a family run establishment or not, but the staff seemed very cute, and some of the sweetest older ladies were working. They were absolutely adorable.

We sat at a nice table in the window, and I immediately started to look around the restaurant. There was some nice dark woodwork around the restaurant, and the tables were covered with nice white linens, and vases with red and white flowers in them. Personally, I would go with a real flower opposed to the silk flowers, but that is just me. I grabbed our Riedel glasses from the carrying case, as well as a 2006 Tobin James Cabernet Sauvignon James Gang Reserve that we had brought along. Our server came over and introduced himself, and proceeded to open our wine for us.

In looking around the restaurant, it is hard to get a read on what they are really trying to accomplish here, as there seemed to be so many different elements. You have the takeout kitchen or staging area connected to where the host stand is. This has a counter where they have pizza’s by the slice, as well as some other items. In the back restaurant along the wall, they also have some buffet like stations pushed against the wall. Maybe these are for catering events in one of their other dining rooms, or for Sunday brunch. Regardless, it is a bit of an eyesore, and gives the restaurant a different, unfavorable identity. I would suggest moving them out of site, and storing them somewhere when they are not in use.

Moments later our server brought over a brushette appetizer for us to try, which was a nice touch seeing as we didn’t order it or request it. The bread was nicely toasted and crisp, with a bit of oil, onion, and tomato on top. The tomatoes were gorgeous seeing as they are not in season right now. As a whole however, this appetizer needed some simple salt and paper, as it was bland. Once salt and pepper was added, the flavors and acidity came out of the tomato and onion, and it was pleasurable. It would have been more pleasurable though if it was topped by some fresh basil. The elements are definitely there to make this a fine app, but it just needs some revamping.

As we looked over the menu, we were drawn to their house specialties. Both Zelda and I both opted for something off of this menu, to get a real feel for what they do right here. Zelda opted for the PAELLA MARIHERA - Seafood Casserole Prepared in Saffron Rice with Lobster , Shrimp , Scallops , Mussels and Clams. I figured I would give one of their steaks a try, and opted for the O F'lL DE JACQLYN - Pan Seared Rib Eye Steak in Madeira Wine Sauce. I was given the option of vegetables or pasta for my side, and opted for a penne with vodka sauce, to get an idea of what their pasta dishes were like.

Both of our entrees came with salads, and we both decided to try their Caesar. The salads came out with the dressing on the side, and were a bit uninspiring. The lettuce looked dry and wilted, and the lettuce was topped with some bacon, and a powdery parmesan cheese. I first tried the dressing, and it seemed as though it was out of a bottle. I don’t see why so many restaurants in the area use pre bought dressing. Is it really that hard or time consuming to make your own dressing fresh? If you’re going to put in a little effort, turn that little into a lot. I also thought that the bacon on the salad was a bit of an odd combo, as I have never been offered this on a Caesar. I wish we would have had the option of asking for bacon, or no bacon, as Zelda is not a pork eater. We ate some of our salads, and left the rest to save room for dinner, as the salad was plain and boring.

In the meantime, we saw another table or two come in as we looked around the restaurant, and we got more and more of a diner feel to the place, which is not what we had expected. One thing that shocked us a little bit was when we overheard the staff talking, saying, “Do you know where the lobster is?” This worried us a bit, knowing that it was for Zelda’s paella, and at this point, it was almost as though we were on an episode of Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.

Dinner came out 10 minutes or so later. Zelda’s paella was served in a giant dish, with yellow rice. There were large chunks of lobster, scallops, mussels, shrimp, and clams. This was a very large dish, but it could have definitely used some work. I had one of the scallops, and it was cooked nicely, but had some grit to it. The mussels were very pasty, and most definitely over cooked, and could have been fresher. The way it came off of the shell was actually a bit disturbing, and the texture was horrific to say the least. The lobster too was dry, and had a hard time coming off of the shell, obviously not fresh, and very much overcooked. The rice had the same gritty texture as the scallop, and was overall very bland. At $24.99, the portion size was nice, but the quality of the seafood, and the cooking was disappointing to say the least. Being one of their “house specialties,” I expected much more.

On to my rib eye, the first thing I noticed was how thin this steak was cut. The first half was cooked nicely to the temperature of medium, and again, I found this to be very bland. Had it been a high quality cut of meat, the flavors probably would have been very nice, but this was a mediocre steak at best. The Madeira wine sauce was thin and uninspiring, and needed some salt and pepper, or something to give it some flavor. The last couple bites of my steak were very fatty, and cooked rare at best. The cow was still moo’ing on my plate, and it was disappointing. The side of pasta was a nice portion, with peas, and typical for this part of New Jersey. I have definitely had better, and also had worse.

We decided to skip dessert tonight, and finished our glasses of wine. After seeing how much takeout they do, and how many pizza’s they sell, we decided to get a pie to go, just to see if maybe we were missing out on something. We ordered a medium pie with ½ sausage to take home, and it was decent, but there are definitely better pies in NJ. The sausage was in the casing in link format, and sliced thin about the size of a quarter. This seems to be pretty common in these parts, and I really wish that more places would just do it right, and order their sausage from City Beef in Trenton. The flavors on the pie were nice, the sauce was decent, and the seasoning was decent. We had the rest for a snack on Sunday evening after out late lunch at Lorena’s.

All in all, we will not go out of our way to visit Stella’s again, but maybe we missed the mark on this establishment. From her e-mails, Ms. Pinho seems like a nice woman, and maybe she was just looking for help. I could think of a lot of things to improve this restaurant, and would start with little things in the dining room, before a full kitchen revamp. For a New York City chef, there was nothing inspiring in the least about the dishes served. I would figure out what you are truly good at, and go from there. Narrow down the menu as you do not need so many items, and figure out the clientele that you truly want to cater to. This area is really a culinary wasteland, as there are not a plethora of good restaurants in this area, so there is room for fame and greatness here. If you are reading Ms. Pinho, please don’t take this constructive criticism the wrong way, we’re here to help, and would love to see you make some changes.  If nothing else however, kudos to your staff as the service was excellent!

Stella's Family Restaurant
1414 North Route 130
Burlington, NJ 08016
Phone: (609)747-7747
Fax: (609)747-7752

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