Also a disappointment: a vegetarian entrée of house-made cavatelli pasta, cooked firm, with tomatoes, eggplant, squash, and Parmesan. The combination needed something livelier or earthier -- chiles, chard, escarole -- I don't know, something more assertive to unite it and spark it.
Desserts are all housemade. The bread pudding with local apples (from Crow's Pass Farms) and brandy sauce was heavy, not even in the same class (to fanatic Jim) as A.J. Valentien's or runner-up Kensington Grill's. But all of us were seduced by sandwiches of thick, soft, chewy toffee-chip cookies surrounding vanilla ice cream. "You can't exactly call this a 'light' dessert," said Fred, "but it's so-o-o good." It feels light, and oddly sexy, like a childhood treat that's still fresh-faced but all grown up now and gorgeous in cashmere and high heels.
Since Starlite is a lounge, I know you want to know about the hooch. Cocktails are made with housemade syrups from fresh fruits, and early blogs reported on the power of the mixed drinks. Those we received were no longer powerful -- more than tamed by an excess of ice, they even lost their characteristic flavors. (My margarita tasted like water, Gustavo's mojito was saved only by the mint, and mildness even kidnapped Jim's notorious mule, served in a big copper mug like something a Kentucky moonshiner might gulp from.) The sole survivor was Fred's ice-free "Galapagos," a creative martini-variant made with Peruvian Pisco brandy. Madame N. has had a vision that the bartender that evening was a temp substitute. (Comeonna the SanDiegoReader.com blog online and let everybody know how YOUR drinks were after Tuesday, October 9. I'm really curious.)
But the wine list -- aah, the wine list. It was crafted by Kate, the bar manager (who, like so many of the kitchen staff here, came from Michael Stebner's late, lamented Region). "She likes old-world wines with a strong sense of terroir," the chef told me (and so does he, and so do I). The list is short but fine, about half American, half French. The Kermit Lynch Côte de Rhone ($26) was a bit lighter than I expected, although still a lovely quaff -- but had I known how rich the steak would taste, I'd have sprung for the Côte de Nuits Burgundy ($41). Whatever your preference, you can pretty much go wild -- the most expensive choices barely approach $70. Even peasants can drink well here.
By the time our dinner was over, the bar at the patio was full (on a Tuesday night). On our way back through the interior, I noticed that its bar was also nearly full. The demographic? The vast majority were in the 21--30 age range, about 60 percent were women, and about 40 percent of the women were blondes. Not that there's anything wrong with that (especially for persons on a quest for under-30 blondes). As we exited, an attractive gray-haired Baby Boomer breezed in, but he, too, was with a 20ish blonde trophy -- or daughter. In any event, we left happy, fed much better than I'd expected. If we weren't blinded by the dazzle of the starlight, we were certainly all a-twinkle.
ABOUT THE CHEF
Chef Travis Murphy is a local guy from La Mesa. "I went to culinary school up in San Francisco, starting in '94 at the CCA. I began cooking when I was pretty young, because I grew up with a single mother, and later some friends of mine encouraged me to go to cooking school without having worked in any restaurants. I didn't know what I was getting myself into. It was a good experience, but I guess I could have learned more if I'd worked in kitchens first.
"I lived and worked up there for five years. I did my internship at Chez Panisse. It was just one month, but that was where I started getting into the whole sustainable-foods thing. I worked at Postrio and a few smaller places. I came down here in '99 because I met my future wife. That's a common thread for most of the guys that have moved here from that area -- hard to afford San Francisco if you want to have a family. I worked briefly at Laurel, and then at Barbarella, for just under a year. Got married in 2000, and we went to Mexico for a couple of months. Got back and I went to 910 and I worked with Michael [Stebner] there. Originally, we had planned to move to someplace that was 'happening' culinarily, but we ended up buying a house here and having children.
"I met [owner] Tim Mays a long time ago, right after I moved, and I put a bug in his ear. I said, 'If you ever want to open a restaurant, let me know.' Which I never expected to happen, but when I was working at Modus last year, he approached me.
"The idea of using local products and making things in-house, I guess it came from all of us. I wanted to use all-natural products and as much from local farmers as I could. My sous-chef, Kathleen Wise, worked at Region with Michael [Stebner] and was introduced to the concept of artisanal and local foods there. She also worked at Market, close to Chino Farms, and grew up in Wisconsin, so she has a strong sense of local farms. We get stuff from Crow's Pass -- the owner delivers from five or six different North County farms -- and I get stuff from La Milpa, and I go to the farmers' markets in Coronado and P.B., and I get stuff from the Farmstand and Rafael Farms.
"Our menu is sort of an American take on France or Italy, although I've never been to either place. We do pasta, polenta, risotto... Some of the things, Tim wanted on the menu. He wanted to have a burger and a steak, and he liked the idea of a mixed fry [fritto misto]. The Jidori chicken is the best chicken I ever tasted, so it was a no-brainer. The sausage board was something I came up with -- I was trying to think of something to call it other than 'charcuterie,' and I was looking through a James Beard cookbook and that was what he called it. Kathleen makes the sausages; she learned from Aaron La Monica, who was the sous-chef at Region [currently at Market]. Our desserts are made by a line-cook named Marguerite who also worked at Region."