Philadelphia Gay News: Stella Blu dazzles in Conshy

Posted on Saturday, May 9, 2009

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StellaBlu_friedartichokehea_IPKV

By Suzi Nash
According to Wikipedia, so you know it must be true, the name Conshohocken comes from “gueno-sheiki-hacking,” meaning “pleasant valley” in the native tongue of the Lenape American Indians. Since I’m 1/16 Lenape twice removed on my grandmother’s side, I’ll vouch for it.

I’ll also vouch for Conshohocken becoming a pleasant place, at least in culinary terms. I recently wrote about a wonderful find on Fayette Street in Conshy and now I have found a second reason to get off the highway at exit 332.

The newly renovated Stella Blu is a lovely place, sophisticated but with a neighborhood feel.

Originally opened in 2001 by business partners Marianne Gere and Kim Strengari, who quickly made chef Ralph Pallarino the third partner, it underwent a total renovation in December. I don’t know what the old place looked like, but the new Blu is crisp and clean, yet still manages to exude a coziness about it. Perhaps that comes from the warmth of the staff. They were so close-knit I thought it must have been a family business, but Strengari just laughed and said, “I know. It feels that way, but none of us are related. We just all get along really well. Our people have a tendency to stay here forever. I love it here: I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

All three owners are very hands on at Stella Blu. Strengari takes care of the front of the house and seemed to know many customers by name. Gere seemed to be a middleman, so to speak, handling hosting duties with equal gregariousness, and taking care of kitchen and office matters as well.

Pallarino, who grew up enjoying the sights and smells of his mother’s Italian cooking at home in Chicago, is responsible for the menu: He’s been featured on the Food Network’s “Date Plate” and “Fretz Kitchen,” NBC’s hit show “The Restaurant” and on Fine Living Network’s “Dinner Date.” In addition to the new décor, Stella Blu has rolled out a new menu described by Gere as “contemporary, with an Italian flair.”

We sat down at a high glass table surrounded by tall silver chairs. I was dining with my mother and was concerned that the set up, though attractive, might not be terribly comfortable for her short little legs (sorry, Mom), but it turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. In fact, she raved about the fact that at most places, she longs for the comfort of a phone book to prop her up so that her nose will be above the wine glasses on the table. Here, the tall chairs worked to lift her almost to adult height. With my father’s long legs, I also enjoyed the extra height. And the chairs swiveled … whee!

We started out with the escarole with white bean soup ($5), a recipe adapted from one created by the chef’s beloved grandmother, who, along with his mother, were his early teachers. It is said that while the other kids were out playing, Pallarino was busy inside making homemade pastas, oversized ravioli and fried eel. His nonna knew what she was doing because the soup was excellent.

Our server also brought us some fresh sesame rolls in case we wanted to do something as uncouth as dunking our bread in the soup. I actually held back on that, but only because the bread, served with paprika-dusted butter, was good on its own.

Next up was an order from the small-plate menu. I love small plates, as they give you a chance to try a variety of tastes without having to buy a whole new wardrobe. In a recent interview, Pallarino stated, “When I look at a menu, the appetizers are usually more interesting than the entrées. I take what could be large plates and scale them down. That gives our guests the ability to have not one but two or three great dishes. Who wouldn’t enjoy a 3-ounce piece of halibut as a small plate, or two or three great scallops?” I couldn’t agree more.

From Pallarino’s menu, I chose the fried artichoke hearts with balsamic mayonnaise ($8), beautifully crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Yum. I love artichokes, but there’s a reason why the word “choke” is in the name. You usually come across a part that’s a little chewy that doesn’t go down quite right. Not so with these (and trust me, I tried several just to be sure): They were delicious and edible through and through.

My mom ordered the salad du jour ($14), a thick slice of seared ahi tuna served on a bed of Romaine and arugula, with sliced strawberries, crumbled blue cheese and chopped pistachios with a balsamic vinaigrette. I have to give it to Pallarino: I would not have expected tuna and strawberries to go together. But they did impeccably, primarily based on the strength of the tuna. Though it was a bright-pink, thick cut of tuna, it managed to be seared to perfection. The people at the table next to us were commenting on it as well.

I had the roasted beet salad ($9), cubed red beets over a thin layer of prosciutto with crumbled goat cheese, chile-dusted pumpkin seeds and extra-virgin olive oil. Handsomely presented, the crunch of the roasted pumpkin seeds was a nice contrast to the silkiness of the beets.

We took a breather and enjoyed a glass of Livermore Valley Wente “Riverbank” Reisling ($8), a floral wine with honeysuckle accents, which gave it a lovely semi sweet taste. For a relatively small restaurant, Stella Blu had a nice selection of wines both by the glass and the bottle.

As I took in the aroma of the wine, I stopped to look at the surroundings. We were sitting under a wonderful ornate glass chandelier with blue teardrop fixtures. The walls are covered in a contemporary style with cream paper dotted with silver swirls and flowers. There are a variety of modern light fixtures (all of which would look good in my house if the owners decide they want to remodel again). In fact, our wine was served in a chic little lopsided glass with a cracked motif that I liked so much, our server told me where to get them.

For our main meal, we decided to sampled Pallarino’s “Best of Philly” lobster mac and cheese ($20), a heart-stopping blend of asiago, Parmesan and goat cheese baked with cold-water Maine lobster. Though we had the lunch portion, there was enough for two plus leftovers for two days! Granted, I had stuffed myself on the artichoke hearts, but this was such a rich dish, I could only manage a tablespoon or two … and still leave room for dessert.

For dessert, we had the banana chocolate-chip cake. The cake was amazingly moist and light with the flavors well balanced. It was a refreshing way to end the meal.

Our server, a lovely, attentive woman who doubles as a bartender and spent a good amount of time chatting with us, was one of the family of employees at Stella Blu. She darted around the table greeting people and filling them in on everything new at Stella. The fellows at the table to our left seemed to be regulars. A couple of older gentlemen, they were joking with her as if she were a favored granddaughter. To my surprise, as they left she called out, “Nice to meet you!” It was a testament to the family atmosphere at Stella Blu that I thought they were longtime friends and customers. From the smiles they wore as they left, I suspect they soon will be.

Stella Blu’s Star Bar is in full swing late nights, with live acoustic music Thursday, Friday and Saturday starting at 9 p.m. Get started earlier on weekdays with a happy-hour Martini Madness from 5-7 p.m., where you can choose from five martinis for $5 apiece and enjoy half-price small plates.

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