What's a chef with The Fat Duck, Nobu, Arzak, and L20 on his resume, and 9 Michelin stars at last count in his trail, doing at a pizza bar in Santa Monica? That's the burning question I sought to answer, when I was invited to a hosted dinner this past weekend at Stella Rossa Pizza Bar and to meet its chef-partner, 27-year-old Jeff Mahin. An hour and a bit, one cheese plate and three pizzas later, my conclusion is this: Chef Mahin is there to change the way we look at and enjoy pizza, by simply doing what he loves.
The son of a civil construction engineer and metallurgist, Chef Mahin left a job at Nobu New York at 17 years old to 'take a break' to study science and math at UC Berkeley. Then he decided he wanted to pursue cooking in earnest, and with the background in science, it made all the sense in the world for him to get into molecular gastronomy. Obviously a guy who does whatever he sets his mind to, he then applied on a whim and landed a job at 3-Michelin-Starred London eatery The Fat Duck, in Heston Blumenthal's famed culinary lab.
From there, if you look at it this way, the transition to Stella Rossa is arguably just as natural: to reference a familiar scientific / philosophic rule - Ockham's Razor states 'the simplest of competing theories should be preferred to the more complex'. And with the early Japanese influence in his life (and his continuing love of sushi) - you can see, as he's explained, the philosophy of Japanese food carries over - subtraction, not addition, letting natural flavors shine. Simple food, done well with fresh ingredients can be exquisite.
Laid back and unaffected (his favorite food to make at home is soup - "I could drink Miso soup for the rest of my life") Chef Mahin's chill personality belies a drive for perfection. His goal may just be for Stella Rossa to be a fun place to work, making a universally loved simple food, but his talents direct him to go beyond the ordinary. After many trials, he landed on a mix of locally milled flour, filtered water, sea salt and fresh yeast for his pizza dough. This is fermented for at least 18 hours in individual containers - to allow the dough to 'age' properly. Each mound is only removed from the container at the proper 'rise', immediately before use, for optimal freshness.
It was fun sitting at the counter to watch Chef Mahin in action. He demonstrated how to toss the dough, working air into the sides for a fluffy crust while stretching out the center - til it's translucent - for an incredibly light, thin pie, the better for showcasing toppings.
Then goes the pies into the Baker's Pride ovens. Much has been written about the lack of fancy wood-burning or brick ovens here, but Chef Mahin's recipe was calculated to work best with the ovens he has. As he good-naturedly quips: "I'd love to get an inscription over the oven, in Latin or something, that says "I'd rather be criticized for our oven and praised for our pizza, than praised for our oven and criticized for our pizza."
The burrata (locally sourced from Di Stefano) was one of the most smooth and creamy I've ever had - and in my mind rivals the cheese handcrafted at Osteria Mozza daily. Chef Mahin intended to present two different kinds of sweetness between the cheese and fruit, which comes through nicely - and is elevated by light grilling, giving great interplay of cold/warm and layered textures with creamy cheese and crunchy grapes atop crispy, toasted, deliciously fragrant housemade bread. Top it all off with Olave extra virgin olive oil from Chile - chosen for its light, buttery, sweet finish - and you have a dish that is absolutely divine. (This olive oil is also used on all SR's pizzas! Chef Mahin see his crusts as more like bread - and prefers olive oil with bread versus butter as olive oil is much more nuanced.)
It was the unique topping combinations that got me. Chef Mahin selects not only from whatever inspires at the farmers market, but also what works best on his pizza dough without weighing it down, and what will shine with its clean and balanced flavors.
Though the first and last time I had kale - as a side dish from a catered meal elsewhere - I hated it (too bitter and rigid), I'd read many great things about SR's Bloomsdale Spinach pizza and I figured I'd give the veggie another try.
Then I took a bite, and become a Believer.
Again balance was key - the brushes of green with petals of purple, sprinkled with tiny curlicues of cheese were not only gorgeous to look at, but struck a perfect balance of tastes and textures with creamy sweet/savory spinach and paper-thin crisps of slightly bitter kale, and buttery, nutty gossamer pecorino.
All this on the lightest layer of bread, surrounded by a thick outer crust which got me food-drunk with its doughy smell and golden-brown crispy outer shell, that yielded to a pillowy center with nice chew. I still can't believe Chef Mahin got me to like kale - but it turned from hate to love at first bite.
Just when I thought I'd found my favorite, the Shaved Mushroom ($13.95) with gruyère, melted onions, black truffle, torn parsley, rosemary, thyme arrived.
Regular readers know I'm a sucker for truffle and mushrooms. That these are thrown in with rosemary, thyme and gruyere made it almost statistically impossible for me not to like this pizza. What I especially loved: all ingredients are finely chopped, so they melted and blended well into each other, making each mouthful a smorgasbord of rich and balanced flavors. Though I didn't see actual truffle shavings (RIP 8 1/2 Taverna), I ended up liking that the truffle aroma/taste is not so pronounced as to overwhelm the rest of the pizza. And again, a crust so perfect it made my eyes roll to the back of my head.
The eggless custard came in a glass jar - thick and creamy topped by runny amber colored liquid caramel, punctuated by salt crystals to cut through the sweetness. A perfect finish to the meal!
All in all, loved Stella Rossa, which has proven that simplest can be best. There's no novel length list of ingredients to hide behind, no gravity-defying feats of architecture or mind-boggling products of chemistry on your plate to serve as distraction. At Stella Rossa, it's just you and the beautiful crust and fresh ingredients. Pure, clean, local flavors, served up in top form.
Very happy to have a pizza place to love, that I can now add to my list of favorite restaurants on the Westside.
[For more photos from Stella Rossa, check out the album on my Facebook page]
[Deal alert: Text STELLA to 30364 to receive periodic messages with offers like free appetizer or dessert. Standard messaging rates may apply.]
On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5.5 bites
Originality - 5.5 bites
Ambience - 5.5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 6 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 100%
Stella Rossa Pizza Bar
2000 Main Street, Santa Monica, CA 90405
Parking: Valet $7, meter parking on Main north of Pico free after 6pm (double check signs before parking, of course)
*This meal was hosted.