Looking over a charcuterie plate is the famous Starlite Mule--in its oft-pilfered copper mug. Photo by Dhanraj Emanuel.
Starlite3175 India St.Middletown619-358-9766
Turns out Starlite has staying power. It's been through the hype machine and emerged intact. And it's survived, even thrived, amid the recession. Opened in 2007 by Casbah owner Tim Mays and some notable partners, trend-spotters buzzed that Starlite—a handsome, mid-century modern space that was once a lesbian nightclub—would be a contender for the Next Big Thing-crown. I just hoped that it would be a place to find what I've experienced in cities like Portland and San Francisco but rarely in this town: great drinks alongside really legit food.
Over the years, the restaurant's dishes have remained appealing and consistently well-executed; its menu of straightforward, but not boring, seasonally updated items tips toward the comfort-food side of the scale. Entrées are moderately priced considering the quality of ingredients, and Starlite manages to keep things affordable with a happy hour of rotating plates and a $20, three-course meal every Tuesday.
The kitchen buys from as many local farms as it can, including the close-to-Downtown Suzie's Farm and Escondido's La Milpa Organica. And lead chef Marguerite Grifka—whose background in farm-to-table cookery started at the gone-too-soon Region—often shops at Little Italy's Saturday farmers market for regionally sourced items, including cheese, eggs and nuts. She currently helms a kitchen that includes two other former Region chefs: Kathleen Wise, Starlite's sous chef and charcutier, who makes the housemade sausages and will soon start an in-house cured meat program, and Sharon LaBate, who's responsible for a righteous homemade toffee-chip-cookie ice-cream sandwich that's bedazzled with pistachios.
There's a tasty sausage board that currently features homemade grilled Merguez, a lamb sausage, along with slices of Knight salumi and Spanish Serrano ham, and an artisan cheese board that includes the complementary garnishes of pickled golden raisins and honeycomb. Salads are generous, from a decent Caesar that gets a boost from a whole, soft-yolked egg to an organic arugula salad with local beets and candied walnuts. Among the mains, there's always an interesting vegetarian option and a ever-changing pan-seared fish, but I recommend the Jidori chicken, an amply portioned section of the bird that's sauced simply with its own pan juices, served atop wilted greens and, if you're lucky, shellacked in delicious crispy skin. I don't often order chicken because most kitchens have an annoying tendency to cook the dickens out of it, but Starlite treats it right.
Starlite's drinks aren't haphazardly sloshed into pint glasses or slung showily by some Cocktail-wannabe. Instead, they're made with care, incorporating homemade and specialty ingredients. Mixers don't come out of a bottle or a can; they're freshly squeezed. And the spirits are mostly top-shelf or small-batch. The most popular item, food or drink-wise, remains Starlite's signature cocktail, the Moscow Mule, a sweet and sparkling mix of organic vodka, ginger beer, lime and angostura bitters. Though, as a dyed-in-the-wool bourbon drinker, I prefer a more flavorful version called the Kentucky Colonel, made with bourbon from Kentucky's Buffalo Trace Distillery, ginger beer, lemon and housemade cherry vanilla bitters that, like the Mule, comes in the same, oft-pilfered copper mug.
Starlite is one of the few spots to get a good meal after many of the city's restaurants have closed. The kitchen is open until midnight, though at 10 p.m. on Sunday through Thursday, a shortened late-night menu is introduced, which includes drink-friendly house-cut fries and a fine burger on a brioche bun with gruyere cheese and caramelized onions. The restaurant may already be mulling the idea, but I'd support the addition of a brunch service—a well-made cocktail and that burger, brought into the breakfast-food realm by a topping of a farm -fresh egg, would be a killer way to start the day.
Write to email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.