Bella is the latest reinvention of the prime Backstage real estate abutting the south side of the Aronoff Center at Sixth and Walnut streets, previously inhabited by Plaza 600. Envisioned by Jump owner, Vince Bryant, the new entrance is finally where it always should have been -- on Walnut Street. The unmatched door handles give the first inkling that this will be a whole new experience.
The Scene: The two-story space has been completely reconfigured, causing disorientation beyond just the new location of the door. The bar is still to the right, but the counter is curved and the bar tables are different sizes. Smoking is allowed in the downstairs bar area only. It's a great uptown look in black and muted grays with bronze and mixed textures highlighted with chrome.
When seated in the first floor dining room, your eye will still drift to the bustling action of the open kitchen. The skinny nook in the old Plaza 600 that always seemed like a corridor connecting the restaurant to the Jarson-Kaplan Theater lobby is now Bella's private dining room with a frosted glass door separating the group from the main dining area. On one night, the door could barely contain the guffaws of a bachelorette party.
But upstairs -- wow! What used to be a simple party room now boasts an irregularly cut balcony over the bar with a few prime tables along the ledge and a spiffed-up, sleeked-down, non-smoking bar that would encourage Sarah Jessica Parker to call her Sex and the City pals to join her for a Cosmopo-litan in her hometown before going to see The Vagina Monologues or continuing the night uptown on Main Street.
On two recent visits, one at midweek and one on the weekend, there were folks hanging out at both bars after work, groups sharing appetizers and pizza before darting next door for an 8 p.m. curtain, and suburbanites lingering over their dinners and the wine list.
The Scoop: The wine list is impressive, easy to read, not daunting to the novice nor insulting to the aficionado. You can choose from pours by the glass, half or full bottles, including more sparkling wine options than I've seen at most regional bistros. And of course, Carrie, Samantha and the girls could pose at either bar for the latest hip cocktails.
From our balcony perch, we chose one item from each of the four sections of the dinner menu, starting with the Portabella e Polenta ($7). A slight hint of garlic laced through the wedge of smooth cornmeal, topped with juicy slivers of the meaty mushroom and melted crusty cambozola cheese. Good, but I would have enjoyed it with a bit more zest.
Next came the appetizer size of the Spinach Salad ($4/$7). I delighted in the refreshing bite of the vinaigrette that stayed on the full baby spinach leaves mixed with niçoise olives, pistachios and ricotta crumbles. I'd be happy with the entrée size for lunch or diet time.
The Horseradish Encrusted Diver Sea Scallops ($23) sounded so uptown, they were a must order. We weren't disappointed. Four large golden sautéed scallops popped down the plate on squiggles of Dijon cream, separating the large-grain tomato couscous from the strips of green and yellow peppers and asparagus. The mix of textures and flavors matched the pretty presentation, but the couscous should have been warmer.
We found that the half order of the Shrimp and Chicken Diablo ($10/$20) was sufficient, even for our hungry appetites. The fawn-colored, mildly spicy topping was a creamy surprise. The jalapeno linguine comes with a wallop , but it's tempered with skinless chicken strips and large shrimp. Not a mashed potato in sight and I was comforted.
It's worth sticking around for their Bella Finale, the seasonal dessert menu. As Graeter's fans, we needed to test the homemade Peppermint Stick Ice Cream ($5). Bella's chic theme was carried through in the zigzag stemmed martini glass filled with healthy scoops of the smooth, creamy ice, marbleized with pieces of red and green candy. We were pleasantly surprised and pleased with the garnish, shavings of striped white and dark chocolate.
The guilty pleasure came with the Battling Chocolate Mousse Terrine ($8). Dark chocolate jellyroll cake was cut to line a loaf pan and then filled with a thick layer of both dark and milk chocolate mousse, arriving on our plate as a perfect slice accompanied with raspberry sauce as the ideal partner. European jumbo cups of decaf helped wrap up the evening.
The Fuss: Call for a reservation for one of the four balcony tables. Or come early, hang out at one of the bars and try out one of the drinks you've seen on a Sex and the City rerun. And don't slink up against the iridescent wall separating the bar and dining area. If you do, you'll have to dry off: It's a fountain.
Go: 600 Walnut St., Downtown
Hours: Monday-Friday 11 a.m.- midnight; Saturday-Sunday 2-11 p.m.
Prices: Moderate to expensive
Payment: Major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Chicken, fish and seafood with vegetarian pizza and pasta offerings