By Tara Mahadevan
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Kaitlin Steinberg
By Gut Check
By Ian Froeb
By Ian Froeb
By Gut Check Guides
Starrs might have had the least flashy opening of any area restaurant this year. Regular patrons of Bud Starr's spacious Richmond Heights wine shop and gourmet market probably knew the private dining area was being renovated — essentially closed off from the store proper — but it had been several months since I last visited. I had no idea a restaurant was opening until, driving past one day this summer, I spotted a "Now Open for Dinner" banner outside the store.
1135 S. Big Bend Blvd.
Richmond Heights, MO 63117
Region: Richmond Heights
The ambience is similarly low-key. The dining room, which seats about 50, has the pleasant, anonymous feel of a hotel restaurant circa 1984. The menu, printed in elegant script and tucked into a heavy binder, enhances the retro feel. The noise level is restrained. A boisterous table of sixteen (if not more) filled, but didn't dominate, the room during one dinner; on another visit I could hear cooks talking in the kitchen and an awkward first date at a nearby table.
(She: "I have issues with my mother."
He: "You seem to have a lot of issues.")
When I spoke with Starr shortly after the restaurant opened, he told me he wasn't trying to compete with, say, Harvest or Niche. Instead, he hoped to offer food people in the area would like. In that respect, Starrs is a success. Almost everything I ordered from the menu Starr has developed with chef James Gill, who heads the kitchen, was very good, if not groundbreaking.
Groundbreaking can be overrated, though, especially when you have something like Starrs' chicken entrée on your plate. This was my favorite dish, half a bird pan-seared with olive oil and butter and then finished in the oven. The skin, lightly dredged in flour, had a flavorful crunch, and the meat was very tender. With mashed potatoes and green beans, it made for a simple, delicious autumn dinner — and, at $12.95, a steal to boot.
Though slightly more elaborate in composition, a halibut entrée, pan-seared and then roasted and served in a pinot noir reduction over roasted root vegetables, struck similar autumnal notes, the mild flavor of the firm-fleshed fish balanced between the lightly fruit-sweet sauce and the earthy, roast-sweet vegetables. I say "slightly more elaborate" relative to the chicken, but the success of this dish, too, was its simplicity: a very good piece of fish, properly cooked, accented but not overwhelmed.
Pan-seared roasted quail with a raspberry glaze, served with rarebit sauce, seemed to be based on a similar principle:savory meat balanced between tart fruit and pleasantly bitter sauce. The two small quail were excellent, the skin crisp, the meat tender and flavorful. (If you haven't eaten quail, its flavor is something like dark-meat chicken, with a mild gamy quality.) On its own, the raspberry glaze gave the quail a piquant note, but the rarebit — delicious, but not exactly subtle — swamped any nuance.
Of the entrées, only Gulf shrimp and crab meat served over housemade fettuccine missed the mark. The seafood was of impeccable quality — the shrimp much better than the insipid stuff you find all too often these days — but the dish itself was bland. It made such a negligible impression on me that later that night I couldn't remember what, exactly, the sauce had been.
The crab meat fared better in a terrific appetizer I ordered on my first visit: fried green tomatoes topped with crab imperial. The contrast between the acidic tomatoes and the luscious crab was lovely. The portion was practically entrée-size, more than enough for two to share. (This is no longer on the menu, however.) Another appetizer, housemade ravioli stuffed with goat cheese, was more modestly sized. I liked the ravioli, which were tender but not mushy, but the accompanying sauce was a mess, a sort-of tomato-cream emulsion that wasn't hanging together very well.
Now that the weather is turning chilly, I can't think of a better way to start your meal at Starrs than the white bean and ham soup. I hesitate to call a small serving of soup the best dish at a restaurant, but it certainly distilled what I liked best about Starrs. The soup had a rich, porky flavor, yet its body was shockingly light, supporting the flavor rather than trying to match its brawn. I also recommend beginning with the warm spinach salad. The spinach, bulked up with a little pancetta, is wonderfully flavorful, but the highlight of the salad is its "croutons" — which are chunks of breaded, fried artichoke.
The dessert list is small, but not an afterthought. I enjoyed a simple chocolate pot de crème, the rich, sweet flavor and silky texture a perfect end to a hearty November meal. While we were enjoying this, Bud Starr brought over a small glass of port to try. He said, chuckling, that Robert Parker had given this port 92 or 93 points (I can't remember), but a bottle cost only $10. It paired beautifully with the pot de crème.
"Wait a minute, Ian. You've written all this about Starrs, and you're just now mentioning wine? It is a wine shop, after all."
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