The Birthday Gal and Me and Stella Makes Three

Stella, Indianapolis

The lovely lady and the surroundings (including wood-fired oven!) that made our night.

This week my wife Anne turned 47 and still looks half my age even though she’s a year-and-a-half older than me. The physical aging disparity has been a source of amusement for years. The best example happened about 18 years ago on an evening we took my son to Red Lobster. The hostess grabbed a kids’ menu for my son, then turned to me and asked if my daughter would also like a kids’ menu. I can’t prove it but I’m pretty sure Anne had us tip her far beyond 15%.

Officially her birthday road trip was last weekend, for which we have more photos to share in the near future. We took tonight for an additional birthday dinner to round out the occasion with flair, and without settling for Red Lobster.

Indianapolis has a wide and lively restaurant scene that makes it exceedingly difficult to choose which of its hundreds of upscale eateries to try out whenever it’s time for a momentous celebration. Anne spent this entire week sorting through options, consulting both online and local print recommendations. With hours to go she finally selected Stella, which just opened last March on downtown’s trendy Massachusetts Avenue, one of the most competitive nightlife stretches in the city. Their specialty is Southern European cuisine incorporating the wood-fired oven left in place from the same owners’ previous establishment.

Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

I feel like a dated Simpsons reference should be inserted here, but it doesn’t really work.

The menu offers small and large plates in a variety of categories that are beyond us because we don’t do upscale eateries often enough to have mastered the full gamut. In fact, I should probably just minimize my chatty preamble and show off the extravagant wonders they brought to the table. Suffice it to say we were both bowled over and wish we could feast like kings regularly, because our reality will resume on Monday when I have no choice but to go back to my everyday turkey sandwiches and Anne whips up another round of her thrifty Tupperware salads. I’m sighing heavily on the inside already.

Amusing part up front: we wound up with three times as much bread as we’d intended. We ordered one item from the “Bread Culture” section and one from the “Cured Things and Terrines” section, little realizing both came with bread and the meal started with complimentary bread in the first place. It was good bread, but overwhelmingly bread. Blame our inexperience and our failure to ask the right questions, such as, “Can you confirm your menu’s bread levels?”

One of those items was duck liver terrine, which is like paté, which movies and TV taught us is so high-falutin’ that we assumed we would never see any in our lifetime. Terrine isn’t exactly the same thing — I guess the chopping process differs? — but it’s close enough that I felt a light rumble of Impostor Syndrome while nibbling on it. It was topped with a layer of duck fat, which I understand contains less saturated fats than your average animal fats and tastes better than most of them. Also, the word “liver” scares away most folks under 30, thus ensuring you won’t have to share it with too many people.

Duck Liver Terrine, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

Not bad, but five times better when swiped in a bit of the mustard.

Behold their notion of a “small” plate: roasted cauliflower with breadcrumbs, pine nuts, and pickled chilis. Cauliflower was a frequent supper feature during my 2004-2005 diet, leaving me with a better appreciation for inspired takes on this texturally satisfying but innately bland vegetable.

Roasted cauliflower, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

Last I checked, I think pine nuts cost nearly as much as gold dust. Their presence might be a sign that you’re living large. Too, TOO large.

Our wondrously amazing server Kelsey (or possibly a more avant-garde spelling thereof for all I know) recommended our other “small” dish, mushrooms “cooked in embers” (rocking that wood-fired oven) with tarragon butter and lemon. Anne is a big fan of mushrooms as side dishes and finds herself lured to them more often than not.

wood-fired mushrooms, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

We agreed the smaller, crunchier ones were the best, but there wasn’t a truly bad ‘shroom in the bunch.

My “large” dish wasn’t quite what I expected. The name “pappardelle” caught my eye on the menu, but I didn’t realize that’s a specific kind of pasta. Stella’s rendition is combined with white wine braised rabbit, mustard, and creme fraiche (read: “deluxe sour cream”). A fine, complex dish in general, but the further I got into it and the fuller I got, Lord help me, the appearance began to remind me of Tuna Helper because my inside voice is frequently a philistine. I had to tell it to go stand in a corner and shut up for a while.

Rabbit Pappardelle, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

Kelsey offered to add fresh-ground black pepper, which I really like, but I may have waited a few seconds too long to say “when”.

Anne is on record as being one of those diners who asks for well-done meat, which is her right as an American regardless of anyone else’s judgment. I love her very much regardless of whether or not this preference bars us from membership in all the finer snooty-gourmet clubs. But for this very special day she threw caution to the wind and ordered the Bavette steak even though she was warned the chef cooked it medium. I saw a minute flicker of hesitation in her eyes, followed by that soft yet steely resolve of “Why not! Let’s go wild!” that you’d hear from Bob Ross whenever he went super-subversive by adding a surprise baby pine tree to a barn painting.

Bavette steak, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

Partnered with snackable fingerling potatoes, which Anne approved because what’s a birthday bash without bonus carbs.

Despite this indulgent grandeur, the true winner of our night arrived early into the meal. The greatest bite of all was the butternut squash tartine (read: “more bread! MORE!”) topped with heirloom carrots and goat cheese. On this mild October evening we agreed this was the most autumnal dish we’d ever had in our lives. This was the kind of snack you eat at 10 p.m. in front of a roaring fire with a cup of hot chocolate on the side while wearing flannel pajamas and a stocking cap and while scoffing at people who think pumpkin spice is Best Fall Food Ever. You’re all wrong and we’re now certified intelligentsia for heaving learned better.

butternut squash tartine, Stella, Mass Ave, Indianapolis

12/10 would eat as a main dish if served in one-pound portions.

…and that’s the story of how we finished embracing Anne’s 47th birthday without moaning about how we’re old and falling apart. If we can keep advancing a little further into our lives each year at each other’s side and without a creepy midlife crisis lurking around the corner for either of us so far (thank the Lord), then ultimately it’ll be our pleasure and blessing to share and savor every meal together, whether it’s a rare outing with goat cheese or a picnic starring Oscar Mayer.

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