Saturday, November 21, 2009

Dish on Dining: Starbelly

Beretta Clones Itself in the Castro
3583 16th St. (at Market), San Francisco
Castro neighborhood
PH: 415.252.7500
Open Mon.–Fri., 11:30 a.m.–11 p.m.; Sat. & Sun., 10:30 a.m.–11 p.m. (till midnight on Friday and Saturday), weekend brunch served till 4 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Reservations for 6 or more only, otherwise call within 45 minutes before you arrive to be placed on walk-in wait list

I’ve written in the past about the lack of real “destination” restaurants in the Castro, a neighborhood in which one would most likely find the discretionary income—even in today’s economy—to enjoy a night out for cocktails and dinner.

But things appear to be changing with the opening a few months ago of Starbelly and this month’s entry of Frances, the long-awaited restaurant by Chef Melissa Perello, formerly of Charles Nob Hill and the Fifth Floor.

I’ll have to save Frances for a later post. Today, my focus is on Starbelly, which has drawn crowds to the tiny spot in what I consider the traffic triangle hell of Market-16th-Sanchez. By the same people behind the popular Beretta in the Mission, Starbelly has transformed the former Asqew Grill eatery into a handsome and equally popular neighborhood hotspot.

Starbelly even functions the same as Beretta: Beautiful bar with fancy cocktails, check. Thin crust pizza and assortment of small and large plates, check. No reservations but a 45-minute call-in policy to get on the wait list, check.

Hearing about the crowds, I decided to meet my friend Ken at 6 p.m. on a weeknight. I called ahead to put my name on the wait list, but when we arrived, we didn’t have a problem getting a table. Probably because it was one of the worst tables in the house.

Unfortunately, we weren’t taken to a prime table in the back near the large communal table or supposedly large patio. Instead, we got a two-top at the front entrance near the window. Normally I wouldn’t mind sitting by the window and people watching, but this two-top was squeezed near the corner. The waitress had to squeeze by me every time to serve the table next to us, and as the night went on and the people waiting in the front increased, I was basically surrounded by butts. Look to my right: the waitress’ butt as she’s helping the table next to me. Look to my left: the butt of some guy waiting for a table and standing in the front area among the crowd.

Poor seating aside, Ken and I both ordered a glass of Malbec and started ordering a few dishes from the menu, which seems to lean heavily on the California seasonal-inspired cuisine as opposed to the mostly Italian offerings at Beretta.

We shared the Pan Roasted Diver Scallops ($14) because Ken and I both love scallops. I learned a big lesson, though. Whenever ordering scallops, be sure to ask how many scallops you’ll actually get on the plate. Even though it was listed under the “small” category, I figured we’d probably get three small scallops. Instead, the dish came with just two. And for $14, that seemed a bit skimpy.

Plus, the scallops were overly browned. The taste was OK, and it sat on a light gingered yam puree with pepitas, which was a nice seasonal touch but hardly made up for the darkly browned scallops.

Ken also ordered the Fuyu Persimmon and Butter Leaf Salad ($8), which looked pretty and tasted fresh with the thinly sliced persimmons. Ken shared a bit of the salad with me, and I really loved the addition of the Oregon hazelnuts, which were toasted to a nice crunch, adding a fun contrast to the persimmons and butter lettuce.

Ken also ordered the house-cut fries ($5), which you can guess I didn’t eat much of since I avoid deep-fried foods. The thinly cut fries, almost shoestrings, were served with three kinds of dip. I did try one piece to test the texture and taste, and I have to say I was thrown by the texture. It tasted fake. Ever eat something that had been so overly cooked that it basically turned into dust? This was what the fries were like. They were so fried that their exterior were definitely crispy, but the interior didn’t taste like potatoes anymore and just tasted like nothing.

Starbelly has a large pizza selection, and our waitress said because they’re thin crust, they’re not super filling. Ken and I shared the Fall Squash and Sage pizza ($12), which looked beautiful when it arrived. It was also topped with black garlic, fresh goat cheese and more toasted pepitas.

I enjoyed the flavors from the thinly sliced squash and the deep flavors of the sage and black garlic. The crust was super thin, very similar to the paper-thin crust at their sister restaurant Beretta. And just to remind you, I thought those thin crusts were too thin. I’m not a lover of the paper-thin crusts.

While Ken was pretty much filled from his starters and the pizza, I ventured into the entrée section to order the Pan Roated Lingcod with Brussels Sprouts and Bacon ($16). The plate was a nice size, and I didn’t mind the searing on the lingcod (it wasn’t as charred as the scallops). The fish had a nice flavor and the texture was perfect, and I enjoyed the rustic combination of Brussels sprouts and bacon, which turned it into a very hearty dish.

We ended our night with dessert, which was a Toffee Cake ($7). The tiny cake was topped with dates and served with mascarpone. I didn’t really like the addition of the dates, and the mascarpone was bland and needed some sweetener. But I really enjoyed the warm cake with its light fluffy texture and spiced flavors.

Side note: The service was a bit off. I don’t know if it’s a matter of the restaurant being new or if it was an off night. But the hostesses always seemed a bit bored, not sure what to do other than telling people they had to wait; and our waitress kept rushing us. She would literally hand us the menu and come back for our orders within 60 seconds.

Judging by the crowds, Starbelly is a certified success and a welcome addition to the Castro. But I think the crowds are more a reflection of the hunger from neighborhood residents for a really good restaurant. As more good restaurants open up in the Castro, I think people will eventually see Starbelly as a decent restaurant serving up seasonal dishes—but not a place worth waiting for.

Single guy rating: 3.25 stars (Just like Beretta)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:

1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Starbelly on Urbanspoon

Related reviews:

Beretta: “Hip to Pizza and Cocktails in the Mission”
Eureka: “A Night of Revelations at this Castro Spot”
Lime: “A Party Where Food is an Acessory”


Hungry Dog said...

Your review made me laugh out loud--the line about being surrounded by butts. I actually had to read that aloud to Danny, who also laughed :) anyway, sounds like starbelly has a way to go. I'll wait a few months and see if it's smoothed out its rough edges. Nice, thoughtful review, as always.

Carolyn Jung said...

Pizza with sage and black garlic sounds divine. I might have to try that combo on my own pizzas at home.