Stella Is a Fresh Start for Jose Garces. I Only Wish It Was Better.
It took years for Jose Garces and his people to open this newest restaurant. It took so long that now it’s finally open, the people aren’t even the same people anymore. Garces is still there, of course, but the other circumstances have certainly changed.
Plans for Stella in New Hope were announced back in 2016. It was going to be a small-plate restaurant with Garces’s name attached, part of New Hope’s Riverfront Revitalization Strategic Plan and tied to the renovation of Bucks County’s Playhouse Inn. But then came 2018. Garces’s original restaurant group declared bankruptcy, operations were shuttered, and a new restaurant group was formed, called Ideation Hospitality, with some new partners. Because we were all watching the bad news and wondering how much worse it might get, the New Hope project kind of slipped off the radar.
But work in Bucks County chugged along, even while we were all looking in other directions. And now, three years later, here we are: Stella at the newly christened Ghost Light Inn debuted in June — the first Jose Garces restaurant to open since everything fell apart. It’s a big deal the way any new thing is a big deal. But it’s an even bigger deal because it’s also a kind of new beginning for Garces. A fresh start.
I only wish it was better.
What it is is beautiful. With bare-topped wood tables and a crowded bar, it’s comfortable, high-gloss and polished, like wearing a pair of Sperry Top-Siders with your Levi’s. There’s money here, but it isn’t showy. Stella hides its bougie heart and gold-card soul beneath a thin skin of casual comfort: polo shirts, John Wayne movies on the flat-screen above the bar, a certain white-wine-and-sunshine charm. The view out over the water is as soothing as staring at New Jersey ever can be, but if this were all a bad ’80s movie, the patio would be where the scrappy gang of townies gets challenged to race in the big end-of-summer regatta by the mayor’s bleach-blond douchebag son. And the bar would be where the yuppies all gather to make sure our heroes lose.
Still, you can get a good cocktail at that bar. Meet people. Laugh too loud. The easy, light and simple stuff? That’s where Stella excels. Small plates of burrata and peas sprinkled with crumbled pistachio and served with buttery sourdough; of local greens and confit lemon with heirloom cherry tomatoes so fresh, you can almost taste the warmth of the sun still on them. The country pork rib is tender enough to tear away from the bone with your fork, dressed in an Alabama-style white BBQ sauce that’s more traditionally served on smoked chicken but works really well here, too. And the watermelon salad on the side? Perfect for the height of summer, perfect to match the smoke of the pork.
Had I stopped there, I would have liked Stella just fine. Even adding in some of the overpriced bread spreads ($6 garlic butter, or a reasonable duck liver mousse) or maybe the Anson Mills fried rice with kimchi and an egg would’ve been fine. And the single serious pasta on the board — a rye garganelli in a smooth, rich sauce of Cabot cheddar, speck and scallion butter, scattered with petits pois — was good enough that I wish I’d ordered it twice. But there was a sort of Law of Diminishing Returns here, a sense that the larger the plates got, the worse the kitchen did with them.
My pork chop was fine — too rare, and crusted with an odd mix of flax seed and parmesan that almost had the texture of chicken skin, but edible. The grits, though, were watery; the gray-black slop of field peas had a steam-table skin on them; and the lace of sorghum butter doodled across the edges of the plate added a sweetness that felt like an accident every time I dragged a piece of meat through it.
And then there was the wagyu skirt steak, which was a disaster all the way through. From conception (wagyu skirt? Really?) to prep (it looked like it was hacked up by an inexpert serial killer who hated cows) to assembly (charred strawberries, feta cheese and caramel don’t go together) to finishing (it was so salty that it made my tongue hurt), it was one of the worst single plates I’ve had in a year.
Look, I could go on, but it wouldn’t matter. Stella isn’t the concept that’s going to revivify the Garces brand, but it isn’t really built for that. It’s a project meant to serve a specific purpose — to be beautiful and welcoming, to offer expansive views (and private event spaces) for those visiting town and looking for a couple glasses of wine and a bite to eat that’s a step above the frozen yogurts or burgers and fries served on the main drag. Stella does what it was made to do.
But as a new beginning for the Garces brand, it leaves a lot to be desired.
2 Stars — Come if you’re in the neighborhood
0 stars: stay away
★: come if you have no other options
★★: come if you’re in the neighborhood
★★★: come from anywhere in the region
★★★★: come from anywhere in the country