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Castro's Starbelly dishes out a truly memorable meal 

Wednesday, Oct 7 2009

The first meal I had at Starbelly — a delightful lunch during which two of us shared seven dishes and wished we had room for more — colored every other restaurant visit for weeks afterward. It was a singularly memorable meal: We loved the setting, the service, and especially the food. If a place we subsequently tried was mediocre, so much the worse, but even the interesting and ambitious places paled a little in comparison.

It was impossible not to dip into a soup and compare it unfavorably with the two excellent ones we'd had at Starbelly, a hearty Rancho Gordo split-pea soup boasting chunks of house-smoked ham hock ($5), and, even better, perhaps the best gazpacho ($5) I've ever had, made with heirloom tomatoes that yielded a sweet broth glistening with basil oil and featuring ripe chunks of avocado with hot spices.

Executive chef Adam Timney, veteran of Bacar and EOS, also did a stint at Boccalone. His house-made cured meats are superb, whether incorporated into wonderful sandwiches offered at delicatessen price points or served on a well-garnished wooden plank. The "submarine" ($9) features pistachio-studded mortadella, prosciutto, salami, and roasted red peppers layered on a crisp, floury roll (you can add thin skin-on fries for $2, which came with tomato sauce). Thinly sliced, mildly funky, fat-rimmed porchetta ($8) was topped with a spicy, garlicky salsa verde and plenty of arugula and sided with a dipping bowl of deep-flavored pork jus. You can also assemble your own salumi selection from three daily choices, perhaps mortadella, capocollo, and salami ($3 each, $14 for all three; the higher price is for a more generous serving).

The velvety chicken pâté ($9) was so compelling that we ordered it on both visits. The first time it came garnished with fresh figs, house-made pickled vegetables, and smoky grilled toast; the second, with grilled peaches and the same good toast. We missed the crunch and bite of the pickles.

Starbelly is the second restaurant from Deborah Blum and Adriano Paganini, after their extremely popular Beretta in the Mission, which features pizza and cocktails. The restaurants feel very different, and not just because Starbelly has a wider menu with only a subspecialty in pizza and a liquor license limited to wine and beer. Beretta, on a street lined with eateries, is a dinner house during the week, while Starbelly is open daily from 11:30 a.m. in a neighborhood that isn't dotted with lots of alluring alternatives.

Starbelly took a space that once housed an Asqew Grill and installed a long pale-wood bar, made from a recycled bowling lane. It's paneled in alternating planks of rough-hewn and smooth wood in assorted tones, and there's an open kitchen along one wall. At lunch, when we sat on a banquette near the entrance, conversation was easy. At night, tucked away in the back, it was noticeably noisier, especially as the evening wore on, the place grew darker, and the alcohol kicked in.

In addition to a judicious and eclectic selection (about 18 each) of international red and white wines, there are more than a dozen bottled beers and more than half a dozen draft beers, as well as inventive cocktails made with wine or beer. We enjoyed a Diablito ($5), a spicier variation on the Michelada ($5) made with beer and house-squeezed tomato juice; prosecco ($8); a lavender-honey lemonade ($4); and ran riot through the drafts.

At dinner, we chose lightly fried popcorn clam strips served with Old Bay remoulade from a menu of snacks (most priced at $5) that also tempted us with mini corn dogs with spicy mustard and house-made ketchup, as well as sausages flavored with sage and garlic. We'd already sampled at lunch the tiny roasted Padrón peppers, some sweet, some hot, dusted with sea salt.

We shared three exquisitely gilded pan-roasted diver scallops ($14), sitting in a sweet emerald sauce of creamed nettles enhanced with lemon oil; and a bowl of about a dozen and a half big mussels ($7) intensely flavored with chorizo, chiles, and cilantro. The Starbelly salad ($5) was amazingly generous: leaf lettuces and cherry tomatoes dotted with soft fresh local goat cheese in a light vinaigrette with some bite to it.

The pizza ($13) we tried (from a list of seven, priced between $11 and $15) had a terrific thin and golden crust — one of us broke off some of the edges to smear with the pâté, an inspired idea. But its toppings were unbalanced — there was plenty of guanciale, but not nearly enough of the nettles and lemon zest that had attracted us and had combined so well in the sauce on the scallops.

The fresh spaghetti ($11), mixed with house-cured bacon, tomato, basil, and the exciting bite of slivered jalapeños, had the judicious balance the pizza lacked. The only disappointment was an oddly lackluster dish of lamb cheeks braised in ale ($17), sided with not-very-cheesy white-cheddar grits and braised greens. A side of local corn with mascarpone and garlic ($6) was something of a revelation: a sly, pungent, unsweet creamed corn, subtly different from any we'd had before.

The brief dessert list emphasizes Humphry Slocombe ice cream combined in one offering with another local favorite, a chocolate-spice Dynamo doughnut ($8). Vanilla ice cream topped with ripe peaches, brioche crumbs, and a bit of fruity olive oil ($7) was a perfect summer sweet. The very nice warm pear crumble came with bourbon-and-cornflakes Secret Breakfast ice cream ($7). And the Mr. Espresso French press coffee ($3.50 a cup, $5 a pot) may be pricey, but it's beautifully made.

It's clear that Starbelly wants to delight and satisfy its clientele in every area of its menu. We'll remember our meals there for a long time.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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