Don Bauder 6:30 p.m., May 22
Off Days are On Days: Sunday Brunch and Tapas Tuesdays at Starlite in Middletown
I never saw an episode of Cheers -- the show was before my time -- but I get the gist, as I've heard the theme song. It's a place where you can feel at home, where "everybody knows your name, and they're always glad you came." With this in mind, I consider Starlite San Diego to be my "Cheers."
Holly Golightly (High West Western Oat Whiskey, Sapling Maple Liqueur, Angostura Bitters, Carpano Antica Vermouth)
Us Norms and Cliffs know that the best time to "take a break from all our worries" at Starlite is during off-peak hours. It doesn't matter how many people know your name when a place is packed on a Friday or Saturday night -- you're not getting a table, and that's the way it should be: first come first served, everyone is equal. I prefer quieter times, when instead of focusing on the scenesters in all their hip and creative regalia, I can concentrate on a well-crafted cocktail and Chef Kathleen Wise's ever changing fresh and locally-sourced culinary creations.
Sunday brunch (with my go-to cocktail, the Holly Golightly) is a soothing and satisfying way to slow to a stop at the end of a freeway-frenetic weekend. The best way to start off brunch with a group of friends is coffee and an order or two of the crullers -- dense and not-too-sweet donuts created by pastry chef Mandy Hendricks.
On our most recent brunch visit, David and I brought along a few friends from out of town. I'm not a breakfasty-egg person, so my brunch pick is also my late-night-dinner pick, which is the Starlite Burger. Brandt beef, gruyere cheese, and caramelized onions on a brioche bun. The only difference between the burger at brunch and at night is that instead of fries, this one is served with hot, crispy-on-the-outside, soft-on-the-inside potatoes, which are more "home fries" than shoestring.
David got the Chorizo and Eggs with housemade chorizo, which he described as "mild but enjoyable." It's served with sour cream, potatoes, and tortillas. One of our friends had the same dish. She described it in one word: "Yum."
Another friend ordered the daily special: Fig-stuffed French Toast (vanilla scented French toast stuffed with fig jam and cream cheese, served with real maple syrup and whipped butter), with a side of "Kathleen's housemade sausage." The rest of us didn't get a taste, it was gone so quickly, but my friend exclaimed several times how surprised she was that there could be so many different flavors in the sausage patty. She also pointed out her surprise at how tender and juicy it was, rather than the dry piece of meat she'd usually expect. "I wish I could just order a plate full of these," she said.
When it comes to dinner, our favorite night is Tapas Tuesday. Each week, Chef Kathleen devises a special menu of $6 small plates ($15 for three). When most people are settling into their week and staying at home, David and I seize the opportunity to grab a seat at the bar, where we can chat with Braden, Jack or Dmitri; or take a table, so we can catch up with Colleen or Jose. Either way, we are always visited by another friendly face -- Roy the manager, who bustles from bar to table to patio and back again.
On a frigid night during the recent cold snap, David and I made the short drive (we'd usually walk, but I don't do outside below 40 degrees) for Tapas Tuesday. It was Roy who recommended the "Hearty Beef & Vegetable Soup," served with sour cream & Worcestershire salt. Paired with a smooth and balanced hot toddy that Jack whipped up for me, I went from shivering beneath a scarf and hood to slowly unwrapping myself as I warmed from the inside.
The Moroccan Style Flatbread with spiced carrot puree, charred cauliflower, and sweet pickled raisins was pleasantly crispy and covered in cool textures and flavors.
My favorite bite of the evening was an item on the regular menu. The vegetarian dishes change more frequently than the seasons, so when I see a new one, I don't miss the opportunity to taste it -- it is here that Chef Kathleen truly shines, as it is with the seasonal veggies that she gets her most creative (as with the Moroccan flatbread). This dish was a Broccoli Pot Pie, with flaky pastry blanketing broccoli in a cheddar beer sauce, served with a walnut beet salad on the side. Though it appeared small when it arrived, the ramekin was packed so tight with rich flavors that, despite my best efforts, I was unable to finish it.
If you ever spot me in this food and drink haunt, be sure to raise your glass in my direction and say, "Cheers!"