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A week ago, when it’s time to pack up and drive 3 and a half hour with a 5-year-old in the back who just had a 101F fever the day before, and me, a non-skier who also had a very long week, the whole idea of going to Tahoe seems … absurd. But it’s family vacation, it’s planned, and the thought of eating at Truckee’s Stella again does perk me up.

I always admire a kitchen that’s willing to do things from scratch, especially charcuteries. That takes understanding and appreciation of eating whole animals. At Stella, one finds terrine, pate and trotters. They also bake their own breads. These are far from those cottony, fast-risen, tasteless whitie (“but hot!”) you are likely to find elsewhere. Stella’s are robust, crusty country loaves.

The wine list is short but thoughtful. No obvious fruit bomb to numb the palate. William picks both Gruet and Schramsberg while we take time to deliberate on what to eat.

I have trouble picking what to start because everything looks interesting. Finally, I settle on what the waiter describes as “like a banh mi‘.

The pickled daikon, the texture interest of carrots and mustard seeds, the fragrance of micro cilantro accent perfectly that rich, tender, porky slab of the house-made head cheese. Yes, tender. The head cheese is slightly warm so the glorious jelly renders little resistance.

Sure, the sweet, sour and spicy combo is reminiscent of banh mi, but I will take the deep wheatiness of a single disc of artisanal bread any day, over factory-born, bleached ‘baguette’ that although is half-soggy inside, the sheer quantity of it still gives my jaw an arduous workout. Let’s not even think about how the pig lead its life before it ends up in a corner deli/convenience store that some also go in for cigarettes and packs of gums.

That is why, 200 miles away, I am staring at my ‘deer at the headlight’ shot of that dish and cannot help but lamenting at my inability to justly capture those glistening mounds, and their backdrop of XO sauce.

Everything we have is excellent. The salmon rillete is every bit as satisfying as its porky name-sake, but with an expected finesse that’s perfect with either the Gruet or the Schramsberg. The ‘salmon butter’ cap is brilliant.

The lamb is fork-tender and the aroma of the cumin seductive. Every piece of seafood in my cioppino is perfectly cooked. No rubbery clams, nor tasteless fish jerky.

I wave off repeated dessert offers from William because I am so chocolate-out from making 700+ truffles just a couple of days before. But he uncharacteristically insists: “It’s a celebration.” He picks the flourless chocolate cake which I thought “Great … only been done 1 million times since the 90’s.”

Cannot be happier to be wrong. The texture of the ‘cake’ I approve and the accompaniments win me over: luxurious basil-tarragon caramel, and blueberries spiced with grains of paradise.

I have no shame when it comes to food, and that usually makes William cringe. This time I decided to spare him the trouble of futile pleading, I simply got up and walked over to the kitchen and asked to see grains of paradise. Behind me, William was getting ready to crawl under the table.

“Sure.” unlike my husband, no sweat for Chef Jacob Burton. “Get the lady some grains of paradise.” I read about them but have never tasted them or held a small pile in my hand. He further explained to me that it’s actually seeds with taste and texture not unlike peppercorns, widely used in west Africa cooking.

Dinner AND hands-on education. I want to shout “Stella!”

If I must, find one thing I do not enjoy at Stella, it’s the lighting, or lack of it. Food like that deserves to be properly photographed without the garish effect of a flash.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Since I don’t have any worthy shot of Stella to relive a fine dining experience, wordy I have become.

There are maybe just 10 tables at Stella and so widely spaced it’s the antithesis of Paris. But for lamenting foodie-parents of under-aged children, this is a bonus: My 5-year-old is just fine with his iPad volume slightly turned on. Other tables more prepared mothers have headsets for the young ones.

On this particular night, even though there are 3 tables with kids, the mood in the high-beamed, romantically lit dining room is calm, sophisticated, and worthy of a marriage proposal if that’s what one has in mind.

In haste, I don’t think I managed to tell the kitchen how much I enjoy dining at Stella every time we come to Truckee. So here it is. Another love letter to food artisans anywhere who taking pride in their craft, no matter how remote of a town, or how small of a dining room.


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