The last time we were in the kitchen of Stella San Jac, a ladder stood by the kitchen pass through, the floor was protected with cardboard, and the beeping of a backing-up fork truck was the dominant soundtrack. Oh, and the dress code was neon yellow vest, safety goggles and hardhat.
Fast forward a couple of months, and the Westin Austin Downtown is no longer the ugly duckling from our pre-opening tour. And its in-house restaurant, named for its location at the intersection of 5th and San Jacinto, is right to preen its swan feathers.
Entering today’s airy restaurant you might wonder what the large woven cords are that continue up from the captain’s station and across the ceiling. Take a closer look and you’ll see they form a giant guitar neck and strings, just one of the homages to live music that informs the whole property.
Under the defining leadership of Executive Chef Michael Cerrie, Stella San Jac goes beyond the sad, run-of-the-mill hotel restaurants we’ve all encountered, and takes its place on Austin’s burgeoning foodie scene. The menu was months, if not years, in the making–and the hard work that went into it shows.
Chef Cerrie’s goal? “The most important thing for me is that people feel they are at a restaurant that happens to be inside a hotel, not in a hotel restaurant,” he explained.
The 50-people team uses many local ingredients, but you won’t hear Cerrie bragging about it. “Sourcing local is what any good chef should be doing,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a big thing.”
With interns from Bolivia, India and South Africa, you can currently hear up to six languages spoken in the restaurant. “I’ve a great team,” says Chef Cerrie.
In homage to our earlier hardhat tour, photographer Sarah Doliver and I went behind the scenes of the menu on a recent lunchtime visit. We wanted to see up-close just how Chef Cerrie and his staff construct their fare.
Before we got started though, we sampled some of the menu items. Take a look at our mouthwatering lunch. Turns out, when you’re surrounded by a bunch of restaurant folks, they want to feed you.
Then came the master class, courtesy of Chef Cerrie. First up, one of the signature small plate dishes on the menu, the so-called #16 Biscuits. Why 16? Because it took 16 attempts to get the recipe so devilishly more-ish. Not surprisingly, diners order them around the clock. (Stella San Jac serves room service and banquet patrons as well as the restaurant diners.)
Hand grate the butter. (The #16 recipe calls for a 2 to 1 ratio of butter to flour.) It’s very important not to over manipulate the mix, we learned. And, the butter is still frozen, as lower temperatures during prep make for the best results.
The biscuits rest for 20 minutes before Chef spoons bacon fat over them and putting them in the oven, along with a sprig of rosemary nestled between them on the baking tray.
Why put those delicate flakes of salt on top of the biscuits? Because salt is what helps us taste the full range of flavor, Chef explains.
While the biscuits were resting, Chef turned his hand to the Diver Scallops, a signature large plate menu item, and accompanied by shaved fennel, orange and a white balsamic vinaigrette. We watched the entire process.
Plan your visit to Stella San Jac today!
By Julie Tereshchuk
Photos by Sarah Doliver
Feature photo courtesy Mark Knight