640 Tenth Avenue, East Village
A recent issue of Vogue showcased a shot of Nicole Kidman in period costume, gazing aristocratically into the distance from atop a white dappled horse. The mare, ready for her close-up, looked right into the camera with a wise, friendly grin. I fell hard for that horse. (Better to fall for her than off her.) Similarly, I was charmed by Cowboy Star, a new restaurant so sweet and winsome I wanted to scratch its mane, rub noses with it, and feed it apples from my hand. More important, the food’s mostly so good, I feel no need to apologize for this dumb metaphor.
There are plenty of upper-middle-price “theme park” restaurants in San Diego (you know their names), but only rarely does the food equal their ambiance. Perhaps the difference here is that Cowboy Star’s veteran chef/co-owner is Victor Jimenez. You might have eaten his cooking at Gulf Coast eight years ago, at Thee Bungalow (when Ed Moore still owned it), at Gringo’s (where he reshaped the menu to reflect Mexico’s regional cuisines), or at JRDN, where he was opening chef. Then he vanished — nobody seemed to know where he went. The rumor was that he’d gone to India, destination of all Western runaways seeking enlightenment. In fact, he was merely lying low, right here in town, tending to his health and making plans for his new restaurant.
Cowboy Star, in which he’s partnered with veteran food-biz duo Jon and Angie Weber, is a shrine to the joy of wild carnivorousness and to the era of shameless old-time meat-eating enshrined in Western movies of the ’40s and ’50s. (Think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, where the steaks were bigger than the plates: “That’s my steak, Valance. Pick it up,” rumbles John Wayne to Lee Marvin, and you know that the bully who deliberately tripped the waiter is a dead man walking.)
Outside is a small patio with iron chairs shaped like saddles and ashtrays affixed to the iron railing. Peek through the windows into the bar, you’ll see cowhide armchairs in front and a wall of Stetsons to one side. To the other side of the entrance is a small butcher shop selling USDA prime beef, organic beef, bison steaks, venison sausage, free-range chicken, and more. None of it’s cheap, but where else can you get these goodies so far south of Whole Foods and Jonathan’s? When Victor and Jon looked around at the pricey new E-Ville condos, they saw a zillion balconies, each garnished with a Weber grill. Obviously, this neighborhood has a need that a serious butcher might fill.
The dining rooms are walled in red brick, with Western-motif decorations. Lynne, Sue, Yvette, and I (the dance-hall gals — naah, the schoolmarms) were led past a large open kitchen (where Victor was right up front, expediting) into another red-brick dining room, accompanied on our walk by Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Next was a Bob Wills western swing number, followed by Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and Ralph Stanley. A soundtrack like this (put together by Victor, Jon, and Amber) deserves a good mane-scratch, a handful of sugar cubes, and a hug. Later, just when we got some noisy neighbors, the music switched for several numbers to loud, frantic film-noir jitterbug. (That hophead drummer with the tic in his eye — he’s the murderer!) Eventually, it rolled back to Bob Wills’s fat-boy food song, “Roly Poly,” music to my ears.
The amuse was a two-ounce shot of spectacular chilled asparagus soup topped with crème fraîche, with a dark, exotic hint of toasted cumin. It left us all vowing to buy some asparagus and try to re-create it at home.
Since it was “Restaurant Week,” our foursome arrived with a plan: two $40 discount meals, two from the regular menu — all shared around, of course. Looking over both menus, we discovered that if you’re willing to skip the steaks, it’s not so hard to cobble up a $40 two-course dinner here of other good stuff. But if you do want steakhouse fare, at least the meal comes with sides, and you don’t have to dress up like a Master of the Universe. If Cowboy Star is a steakhouse of sorts, it’s sort of the People’s Steakhouse. (Well, no, it’s not Black Angus or Claim Jumper. It’s more the Middle Class Foodie–People’s Steakhouse.)
There’s also plenty of wild game on the menu. The dashed hopes I once held for the Tractor Room, with its all-alike game stews, were finally fulfilled at Cowboy Star, where each creature gets its own royal treatment. A starter of wild boar carpaccio featured ultra-thin slices of pink, tender pig meat drizzled with a honey jalapeño mustard sauce, alongside pickled yellow wax beans and micro greens that included chervil, contributing its fresh, anise-y notes. We loved it madly.
Buttermilk-fried sweetbreads were another winner. Long tall Sue, who’s from Scotland, loves offal. (Of course: her national dish is haggis — lamb organs and oatmeal stewed in a lamb’s stomach. Totally offal!) She was thrilled by the dish, and us Yanks were happy too — tender, earthy bits of meat in a dark, deep bourbon sauce, with a bright slaw of apple and Savoy cabbage and good crisp fries on the side to keep the Lynnester happy.
Braised lamb ribs were bathed in another dark, flavorful sauce, this one sweeter, based on whiskey and currants. Lynne and Yvette were somewhat put off by the fat on the ribs, but Scottish Sue and I loved them, along with their blimp of a potato dumpling. When the meat was gone, we swiped up all the sauce with the table bread. (The breads, from local Sadie Rose Bakery, are a fine choice, including baguette rolls, rosemary-thyme bread, and multigrain rolls.) But a roasted cauliflower soup with toasted caraway and truffle oil was a letdown, overthickened and leaving an identifiable aftertaste of flour from the roux.
An entrée of sarsaparilla quail was a hit, made with an old-time Southern soft drink that none of us had ever tasted. (It’s related to root beer but made from a vine in the family called smilax, not from the sassafras tree that furnished the original root beer.) The quail had a magnetically rich gravy textured by ground hazelnuts, punctuated by figs and smoked cipollini onions. “It’s rather a small portion,” Sue complained. “It’s a small bird, after all,” said the Lynnester.