Restaurant review: Promising new Stars Grill brightens up its strip mall setting

By Columbus Alive
From the September 19, 2013 edition

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