Sunday, May 24, 2009
Stella's Tap and Tapas Bar
As someone who has woken up on an unknown couch with two Grandpa burger wrappers on his chest, I believe I can safely say that when people drink beer, lots of beer, the need for something salty and delicious is insatiable. Ergo the multitude of kebab shops in the UK that do essentially all of their business after midnight. (If you ever find yourself somewhere in England and on the wrong end of seven pints of Snakebite and Black, crawl to the nearest kebab shop and order a plate of chips, topped with kebab meat and slathering of garlic mayonnaise. You may die within hours of a blocked aorta, but you will be happy). I digress greatly. All I am trying to say with this lengthy introduction is that when I went to Stella’s on Commercial Drive, I drank an awful lot of beer – good Belgium beer mind you – but the effect of this beer almost certainly has swayed my opinion. Which I think it should. Because if you’re not going to a Belgium tap house to drink an awful lot of Belgium beer, you’re technically not entitled to an opinion. So there.
Stella’s has a real charm about it, as does many a place on The Drive, that you don’t often see elsewhere in the city. I think it has to do with the amount of genuine characters that you find. We started off at the bar and had a couple of pints of Leffe and Kronenburg. Yes, I know Kronenburg isn’t Belgian, but it was the only beer that was a real pint. Leffe on draft is particularly delicious, but the wine glass sized pours is a bit of a disappointment. But at $5.50 a glass you definitely don’t feel like you’re being gouged. The atmosphere was fun and lively, with a real broad spectrum of patronage. Aside from the half cut crazy who asked the bartender if she knew where his friend was and who proceeded to threaten her life and call her a whore when she said that she thought his friend was outside, everyone seemed to be having a good time.
When we ended up getting our table I was onto Blanche de Chambly and had almost reached the state of uncontrollable primalistic hunger. We ordered accordingly: a few buckets of frites, both the Normande and Orleans mussels, Lemon and Pepper Scallops, and a Belgian Endive salad. One nice feature of Stella’s is that they offer their mussels by both the pound and half pound, and at $8 a half pound, it’s a very good deal. We obviously ordered full pounds because we’re greedy, but it’s nice to have options.
The service was really excellent and waitress was mature and knowledgeable, or at least seemed so to me somewhere between a bottle of Gulden Draak and a pint of Guinness. Yeah I ordered a Guinness, I think that about sums up the state of mind I was in. I blame the Gulden Draak and its 10.5% alcohol volume, my wife blames me and the number of beers rather than their chemical constituency. Poor thing doesn’t understand a thing about science. It’s usually around this point in the evening that I start incoherently mumbling Withnail and I quotations and making unreasonable demands. I find myself extremely funny. For some reason my wife doesn’t. I thought my Withnail repartee, “I assure you I’m not officer. I’ve only had a few ales” to her saying that I was drunk had a dash of brilliance, but genius is rarely appreciated in its time. It’s worthy to note that aside from the draft beer list, Stella’s has a very comprehensive bottled beer selection that extends over a multiple paged menu.
Fortunately the food arrived quite quickly as I was close to eating at least one person at the table. Stella’s has 8 different variety of moules frites, and as we only had two, I have a great excuse to return and try the other six. As far as mussels go, it’s relatively straightforward. If you have good quality fresh mussels, some white wine, lots of garlic and excesses of butter, then you’re probably set. I have to say though, Stella really takes the experience to a new level. First of all we barely got a closed mussel. I can’t bear it when you order a plate of mussels and half of them are not to be eaten. Secondly, the sauces were innovative and bloody delicious. The Orleans came in a thicker spicy Cajun cream sauce with Andouille sausage, smoked corn and peppers. I tried to veto it during the ordering process partially to be difficult, partially because I find Cajun spiced things to usually be overly salty and not in the least bit spicy. I’m glad no one listened to me as the Orleans were delicious. They had a good spice and the sauce really complimented the mussels in a quite unexpected way. The moules Normande – my choice – were even better. Prepared with Granny Smith apples, mushrooms, bacon, shallots and a Calvados cream the mussels tasted simply phenomenal. Although I’m a big fan of the mussels at both Bin 941 and Chambar, I think Stella’s has just usurped the top spot. It’s the Calvados. Calvados which is a brandy made from apple wine adds something just a little bit more to a dish that would probably still be very delicious with a splash of cheap old Napolean.
The scallops were tasty and were cooked so that they still were firm and yet juicy. They came on a bird’s nest of spaghetti squash with fragments of crispy bacon. The endive salad was quite good, but nothing terribly exciting: bits of blue cheese, roasted peppers, walnuts and cranberry vinaigrette. Tasty as the latter two dishes were, I think you could quite easily find something comparable elsewhere.
If you’ve got a hankering for moules frites or Belgian beer, I think Stella’s has to be the premium Vancouver destination. Priced affordably and with good atmosphere it has an edge on the other more pricey Belgian fare in the city.