It is not usually my custom to review restaurants, but I had a little gastronomical outing the other day that I would like to share with you. Starbelly is a casual, but elegant bistro-style neighborhood restaurant in San Francisco that offers fresh, California-inspired cuisine. It just so happens that my son Alex is a manager there and so this review is clearly biased. Located in the Castro district on 16th Street off Market, the restaurant is hardly noticeable from the street with no clear banner across the face of the building and just a little sign to mark it. My dining companion and I missed it the first time we stepped off the F train. But what a treat upon entering it! Decorated in a warm contemporary style, a bar runs the length of one side and on the other, an open kitchen. We arrived early while the restaurant was still closed and the staff was setting up for the day. We were met with the startling sight of two pigs being prepped for roasting for six hours porchetta-style.
As it was explained to me, Starbelly hosts a series of patio picnics with a whole roasted pig as the “star of the evening” and a fixed dinner menu to accompany it. Starbelly special events. It is evidently quite popular as the restaurant offers two sittings, two piglets…what fun!
We were led into the cheerful patio area where we admired the peppers, herbs, and tomatoes growing in planters around the room.
As we were seated, Alex brought us a refreshing cocktail (a Pimm’s Cup with house-made Pimm’s, cucumber, and basil) as an opener…
And so the symphony of flavors, colors, and textures began!
To start, the house-made chicken liver paté, buttered bread, sweet onion marmalade (so good!), and grain mustard. After a short lull, a Caesar salad with house croutons, avocado, and creamy dressing made its way to the table. Add to this…a Starbelly bacon, jalapeño, arugula with green goddess dressing – pizza. At this point, time for another light refreshing drink…a Painted Lady (with vermouth, Earl Grey, Negroamaro and rose water) and a Highgarden (with vermouth, dolin dry, lemon, and basil). And wait! If that didn’t seem enough…A fried chicken po’boy sandwich, with a jalapeño and radicchio slaw on a sesame bun (soft as a cloud). To close…hardly room for more…the final éclat, a cool and refreshing melon sorbet with a hint of cayenne. An unusual, yet befitting ending.
All of this – delicious, fresh, and cooked on point. I especially appreciated the paté, with its buttery texture and the grilled bread along side it. The pizza crust had the right balance between crunchiness and softness. The vinegary yet creamy jalapeño and radicchio slaw complemented the fried chicken so that the sandwich did not seem heavy at all.
Above all, I was impressed by the calm efficiency of the staff, especially as the patio filled with diners. Chef Adam Timney stopped by for a friendly chat amid his multiple duties at a busy time. His affability and graciousness charmed us and put us at ease. Alex knows I love peeking into the heart of the operations, the kitchen, to meet the crew of cooks who made the meal so memorable. I met Cecilio who makes the mortadella and other charcuterie from scratch and managed to wrestle a promise that he would one day teach me.
Of course I couldn’t leave without a photo with my son!
Starbelly’s claim to provide California comfort food certainly holds true. We were comforted, our lives suspended if only for a few hours, in what M.F.K. Fisher, the renowned food writer once said, “We talked, and well, and all the dinner was most excellent, and the wine was like music on our tongue. Time was forgotten…” (Serve it Forth, “The Standing and the Waiting”). If you are interested in a similar experience, check out Starbelly, a cozy, unpretentious neighborhood restaurant that serves delicious food for all.