Occupying the site of the late Lord Chumley's, the brand new Stillwater Restaurant has plenty of architecture going for it. This handsome row of townhouses between Allen and Virginia streets includes some of the most attractive buildings in the city.
Inside, there's a series of four dining rooms, each approached by a varying number of steps, a handsome rebuilt bar and a center flagstone courtyard with stars twinkling above it. We ate in the downstairs dining room, the one that boasts the beautiful two-story window overlooking Delaware Avenue as well as a handsome marble-topped fireplace. Despite all the dramatic details in the room, the colors are subdued.
The restaurant has been open less than a month, and there's still plenty of tweaking going on. Executive chef is Scott Donhauser, late of Daffodil's, and he has really let his imagination loose.
Some samples: For our first course -- the menu is confusingly divided into "first and sharing plates," "small plates" and "large plates" -- we tried the Grilled Scallop Trio in which the sea scallops were served prettily with mango gazpacho in a white truffle Madeira reduction and tiramisu style (custardy, $12). They were all so tasty, it was hard to say which was best.
And then there was an evening special: mustard seed-crusted lamb loin over wilted spinach with a balsamic dressing. This one was a real winner, with tender meat and a just-potent-enough mustard tang. Big serving here. I suppose that this one would be considered a "sharing plate" rather than simply a "first plate." Call it an educated guess.
Moving right into the "large plate" section, there was more imagination. Shrimp and Scallop Free Form Lasagna ($29) featured the seafood, sandwiched between two strips of pasta and topped with what was in reality a bitter tomato sauce. That sauce was probably added to cut through the seafood richness, but it was overkill, distracting rather than complementing the remaining ingredients. Back to the drawing board here.
But the so-called "Macaroni and Cheese" was pretty wonderful. You may ask: Why the quotation marks? Simply because this mac and cheese was combined with garlic sausage, chorizo, crabmeat, sweet peas, manchego cheese and truffle oil -- all this for $19! What else can I tell you about it?
It was a really adult Kraft Dinner.
Dessert that evening was a "Saturdae" -- a richly endowed hot fudge creation that no normal person could possibly eschew -- and Creme Brulee. But . . .
Before you groan, "not again," as I did, please note that the Stillwater brulee was garnished with walnuts and Scotch-soaked oranges. At least that raised the dessert above the level of same old, same old.
And I say, "hurrah!"
At a birthday lunch with a friend two days later, we ate well also. Tempura Crab Cakes (the cakes lightly dipped in batter and then deep fried, $11) were served with mustard soy dressing and wasabi-dressed slaw. Nice, very nice.
And, best of all, Creamy Risotto with chorizo, peas and manchego was just about perfect. The creaminess of the rice and the richness of the cheese offset the just-spicy-enough sausage. The heat arrives late as you work through the dish. (The peas weren't totally necessary, but they did add color, I'll admit.)
I've made a list of other dishes to check out, too -- they pop out in all sections of the menu. You'll have to go on a sort of treasure hunt to find them. They include: Portobello on Weck with roasted red peppers, caramelized onions, provolone cheese and rosemary aioli; and Roast Breast of Duck with Plum Wine Bread Pudding and Chocolate Raspberry Cayenne Sauce -- OK, that one might be reaching a little, but I'm willing to give it a hearing.
But there is also Goat Cheese-Filled Grape Leaves and Roast Chicken in a Parmesan Garlic Rub and a Vegetarian Bento Box with Asian pasta salad, vegetable spring rolls, wasabi scallion risotto and stir-fried vegetables.
You can really have fun here.
THE STILLWATER RESTAURANT
3 1/2 stars (Out of 4),8
WHERE: 481 Delaware Ave. (884-9283). Newly opened in a handsome row house, the Stillwater offers a menu of imaginative contemporary cuisine. Credit Cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa.
FAVORITE DISH: Chorizo Risotto
NEEDS WORK: Free Form Lasagna
PRICE RANGE: Dinner entrees from $17 include vegetables. (Most entrees $20 and up.)
SERVICE: Very good
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday. Supper menu until 2 a.m. Thursday through Saturday.
HEALTHY CHOICES: Seared ahi tuna, roast chicken in parmesan/garlic rub, vegetarian bento box.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Difficult. (Steps in the dining room, though there is an entrance ramp in the back of the building.)
PARKING: On the street or in the lot at the corner of Delaware Avenue and Virginia Street.
KID APPEAL: Negligible