Cuisine: Modern Southern AmericanCategory: Neighborhood Favorite; Night OutLocation: 495 King St.Phone: 577-0100Hours: Bar 4 p.m.-2 a.m. daily; dinner service Sunday-Thursday 5-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5-11 p.m.Food: 3 1/2Service: 2 1/2Atmosphere: 3Price: $$$-$$$$Vegetarian Options: YesWheelchair Accessible: YesBar: Full-service bar on restaurant level and on the rooftopParking: Valet provided for 75 spaces; meters, garagesOther: Specialty cocktail menu 10 for $10; Captains List; daily specials MP; dining room, rooftop bar, event space in The Wilkinson Room for 100 guests; private lunch events, catering, 140 guests at rooftop bar; tap wine program; starsrestaurant.com; firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com, Facebook, Twitter, OpenTable.
Stars takes its name from the celestial canopy that is above its rooftop bar. Patrons can walk in all four directions around this spectacular space to view both heaven and earth.
And for a while there, it seemed like reaching for the stars was the challenge for executive chef Nathan Thurston and owner Keith Jones (Amen Street, Southend Brewery).
Stars was hoping to be open for the PGA Championship last summer, but creative recycling involving the bar and lighting, not to mention the installation of a wood-fired cooking machine Thurston christened “The Grates of Hell,” delayed those plans.
In October, Stars ascended at 495 King St. in the art deco and Arts & Crafts building that was once home to Leon Rabin’s menswear shop, Leon’s. In true preservation fashion, the signage and entry to the restaurant reproduces the look of Leon’s haberdashery.
The reclaimed walnut bar is the vestibule to the open kitchen, where a live-fire grill, rotisserie and plancha, a flattop grill, provide the primitive tools for Thurston’s culinary magic.
In this monolithic method of cookery, the chef and his team must coax, tame, tease and respect the elemental powers of fire and smoke to tender and cook flesh, fauna and flora. Simplicity and skill in the same movements — not always easy to master, yet this kitchen does.
The restaurant is quite clubby, all brown and charcoal, brightened by recycled glass lighting and a wait staff outfitted in white jackets. The mash-up of jazz and big-band sounds, the classic cocktail menu and the subdued lighting broadcast dining in another era. But in the contemporary canon of local and seasonal, Thurston is tapping into area farmers and purveyors to stock his larders with pristine seafood, meat with the mineral tang of age, vegetables at their peak of freshness.
The red oak wood, too, is harvested on Wadmalaw Island and painstakingly aged and dried so its subtle complexities perfume or perfuse the ingredients.
The cooking system, manufactured according to Thurston’s specs, is used for hearth roasting, rotisserie cooking, plancha searing, smoking chocolate and grilling steaks, mushrooms and fish. All of this primitive cooking comes with the price of time, and embers and coals must adjust to the liquefaction of fat and the development of char and crust.
The menu speaks to the season and changes accordingly. MiBek Farm “peanut hay”-fed beef is used for the mini-burgers ($10.75 a pair). There is no taste of Skippy, just a nutrient-dense forage that makes for better-tasting beef.
A wood-grilled blue crab soup ($9.25) answers the call for she-crab; mussels are treated to a French touch with pistou (France’s retort to pesto), and mini-BLTs with house-cured bacon ($8.50) match well with the draft beer selection ($4-$7).
Salads ($7.25-$8.50) eschew the common players around town and layer seasonal greens, micro-thin vegetables, toasted or smoked nuts with vinaigrettes of ginger, cider and benne seed.
In a menu section called the “Garden,” mushroom bruschetta ($9.25) and winter greens, along with fall squashes with quinoa ($10.50) and sweet potato risotto ($11.50) with sorghum vinaigrette will pique the interest of vegetarians and meat-eaters alike.
Thurston’s dishes are well-composed. Unlike a steakhouse where the meat is a la carte and the sides are designed for a family, he offers a smashed and fried red bliss potato topped with fresh cream and chives, crisped Brussels sprout leaves and two house-made sauces with no up-charges, no sides costing $12-$18. The prices are still high end: $35-$47 for filet, New York strip or rib-eye but value for the quality and taste.
The strip steak (aka Kansas City strip, shell steak or strip loin) is butchered by Thurston to resemble the shape of a filet mignon, so be prepared for its look. There is no mistaking its texture and mineral tang.
Local Charleston swordfish ($27.95) cooked on the live fire was pristine. The hearth-roasted carrots possessed wonderful flavor. It was only in the greens and Brussels sprout leaf vegetables that the kitchen misstepped by over-salting.
A neighboring diner enjoyed a whole lobster ($37) on a bed of grits, bacon, golden raisins and a sauce of lobster bisque. The filet mignon ($35) also presented well and with all the trickiness that cooking over fire requires, all the steaks came out cooked as requested.
Chicken with bread salad and mustard dressing also had appeal. It was initially a dinner for two ($45.50), but now you can order a half-portion for one.
The wines are well-matched to the menu and provide a variety of labels unique to Stars. You can order by the glass, 500 ml or 1 liter. A fine bottled wine list and Captains List also are available.
Our server was well-informed about the menu and had some delightful suggestions for wine, but then disappeared. I noticed this happening to other tables. Does a private event call them away? It did seem every table “lost” its server for a while.
Do partake of desserts. Pastry chef Ross Evans celebrates the child in us with smoked chocolate S’Mores pie ($9.50), the Lowcountry with a pluff mud pudding ($7.50), Italy with a semifreddo and classic Americana with apple pie ($9.50) and pumpkin cheesecake ($8.50).
In the firmament of new restaurants in Charleston, the ascendency of Stars is confirmed.
With the universal appeal of flavors birthed in flame, the galaxy of Thurston’s team, ingredients, skills and rooftop aerie assures the orbit of Stars on Upper King.
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