Embracing Change 

Rowland steps in where a legend lingers on.

The specials board is gone, as is the large painting of Stella that hung near the bar, now replaced with newer, less flamboyant black-and-white prints and a deep, soothing brick-brown wall color. Wine bottles back the bar instead of liquor bottles, and the vibe is a little less boisterous but no less comfortable than its previous incarnation.

In fact, it almost seemed like old times, what with the former wait staff intact and Johnny and Katrina Giavos entertaining friends at a table several stops down from mine. Next to me sat a well-known gallery owner, beside her a friend from Pilates class and, holding down the bar, a prominent Richmond lawyer. Change to the decor, yes, but the crowd that frequented Stella's seems to have embraced the transformation wholeheartedly.

Low-country fusion reflects the South Carolinian roots of longtime restaurateurs and new owners Bruce and Virginia Rowland. The Giavoses never put Stella's on the market; they instead carefully selected who would succeed them in this well-known spot. The Rowlands retained Charlie Williams, chef in charge of specials for Stella, and with their own imaginative sensibility have concocted a fresh and exciting menu that is particularly strong in the appetizer section.

Seared scallops top a scrumptious corn pudding and are surprisingly enhanced by crispy leeks that look like a bundle of delicate hay. The outstanding egg-roll special wraps smoked oysters, mussels and clams with tender rice and rests in a pool of spicy ponzu sauce. The vegetable terrine, sort of a composed ratatouille, stacks smoky roasted tomatoes with thinly sliced zucchini and eggplant, concealing little bundles of contrasting crunchy green beans.

Although every drop of the pungent bouillabaisse was sopped up with the wonderful homemade bread and savored, the pecan-crusted pork chop was bland and vaguely disconcerting. Was I missing something? The sweet and nutty crust failed to enhance a chop already devoid of flavor, although the accompanying sharp white cheddar macaroni was a well-executed twist on an old standby.

The hotly anticipated lobster potpie was disappointing as well. Below its puff pastry crust, a fragrant concoction that really needed lots of larger chunks of lobster to justify its price failed to evoke memories of potpie night at home. Instead, it worked better as lobster stew — once I made the mental adjustment. Maybe a new description would be helpful.

An excellent special was a flounder Franchaise, a thick flounder fillet in an egg batter sautéed with lemon and wine, served in a pool of creamy saffron sauce and topped with salmon roe. My only complaint was the stinginess of the sauce; I plan to request extra the next time I find it on the menu.

Dessert has also been carefully reimagined. The spectacular bananas Foster, composed of grilled bananas, ice cream and chocolate sauce with whipped cream, came in a cinnamon-chocolate shell and seemed overwhelmingly enormous, but I somehow managed to eat every bite. And although the Amaretto crŠme br–lée was a little undercooked, its lightness and the delicacy of its crust reduced this complaint to a mere quibble.

The few stumbles were easily overlooked in light of the stellar starters and specials. As Rowland finds its feet, only minor adjustments are needed. Interesting too are the half-price wine Wednesdays, as well as wine tastings with a prix fixe menu planned three or four times a year. It's definitely not Stella's in there anymore; the Rowlands have ratcheted up the culinary goals, and as Richmond watches, they are mostly succeeding. S

Rowland Fine Dining
2132 W. Main St.
Dinner nightly, 5-11 p.m.
Reservations recommended.


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