For the office worker, lunch can be the least exhilarating meal of the day. You get up from your desk at noon to nuke Sunday's leftovers for the fourth day in a row, or—better/worse yet—you go out for a tasty but gargantuan meal that torpedoes your energy toward snooze levels until it's time to start plotting the homeward commute.
Cafe Stellina 1429 12th Ave., 206-322-2688. CAPITOL HILL. Open for breakfast and lunch Mon.–Fri, brunch and lunch Sat.
Cafe Stellina, at 12th Avenue and Pike Street, aims for a different effect. On my first visit, I noticed that after I downed a salad and a root-vegetable gratin, I was just as chipper as I had been after my second cup of coffee that morning. I thought I'd just ordered well— until I went back and ate another full meal containing half of my USDA-recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables, emerging from the restaurant post-repast, God forbid, ready to go back to work.
Of Stellina's 14 menu items, only four contain meat. Even a nonvegetarian choice such as the "pan-seared Louisiana shrimp on a succotash ragout" ($13) reveals itself to be a big fat heap of yellow corn kernels, sweet green lima beans, and red-pepper confetti, sautéed together and then encircled with a half-dozen shrimp. All healthful, straightforward fare.
Owners Teri Esensten and Mike Cicon opened the original Stellina on Union Street four years ago. In its first iteration, Stellina sold coffee and offered a modest breakfast and lunch menu, but Esensten and Cicon couldn't fulfill their ambitions in such a small space. So they found a former auto dealership on 12th that was being renovated, and signed on to become its first tenant. Since the end of August, they've been open for breakfast, lunch, and catering-only events in the evening, and Esensten and Cicon are batting around the idea of serving three meals a day.
But currently, in the lunch hour, they're shooting for food that's cleverly composed as well as good for you. The cooks drizzled balsamic vinegar on a plate tiled with roasted red and gold beet rounds ($4) for flash, then razzled it up further with crumbled feta and slivered mint leaves. A baked gratin ($7) layering sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, and leeks, with a few sun-dried tomatoes tucked in for kicks, tasted clean and autumnal, not cream-laden and gooey. And a thick, sweet pumpernickel-esque roll (whole grains, you know) slathered in sesame aioli more than compensated for the innate blandness of its roasted-eggplant contents ($9).
The food wasn't necessarily masterful: Cold asparagus ($4) tossed in a little sesame oil and sprinkled with black sesame was cooked until crisp but not fibrous, but it's really not asparagus season in North America—and you could taste it. One friend took a bite of the caramelized onion and goat cheese tart ($10), baked into a feathery puff-pastry shell, and pronounced it a "savory dessert," mercifully small as it was rich. And I felt like the shrimp and the chicken sausage (which came with a warm salad of green lentils and aromatics, $14) had sat a few days in the fridge before being cooked—nothing dangerous, mind you, but not first-day fresh.
But this was lunch, not three-course fine dining. And at the noon hour I tasted afresh a 1980s bistro favorite, tilapia fillets baked in parchment ($12) with vegetables and a white whine butter sauce. Delicate and seasoned just right, the steamed fish was the perfect midday meal.
Stellina's architects stripped out the garage's most mechanical elements and built back out from the raw shell, highlighting the wood-slat ceilings, uncovered ductwork, and poured-concrete surfaces. The restaurant's front wall is a windowed garage door that can be rolled up when summer returns. Diners sit at blond-plywood booths or linen-sheathed cafe tables while, in the back, Esensten and Cicon compose plates in an open kitchen that resembles a ninth-grade biology lab.
Though the industrial effect feels far from sterile, right now it's doubled by hammering and whirring going on in the future Osteria La Spiga space next door. But the construction hasn't stopped the First Hill medical professional crowd from showing up. There are certainly $13 items and wines by the bottle for executive luncheons, but for average Joes, sandwiches run $9 and some of the lighter dishes even less. Oh office worker, isn't it good to know that sensible cooks are out there, thinking of you and your afternoon productivity?