Eavesdropping’s On the Menu At Soothing Soho Bistro

It’s been a rough month for restaurants. But Stella, a dark, candlelit bistro that opened during the summer on the western fringe of Soho, has a reassuring atmosphere that’s drawing people in at a time when many are feeling too fragile to go out. It has a comforting niceness about it-more like the sort of restaurant you used to find in the Village in the 70′s than a slick Soho bistro-with a beamed ceiling, bare brick walls, wood tables and, in the back, an open kitchen and small bar. But instead of spider plants, the room is decorated with vases of roses, and the music is not a plinking rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons , but Annie Lenox.

Stella is owned by Anna Weinberg and Paul Masters, a husband-and-wife team from New Zealand who run the front of the house, along with chef Melissa O’Donnell. They’ve kept the small room simple: The tables are of different sizes-long enough to hold 10, or small enough for two-set with candles in crystal ball–shaped marble holders. Their spacing is perfect for casual eavesdropping. Seated by the window, which was open to the street one warm night, a woman in a black T-shirt and matching Capri pants was gazing at her companion with an incredulous expression, as if he’d just told her he was not the humble N.Y.U. student she had thought him to be, but a highly placed agent on some secret mission. “You mean … you smoke?”

He grinned sheepishly. “Yes!”

She beamed. “Cool!”

Stella’s customers are mostly young. In the middle of the room, a group of French people were sounding off like intellectuals on the weekly show Bouillon de Culture . And next to me, a fresh-faced man in a camouflage shirt was losing patience with his date (in faux Pucci), who quietly demolished a hefty piece of steak as he talked. “No offense, but what you say is not exactly rocket science,” he finally said. “Step out of your own proclivity for a moment. He’s got a personality issue.”

Alas, I never had the chance to learn what her proclivity was, because our food arrived. Ms. O’Donnell formerly cooked at Le Zoo in the Village, and before that at La Cigale in Nolita. Her cooking is unpretentious and appealing, and it’s geared toward Stella’s excellent list of around 50 New World wines, most of which are from California, New Zealand and Australia. (On Monday nights, in addition to the regular menu, there is a special three-course dinner matched with wines for $45; once a month, there’s a six- or seven-course meal with wines from a selected vineyard for between $65 and $75.)

You can start with a deep bowl of thick cauliflower soup topped with a spoonful of sautéed wild mushrooms, the unmistakable scent of truffle oil wafting toward you as the waiter sets it down. Truffle essence perks up a classic, buttery puff-pastry vol au vent filled with scallops and snails tossed in a creamy leek broth. A red-wine risotto, laced with caramelized pearl onions, is properly cooked but bland. Slow-roasted eggplant could use a bit more seasoning too. It comes with a pleasant tartare of roasted beets and a blue-cheese fondue with rosemary. A sprightly salad of crunchy, emerald-green haricots verts is garnished with a disk of tangy goat cheese, prosciutto and pine nuts. The sardines at Stella are wonderful-one of those simple, unfussy dishes that are a high point of a summer by the Mediterranean. You get three of them, plump and charred on the grill, and they are allowed to speak for themselves, served plain with a wedge of lemon.

There is a choice of three crostini on the menu, which are good with a cocktail or as a late-night snack. On our visit, they were topped with tuna tartare, chicken-liver mousse and blue cheese. But if the venison tartare is offered as a special, don’t miss it. Served with croutons, plus the usual garnishes of capers, onion and mustard, it has much more flavor than beef. It’s terrific.

The chef likes to use fruit with meat and fish, and the results aren’t the least bit cloying. A juicy Cornish hen is marinated in red wine, red-wine vinegar and brown sugar, then braised with prunes, Spanish olives and capers for a rich sauce that strikes a nice balance between sweet and tart. Maple-glazed salmon is good, too, with braised endive, figs, pecans and an apple-balsamic sauce that cuts the fattiness of the fish. Grilled rare tuna in pink, meaty slices comes on a bed of braised fennel with horseradish crème fraîche and an orange butter sauce that adds zing. An excellent rack of lamb is served with spinach sautéed with artichokes and seasoned with fresh mint and lemon.

My son was working his way through a rabbit pot pie, made with tender chunks of rabbit and undercooked vegetables, when he began to assume a glazed expression, staring out into the street. Our neighbors, it seemed, had now moved on to a heated debate about Palestine. All of a sudden, his expression changed. Across the way, the owner of a red brick town house had opened the front door and let out the cat. It made no attempt to explore beyond the top step, where it remained motionless under a full moon.

We turned our attention to Stella’s desserts, which include a plum frangipane tart (on a chewy pastry shell), a delicate panna cotta paired with strawberries cooked in balsamic vinegar and a great pumpkin flan, served with pecan brittle. Steamed puddings remind me of my childhood, which is perhaps why I found the two on the menu-one made with walnuts and the other a chocolate bread pudding-so comforting.

My son, however, could not take his eyes off the cat. As we were getting up to leave, it rose too and went back inside, the door closing after him as if by an invisible hand. The sight was as reassuring as the dinner we’d had, and we returned home feeling a great deal better about everything.

Restaurant Notes

Eat out Oct. 11 and you will help the families of food workers who died in the World Trade Center attack. On Thursday, restaurants all over town will donate at least 10 percent of their profits to the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund. Windows on the World and other food-service outlets in the towers lost over 200 people, who left behind over 600 children-many of them uninsured. The fund has been organized by David Emil, owner of Windows on the World and Beacon restaurant, with Windows chef Michael Lomonaco, Geofrrey Zakarian from Town, Tom Valenti from Ouest and Waldy Malouf from Beacon. Over 4,000 restaurants around the world are participating, including ones in Canada, Britain and Taiwan. You can see the list at http://www.windowsofhope.org. You may also send contributions to the Windows of Hope Family Relief Fund, c/o David Berdon & Co., 415 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10017.

STELLA *1/2 58 MacDougal Street

674-4968

Dress: Casual Noise Level: Fine Wine List: Interesting New World vintages, moderate prices Credit Cards: American Express only Price Range: Dinner, main courses, $14.50 to $25.50; prix-fixe wine dinner Monday Dinner: Sunday through Thursday 6 to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday to midnight

Brunch: Sunday, noon to 4:30 p.m.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor