Review: Stella

New Flame. With Stella, Neal Brown gets his groove back, quietly serving rustic Southern European food cooked by open fire. That’s hot.

When Neal Brown introduced Stella

, the dreamy Mediterranean bistro that replaced his Mass Ave Pizzology in June, the announcement seemed like the tiniest plot twist in a crazy story arc of local restaurant news. In the months before and since, Indy’s dinner plans were ravaged by a string of closings. The dozens of casualties included well-established Recess, Amalfi, Tulip Noir, and Marrow. Months-old LongBranch, Mile Square Bistro, and The Owner’s Wife were also among the fallen. But at the same time, the restaurant circle of life brought fresh hope. Martha Hoover opened Bar One Fourteen; farm-to-table mogul Kimbal Musk tapped Indianapolis as a future home of Next Door and The Kitchen; Cunningham Restaurant Group announced plans to roll out two more concepts, Provision and Rize; and Brown himself teased his next venture, Ukiyo, a Japanese-inspired restaurant, to take over the Recess spot.
So you see, Stella wasn’t the sexiest restaurant story of the year. It wasn’t even the sexiest Neal Brown restaurant story of the year. The chef-driven bistro wrapped around the corner of Massachusetts Avenue and East Street snuck in quietly, without the benefit (or bloodthirsty expectation) of buzz, and started serving a rotation of softly rustic dishes ranging from solid to delightful.
The menu amounts to little more than a double-sided sheet, half of it devoted to wines, a tempting list of elevated gin-and-tonics, and several herb-forward amari cocktails great for after-dinner sipping. On the other side, the food choices range from crudo—thinly sliced raw seafood flavored simply with lemon, olive oil, and sea salt—to topped-bread starters, charcuterie, and a selection of small and large plates, some served straight from their cast-iron cookery. A bowl of mussels in a mellow, briny broth glistens under a nest of thick-cut frites. Whole roasted loup de mer is prepared as a classic Greek psari plaki, cooked with tomatoes, onions, and garlic that melt into the fish’s firm, light meat. Rigatoni is tossed in a sauce of chicken liver, Cynar, and sage, while slips of pappardelle mingle with braised rabbit and crème fraîche. These dishes all have an undeniably exotic appeal—Stella serves three different meat terrines, for crying out loud—yet somehow their olive-oiled and sea-salted flavors feel comfortingly familiar.

A chef must get well-acquainted, maybe even build a relationship with an oven that cooks food at 800 to 1,000 degrees.

That takes a rare skill. Think what you want about Brown’s ego and aspiration as one of the city’s top restaurateurs. Spin as either hubris or ambition his Twitter battles with local foodies, his side hustle publishing a literary food magazine, Ex. Ex., and his general (very vocal) belligerence toward the Fletcher Place Neighborhood Association, Yelp, chain restaurants, and the James Beard Foundation. At Stella, he accomplishes something that almost justifies all of the above: He demystifies a distant, unfamiliar cuisine, serving dishes like crispy octopus and smoked red mullet with Calabrian chili aioli in a way that makes diners of the Midwest feel as if they have every right to eat these foods, without feeling like Bermuda-shorted tourists.
It doesn’t hurt that the space itself, with its high industrial ceilings, weathered terrazzo floor, and garden patio under a rare patch of downtown shade, gives off an easy, Euro vibe. Cheerfully efficient servers dressed in white shirts and crisp denim under their blue aprons have the kind of impeccably sleek ponytails usually seen in stock photos for “10 Things French Women Do” articles. Diners pass a raw bar just inside the entrance, which Brown moved to the East Street side of the building to change the flow.

A sprinkle of cumin and a base of hummus add layers of flavor to roasted carrots

The arched opening of a wood-fired oven still serves as a blazing centerpiece, both as a design element in a dining room with a fresh coat of lapis-blue paint—and as the menu’s star player. During the restaurant’s previous life as Pizzology, check averages were lower than expected, a problem Brown attributes to running a dining establishment of any kind in a neighborhood with so many other options. “People would come in, share a pizza, order a beer, and bounce,” says Brown. “We had become a cheap-eats dining option on Mass Ave.” Then, a deluge of new downtown pizzerias threatened market saturation. So Brown abandoned the genre altogether, keeping just the flagship Carmel Pizzology in the Neal Brown Hospitality family, for the time being.
Wanting to rebrand the place without giving up the luxury of that wood-fired oven, he came up with the concept of Stella and a menu that includes roasted meats but actually revolves around the vegetables: fire-cooked heirloom carrots, cauliflower with pine nuts, and spaghetti squash tossed like pasta with fried duck fat and almonds. Open-fire cooking requires some technique, and a chef must get well-acquainted, maybe even build a relationship with an oven that cooks food at 800 to 1,000 degrees. Sometimes you can taste the learning curve in a bowl of undercooked Brussels sprouts, or some rubbery mushrooms that could have spent a little more time in the embers, or a pallid bavette steak languishing beside an oily pile of fingerling potatoes. But mostly, the dishes are spot-on, like a decadent lamb osso bucco made from hunks of meat seared off in that oven for a smoky char and then cooked with onion, tomatoes, herbs, and salty ’nduja from Indy’s Turkette’s Salumeria—the juices puréed and used as a sauce on the finished plate.
Loaves of French natural fermentation–style Levain bread hit the oven every morning around 4 a.m., made from the restaurant’s own starter dough. The slices provide a good, chewy foundation for flavored butters in combinations such as black pepper and walnut, charred onion and manchego, and even cantaloupe, cinnamon, and mint. You could spend a sunny afternoon snacking on that with some wood-charred broccoli tossed with farro and black-garlic rouille, sipping a Cynar Julep. “Honestly, I’ve always loved eating this kind of food—roasted vegetables and bistro-style dining,” says Brown, who would probably rather be talking about Ukiyo or something else big and adventurous down the road than explaining the finer points of this quiet, comfortable spot that serves food like it has nothing to prove to anybody. But as far as aspirations go, isn’t that about as good as it gets?
Stella611 East St., 317-685-2550, Tues.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 4–10 p.m.; Fri.–Sat. 11 a.m.–2 p.m., 4–11 p.m.

Midwestern bistro

Southern European fare cooked in a wood-fired oven and cocktails that incorporate French, Italian, and Spanish spirits.

Mass Ave

A starter of hamachi crudo, followed by lamb osso bucco and heirloom carrots on the side.

Starters $4–$8, roasted veggies $7–$8, large plates $18–$25