3175 India Street, Mission Hills
Samurai Jim, so much "scenier" than I am, suggested that we check out the Starlite Lounge. Normally, I steer clear of lounges, sports bars, etc., leaving anything smacking of pub grub to Tin Fork -- but a quick Googling of the website (housemade sausage!) and blogs convinced me there was real food to be had there. In fact, Starlite is turning out to be a popular off-duty hangout for chefs (e.g., a favorite of Melissa Mayer from the Guild), always a good sign. Little wonder: When chef Michael Stebner (formerly of 910 and Region) headed home to Arizona, he left a culinary legacy. At Starlite, the chef, sous-chef, bar manager, and at least one line-chef are all his former employees and his heirs, carrying the flag of local, sustainably raised produce, naturally raised meats, artisanal cooking, and wines that carry the taste of the soil where they're grown.
The lounge is the latest project of Tim Mays, who's also co-owner of the Turf Club (offering great rib-eye steak and good vibes) and, further down India, the famed dive-bar the Casbah. The name "Starlite" suggests a glitzy atmosphere and showy entranceway. Instead, there's a snazzy but easy-to-miss rectangular wood-and-glass front door on a bland rectangular building on a dead stretch well north of the fleshpots of Little Italy. Step inside and you find a large, low, wraparound black bar that forms a center square, with tables around the outskirts of the room. Although much more spacious and modern (and with a younger crowd), there's a touch of a Cheers feel to the room. With summer fast fading, I was eager to catch its last sweet breaths on the stanchion-heated back patio. Jim and I arrived early with friends Fred and Gustavo to guarantee the seats we wanted, and a few minutes after we settled at our table, a wooden "curtain" rose theatrically -- ta-da! -- to reveal a brightly lighted, fully furnished outdoor bar.
The menu is brief but classy, a far cry from boring pub grub. It changes every day or two to reflect the foods of the season and features naturally raised heritage meats and local-grown produce. A "lounge" is all about enjoying a night out socializing with friends, and fittingly, many of the appetizers are designed for sharing.
Take the sausage board (do!). That night, it included a large, luscious link of housemade porcini-mellowed pork sausage, savory with subtle spices that we couldn't quite name, and moist from the mushrooms. Alongside were thickish slices of excellent salami (a meat that I normally don't like) and pieces of mild, tender-baked pork shoulder. The garnishes offered complementary flavors: pickled green beans, honey-balsamic baby onions, cornichons, and strong mustard.
A fritto misto featured calamari, eggplant, zucchini, and yellow summer squash fried in an airy, greaseless batter, with a louche lemon aioli dip on the side. The perfectly cooked veggies reminded me of the classic New Orleans starters of fried eggplant and fried zucchini -- but in a lighter coating. Along with offering more than a single flavor, they weren't nearly as filling as an equal amount of calamari would have been.
A cheese plate (chosen from the fab array at Venissimo in Hillcrest) came with crusty hazelnut-raisin bread, pickled golden raisins, quartered fresh figs, and a sploosh of honeycomb. Unfortunately, all three cheeses, each excellent in itself, were of the same basic type (firm and "nutty"), although they came from various animals and nations. A more classic and satisfying array would include one goopy cheese (of the ripe Brie type) and either a soft, goaty cheese or a creamy blue-veined selection. The chef later explained that since he serves cheeses at room temperature (as they should be), during the heat of the summer the soft cheeses were melting or crumbling to uselessness, so firmer ones will be offered until fall is well under way.
The soup of the evening -- beautiful soup -- was a light, zesty tomato broth with seafood and basil purée. It included many succulent mussels, wafts of tender fish slices, and two slightly overcooked shrimp. Never mind the shrimp, the soup furnished enough savory satisfaction to suffice for an evening's entrée -- but we went on to the entrées anyway.
There are usually only five main courses. The one we chose to skip was the hamburger, although odds are it's a good one. It's made with Brandt beef, same as the showstopper, a Brandt Prime flat-iron. Brandt is a family ranch in Brawley that raises hormone-free, antibiotic-free natural beef. The cattle eat sustainably grown grains the family raises for them and are finished off on Midwestern corn. Sounds green and virtuous, but better than virtue, this beef was all about flavor and tenderness. It didn't taste like yet another boring piece of dead bovine but was intensely meaty. Its tenderness was all the more remarkable in a flatiron, a cut from the chuck blade (the animal's hard-working front shoulder), which is typically savory but can sometimes be tough. (Prime grade certainly helps.) The kitchen sauced it lightly with horseradish crême fraîche, just right for highlighting the meat without disguising it. Alongside were yellow fingerling potatoes, aristocratic but not competitive.
We ordered the Duroc pork chop medium-rare ("rosy pink, not brown"), since the pedigree of the pork nearly guaranteed healthy, high-quality meat: With trichinosis pretty much extinct in American commercial pork, if the pig's well raised it needn't be cooked well-done. Duroc is a heritage breed of red-skinned hog (first bred in New York--New Jersey in 1830). It's famed for flavor and richness, and like other heritage hogs, most of the supply is raised naturally and humanely on family farms rather than vast, filthy pigmeat factories. Alas, the kitchen cooked the huge, meaty chop brown anyway, a waste of a fine porker. The sides with it were good, though -- soulful braised greens and cippolini onions with dried-cherry balsamic jus.
Jidori chicken is another pedigreed critter, something like the fowl equivalent of Kobe beef -- a bird bred for flavor, not for its speed to maturity. This proved to be one of the few local kitchens to cook it properly, rather than excessively. Pan-roasted to produce a crisp skin, both its breast and thigh pieces were moist, with an honest taste resembling the prefactory chickens of my childhood. It came with briny black olives and roasted cherry tomatoes, but the starch -- bland, buttered, soft polenta -- needed more oomph. "This tastes like oatmeal, minus the brown sugar," said Jim. When the plate moved my way, I saw his point. "To really come into its own," I said, "soft polenta needs a blast of good cheese. Parmesan, or Gorgonzola, or even -- don't call me Scarface, my name is Mascarpone."