The Secret Is Out

Starrs is great for wine — and for dinner. Who knew?

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1135 South Big Bend Boulevard, Richmond Heights; 314-781-2345. Hours: Dinner 5:30-9 p.m. Thu.-Sat.

Starrs White bean and ham soup...$4
Roast chicken...$12.95
Roasted halibut...$22.95
Roasted quail...$17.95

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.

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."

There are two ways to order wine while dining at Starrs: a wine list and the shop itself. The second option is the way to go. The wine list offers three dozen or so bottles covering an admirably wide price range, but this seems superfluous when Starrs' large selection is on the other side of the doorway. Though the restaurant adds a corkage fee of $8 to any bottle you purchase from the store, it's still a good deal, considering the wine mark-ups at most higher-end restaurants — and Starrs waives the fee if your bottle costs more than $100.

Of course, shopping for a bottle of wine immediately before dinner might add a new level of stress to your dining experience, especially if you've already been seated in the restaurant. This shouldn't be a problem for the wine-savvy. Though I don't shop at Starrs as often as I'd like — when not dining out for you, my budget restricts me to a diet of cat food and Thunderbird — its selection has always struck me as strong and idiosyncratic. In other words, you'll still find those little tabs of paper with flavor profiles and 80- or 90-something scores affixed to wine displays, but as often as not the store's staff will have written them. For those of you on a budget or not as wine-savvy, I've always found that Starrs' selection of Australian reds provide a lot of bang for my buck.

Would Starrs benefit from a more symbiotic relationship between its wine selection and menu? Probably. There should certainly be more than two wines by the glass, a red and a white, for instance — though the economics of a small restaurant open only three nights a week might preclude a more ambitious by-the-glass program. Then again, one of the joys of discovering wine is wandering the aisles of a good shop, talking to the employees and reading all those labels and tabs of paper. Just remember to get back to your table in time for the first course.

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