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Fading Glory 

Wednesday, Apr 12 2000
Once upon a time, back in the days of Jello Biafra, Steve Silver, and the Giants-A's World Series, Stars was the liveliest show in town. Master of Ceremonies Jeremiah Tower, erstwhile blazer of culinary trails real or imagined, presided over a nightly Folies Bergère of imaginative food, icy cocktails, power brokers, visiting royalty, gawking tourists, ballet-bound swells, and after-work guzzlers. The stage was made up of two raised dining areas, counters for single supping, and, predominantly, The Bar. It was the longest bar in San Francisco and probably the tallest to boot, a lively, noisy, playfully elegant crossroads where bonds were soldered and sundered, deals were made, consumption was accomplished, and one saw and was seen -- the Stars experience essentialized.

The bar survives, but a year and a half after Tower sold Stars and worldwide rights to its name to the Andrew Yap family and moved to the Philippines, and seven months after the original edition served its last supper, the place has a revamped look and a completely different menu -- not much of it stimulating. Stars' kitchen had been gliding on its reputation for a few years before it finally closed last September; I remember a 1995 visit that was long on ambient excitement and disappointing in the area of culinary interest, a common experience in those last years. (One theory accounting for the decline was Tower's expansion of his gastronomical interests beyond the confines of Golden Gate Avenue to a miniempire of Stars outposts far and wide.)

But early on, the creative Tower, whose healthy self-esteem has led him to describe himself as "the inventor of California cuisine," took good American food and jazzed it up with a Euro sensibility, placing cocktails, steaks, ribs, and pie in a bistrolike context of vintage aperitif posters, lamb shanks, white beans, oysters on the half shell, rich sauces, fantastic wines, late hours (you could dine until midnight, 2 a.m. weekends!), and a noisy appreciation for good food. Nowadays every third Bay Area restaurant matches this culinary-aesthetic profile; back then its epicurean joie de vivre was rich, strange, and very, very popular.

Under new chef Christopher Fernandez, Stars' Parisian atmo has given way to the cuisine of the '90s (and, so far, the '00s): rustic Mediterranean. A veteran of the Cypress Club and Oakland's Oliveto, Fernandez has replaced Tower's rich, buttery style with simpler, less innovative fare, adding the standard wood-burning oven, grill, and rotisserie to the kitchen and sprinkling the menu with crostini, chiogga beets, pappardelle, green garlic, tangelos, fresh chevre, and the like. Meanwhile, new managing partners John Kanis and Stanley Morris (who opened a Seattle Stars last year to great acclaim) spent a month rethinking the restaurant's interior design, keeping the antique posters but adding huge produce-themed still lifes (by local artist Charley Brown) as well as Persian carpets, starry Italianate light fixtures, comfy, chocolate-brown Pullman booths, and the inevitable pastel paint job. But the mood is still expansive, the dining rooms are as soaringly beautiful as before, and the bar is as central to the whole gestalt as it ever was.

This is where we began our meal, absorbing the festive chatter and sipping two modern variations on the increasingly passé martini: the Pine Drop ($6.50), prepared with pineapple-infused vodka, and the Mandrin Drop ($6.50), in which mandarin orange is the prevailing flavor. The presentations are dramatic -- both come rimmed with sugar, with origamic examples of the respective fruits straddling the glasses -- and each boasts enough citric-alcoholic punch to blow away the hardest-to-reach cobweb.

But after the handsome conviviality of the bar and its cocktails, dinner was a disappointment. Despite the tempting promise of the menu, dishes fell flat, offering only the occasional hint of vim and spice and culinary acumen. While the ingredients were often tasty and inventive, they remained disparate and uninvolved, preventing a given dish from attaining a nectareous synergy. The spring onion and asparagus soup ($6), for instance, barely tasted of asparagus, had no oniony bite, and was overly thick to boot. The asparagus fared somewhat better in the grilled asparagus crostini with Fontina Val d'Aosta and truffle oil ($9.50), but the whole was just a glorified toasted-cheese sandwich when you got right down to it. And the roasted squab appetizer ($12), tender though it was, was practically taste- free, although its accompanying black chanterelles were good and earthy.

Much better was the watercress salad ($10), mostly because of the fantastically fresh and peppery cress itself, although its platemates, chunks of Pixie mandarin and chiogga beet, didn't hurt it any. And the house bread, a ciabatta from Acme, was wonderfully dense and sour.

Most of the entrees edged toward the desultory. The heavy artichoke chunks accompanying the thick, ponderous yellowfin tuna ($21) didn't do it any favors, although the picholine olives and red onion alongside (italics mine) were spiky and wonderful. The spit-roasted pork loin ($17) was chewy, tough, and indifferent, with a neighboring garlic-potato gratin that was all creamy starch and not much else. But another product of the spit, the roasted chicken ($16.50), was wonderfully moist and slightly smoky, with a good, simple supplement of al dente, sparklingly fresh escarole, carrots, and English peas in a light broth. A heavenly side order of rich, fluffy mashed potatoes ($3) made the dish even better.

The dessert menu features a selection of four cheeses matched with complementary fruits and nuts; the Crocodile Tear ($5), a paprika-dusted chevre, was dense and mild, and its shaved-pear accompaniment was just about the freshest and most flavorful I've tasted. Elsewhere on the menu, the chocolate-vanilla sundae ($7), ribboned with pecan brittle and doused in chocolate sauce, wasn't up to expectations, but the tangelo granita ($6) was like a really good, high-end Dreamsicle: a creamy, honeyed fromage blanc mousse was folded into the bittersweet crushed ice, strewn with candied orange peel, and served in a martini glass, with buttery shortbread on the side as its opulent foil.

Stars' wine list is long and thorough, with by-the-glass selections from France, Spain, Italy, Portugal, New Zealand, and the Wine Country ($6-10, or $3-5 for a 3-ounce taste), bottles from the same regions ($16 for a Bonny Doon 1998 vin gris rosé, $485 for Caymus' 1995 cab, and everything in between), and tasting trios (three 3-ounce selections for $12) in both white and red. Service is warm, knowledgeable, and attentive despite the chronic mad rush to get diners to one performance or another at the neighboring Civic Center.

What's needed now is an in-kitchen performance to match. Stars' menu has given way to Mediterranean cuisine of the 00s: Line cook Jason Dady serves up wood- roasted mussels.

About The Author

Matthew Stafford


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