Austin’s diversity can make diners somewhat difficult to please. There are college students, both penny-pinching and big-spending. The same goes for state government employees and elected officials. Some technocrats have venture capital money to spend, others are pounding pavement in search of it. There are visitors from around the globe and just down the road. There are smartphone-staring millennials, chilled out hippies, and yoga-attired transplants from California. They have divergent expectations and budget. Some will want small plates, others will want meat and two veg, some will want just veg, some will want just protein, some will want gluten-free. They’ll have dietary restrictions, and their tastes will have been colored by the already strong assortment of other hot dining spots throughout the city. To throw out a curve ball, the real estate is smack dab in the middle of a hotel, which will have its own food and beverage objectives to meet. Local diners might be adventurous, while late-arriving business travelers might not have the time or energy to navigate a lengthy listing of shared plates and craft cocktails.
Despite having taken up residence in the brand new Westin Austin Downtown, and having to cater to all these types, Stella San Jac seems to have found the magic number, and in the grand tradition of southern cooking. In the South, the general maxim is that food makes you feel good. That’s why it’s called comfort food. Take for example, biscuits. Stella San Jac serves them hot in a small cast iron skillet with a side of whipped honey butter. They’re called #16 Biscuits, because the incarnation that is found on the menu was the 16th attempt at perfection. And perfection they are: cozily warm, lightly sprinkled with sea salt, with a satisfying crumbly exterior that gives way to a pillowy moist steamy center. They get the neurons firing, and there’s a wine-like buzz and immense feeling of satiety at the end.
Stella San Jac’s Executive Chef Michael Cerrie explains his approach to food: “Food should be simple, approachable, executed well, and most importantly tasty. We as culinarians should be sourcing the best ingredients, treating them with the utmost care, and perfectly executing their preparations. If these things are happening, there is no need to transform an item into something else. Nature already did that for us.” To be sure, there are no complicated preparations to be found on the menu. A bacon-and-egg small plate (in fact, a sunny side up quail egg and a crispy square of pork belly) is simple, straightforward, and sumptuously satisfying with cheddar corn grits and a tangy barbecue sauce. Perfectly executed diver scallops come out with a simple three ingredient green salad with orange segments and shaved fennel. A lump crab cake is lusciously almost all crab meat, with just enough “cake” to hold a shape. It’s not fancy, but it’s satisfying.
There also appears to be plenty of frolicking experimentation going on in the kitchen, and a lot of conversation about food in addition to the printed menu. A cheerful server explains the story behind the biscuits, and proudly shares that the fried avocado salad was born out what had previously been a simple fried avocado appetizer. The key ingredient in that salad, it turned out, were candied jalapenos, which could easily be habit-forming. There’s also plenty of enthusiasm surrounding the beverage program, with “porthole infusers” (you can see through the round vessels, like a porthole) made in a limited batch each day from spirits and a variety of aromatics and spices. When examiner.com visited there were two – one with the flavors of lime and agave and a hint of jalapeno, among other things, and another of orange and chocolate and anise.
In design, a hotel restaurant this certainly is not. Elements of the open lobby and bar connecting the restaurant with the hotel take inspiration from certain types of guitars (the “Stella” in the restaurant’s name references a guitar brand; “San Jac” is a shortening of San Jacinto Street, which it fronts) and a southwestern exposure takes full advantage of “golden hour” in the evenings as sunlight floods the natural wood, rope, and leather bound interiors, giving the entire place a rich warmth, with a bass beat of the seven-nights-a-week live music that drifts in from the lobby lounge.
Stella San Jac ultimately shares a very Texan, very Austin sense of hospitality: everyone is welcome, everyone will be comfortable (even if they pepper their servers with questions about the food, which they actually seem to relish) and there is something available to suit virtually every taste – from simple to sophisticated. And do get the biscuits.
Open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch, and dinner at 310 East 5th St. in Austin. Reservations available via Open Table. Small plates $5 – $19. Salads $9 – $11. Large Plates $17 – $19.
Some meals and beverages were furnished by Stella San Jac in preparation for this story.