Stuck in the middle of the Carriage Place strip mall and abutting a second-run discount movie house is hardly a glamorous spot for an ambitious new restaurant unflinchingly named — with chutzpah and perhaps hubris — Stars Grill. That same, not-high-on-the-desire-o-meter address certainly didn’t enhance the longevity of its went-kaput-without-lament previous restaurant occupants.
Getting repeated Stars press releases (which were verging on pushy) trumpeting news this eatery’s triumphant “local chef returns to Columbus” to “create a unique and fresh menu,” didn’t exactly cause enthusiasm and blind belief to ooze from me either. After a little research revealed said chef’s bona fides included in-town stints at Barcelona and Mitchell’s Ocean Club plus an out-of-town gig at the Ritz-Carlton Resort in Lake Tahoe, I finally figured, “OK, what the heck?”
Pulling up to this establishment — where a flimsy banner couldn’t wholly cover up its former signage of “Buffalo Wings and Bowls” — I was prepared for the worst. Fortunately, I got a whole lot better than that. In fact, a shopworn phrase popped into my head about a book and its cover.
Stars’ ambiance might be described as residing somewhere between “hoary game shows/old sitcoms flashing on a flat screen brightened by star-shaped hanging lanterns” and “nonexistent.” What does exist is a small draft beer list topped by CBC’s refreshing IPA ($4).
Stars’ cuisine might be described as residing somewhere between “cheffed up diner fare” and “terrific home cooking.” Take, for instance, its pleasant White Bean Chicken Chili ($3; served with a huge doorstop of crispy-crusted cornbread). Bobbing in a homey poultry broth were various beans, chicken and tangy mild green chilies. Nice.
In the shareable starter department is the colorful and lively Stars Vegetable Sampler ($8), anchored by a hearty, lemony and garlicky sorta chunky white bean hummus. Also to be spread on good, grill-toasted thin bread rounds: a pickly relish of carrot, red pepper and onion; grilled and chilled button mushrooms; scorched, fresh-off-the-cob corn; roasted red pepper; and deeply caramelized red onion lobes.
The chargrilled Hollywood Burger ($10 with a side) was a Stars highlight. Juicy and sporting an attractive backyard-style crust and flavor, it was spicily dressed up with chipotle mayo and roasted poblanos offset by fresh avocado, gruyere cheese and onion straws. Side-wise, stubby French fries (which can arrive with a Cajun-like hot dusting) or an overachieving side salad (with good greens, watermelon radishes and a sweet-tart, homemade herbed vinaigrette) provide fine company.
Those same supplements can partner with an impressive and large housemade vegetarian burger (The Vege, $9). Obviously modeled after Northstar’s brilliant black bean/brown rice/beet conglomeration, this focaccia-rolled winner garnished with a “corn spread” (corn’s very popular here) featured a nice crust plus never-boring, taco-meets-curry-type flavors.
Though I would’ve dug a much deeper sear on the pig and spuds, the grill-marked and admirably tender Pork Chops ($10 for a thin-cut duo) served with cooked apples, sauteed potato cubes and rosemary showed what this modest Stars outfit can accomplish: scratch made, fresh food imbued with bold and classic flavors at an extremely reasonable cost. Ditto for an expensive-for-here, wine-drenched Pot Roast ($15 for big, fatty knobs) sided with light, real mashers, onion straws and yet more blistered corn.
And ditto again for a nifty dessert du jour — an oaty-topped, warm and homey berry and apple crisp crowned with vanilla ice cream and judiciously scented with Christmas spices ($7).
Moral of this story: Your visits to the cheap-ass movie theater just got appreciably better.
Photos by Tim Johnson