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."
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."