Writing in January 2013 about the then-new restaurant Stars, I concluded that its "orbit" was assured on upper King Street, thanks to the universal appeal of proteins cooked over fire, good ingredients and the skills of its chef.
Stars Restaurant Rooftop & Grill Room
Cuisine: Southern-inspired grill menu
Representative Dish: Lobster and grits; beef shoulder tenderloin; mushroom bruschetta
Address: 495 King St.
Bar: Full service bar; rooftop bar; Tap Wine Tuesdays
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; brunch buffet 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday-Sunday
Costs: Appetizers $5.95-$26; soup and salads $8.50-$15; entrees $12.50-$27.95; desserts $8-$9.50
Vegetarian Options: Yes
Parking: Valet parking $5 (75 spaces) 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 6-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; street parking
Other: Monday night three-course dinner $29.50; Lite Bites menu at walnut bar only; Tuesday half-off tap wine menu 4-7 p.m.; special events, private dining - Wilkinson Room, OpenTable, daily specials, elevator to rooftop bar
That assessment still holds true, as the black hole of chef Nathan Thurston's departure has been filled by opening team member chef Joe DiMaio.
What our stars mean
5 stars: Exceptional; sets a standard for dining excellence.
4 stars: Superior; worth a trip beyond your neighborhood or culinary comfort zone.
3 stars: Solid example of this type of dining.
2 stars: Adequate if you're in the neighborhood or seeking this type of dining.
1 star: Generally disappointing dining experience.
What our $ signs mean
One $: $5 to $15
Two $$: $15-$25
Three $$$: $25-$50
Four $$$$: $50 +
DiMaio is an Art Institute graduate who honed his skills at the Ocean Room in The Sanctuary, Mercato and Stars. With DiMaio mentored by Thurston, operating partner Keith Jones was pleased to promote from within his organization.
The construction of Stars was an exercise in "reuse, reclaim, restore and sustain." The Arts and Crafts building was tenderly reconfigured to house the rooftop bar, private event space, and main floor bar and dining.
The installation of the "grates of hell," the live-fire cooking suite designed by Thurston in collaboration with the J&R Manufacturing Company, created quite the spectacle on King Street as a telescopic forklift was required to off-load this behemoth of a hearth into the kitchen. This six-spit rotisserie, plancha, grill and direct ember firewall monolith weighed more than 3,700 pounds and its installation required the balance of both oxygen and fuel. Suffice to say chef DiMaio has tamed the flame and the "grates of hell" have been exorcised.
Stars Rooftop Bar provides 360-degree vistas of the city, a skyline radically changed since this aerie bar opened in October 2012 when Upper King had more buildings on life support than commerce. Air-mist fans cool summer's heat and frozen high-octane Bellinis relieve parched tongues. The tap wine program, creative cocktails and snacking specials such as "peel and eat" shrimp and beef sliders ensure longevity up on the roof.
Stars is a retro classic. Coffered ceilings, Appalachian walnut wainscoting, dimpled banquettes and terrazzo floors provide a backdrop for comfortable eating and drinking. The walnut bar and high tops clustered front and center offer a spot to see and be seen. The deep banquettes and booths cozy up to comfort and lend privacy when required.
Clad in white jackets, the wait staffers are not only well-groomed but are well-informed guides for the menu. Our particular server was a rainmaker for the restaurant's bottom line: Schooled in preparations and ingredients, he had the knack of reading between the lines of every question. Was it an allergy issue, taste preference, dietary concern? None of the above, but he was prepared to make it right and accommodate the guest.
The menu has been edited but fans of the forest of flavors in the mushroom bruschetta can rest assured it remains. American vernacular describes the offerings, with a Southern accent as the thread that ties the ingredients to the finished plate.
DiMaio has been identified as a member of the "Carolina Cuisine Movement," and his commitment to farm culture is evident on his menu. The apple salad of fall now sprouts the first of the season's tomatoes both red and green. The steak options have been streamlined and the menu tips more toward poultry and seafood. Look to DiMaio and his team to tinker with their pre-industrial cooking tool and grill, fire, spin or smoke the proteins to a nuanced finish. A dish of wood-grilled tuna banked up against a hill of vegetable slaw earned high marks for flavors, textures and the use of local vegetables. Dressing swabs the crinkled greens of a kale salad with balance - salty ricotta salata flakes and smoked almond bits unify the benne seed and garlic emulsion with perfect pitch.
DiMaio bring to the kitchen skills as a butcher and baker: They do not abandon his cooking when it comes to timing and seasoning. Sorghum and sesame, jams and hams keep company with chimichurri and romescu. Steak sauce and ketchup simmer low and slow as scallops and salmon are seared and served from the plancha. Grits keep their edge yet are rounded by cooking. Vegetables are flavor tinted with sweetness and chutneys and jams register tempered acid.
The dessert menu remains fairly intact. The smoked chocolate s'mores pie is worthy of your calories, layering faintly smoked chocolate, peanuts, ganache and marshmallow meringue tufted with bits of torched sugar.
As the night progresses, cacophony can be fueled by cocktails and as colleague Hanna Raskin reported in the June 18 Food section, the decibel level of Stars rises. It is the price you pay for ascendancy, so make your reservation accordingly.