View of the bar and communal table beyond, photo from Starbellysf.com
I noticed Starbelly on the top of Urbanspoon's "Talk of the Town" list and it beckoned to me like a lighthouse in the night. I am always keen to try a restaurant that ends up on the top of that list for no other reason than I want to know why people are talking about it and if they got it right. I checked out the menu on line and was instantly intrigued and put it "on the list" to try.
My sister and I were out apartment hunting in the city last Thursday and after an evening appointment found ourselves famished but directionless in our food desires. We were in the mission district which didn't make things easier since every taste and budget can be accommodated ten times over. I suddenly got the idea to try Starbelly which was not too far away in the Castro and I remembered the location since Starbelly is located where Askew Grill use to be. I tossed my sister my iphone with the number which I had pulled up on the Urbanspoon app and had her try to see if they could seat us. I figured it would be in vain since there was a good amount of chatter about the restaurant but we caught a break and were able to get a seat if we could get there in 10 minutes. Thankfully I am an aggressive city driver and the parking god's smiled on us. We dashed in the door in about 9:45 and skidded to a stop at the hostess station. Ok maybe it wasn't that dramatic, but that sounds way more exciting doesn't it! We beat the rush and got seated at one of the high tables on the opposite side of the large communal table which is adjacent to the open kitchen.
Corn Dogs, housemade ketchup and spicy mustard, photo from Starbellysf.com
My sister and I perused the drink menu, discussed with the waitress the abundance of mixed drinks of the menu that we had never heard of and both opted for the Housemade Pimm's Cup which is a personal favorite of both of ours. The waitress warned that it was unlike any Pimm's Cup we'd had before and she wasn't just being showy or boastful, it actually did not have the same flavor profile as a regular Pimm's Cup, it was better.
The dinner menu did not make it easy on us to decide what we wanted. Everything sounded delicious. The menu is divided into snack, smalls, salads, vegetables, pizza and plates. They use local and organic whenever possible and that freshness and quality is reflected in the flavor of the food. We both set our sites on the mini corn dogs with spicy mustard & house made ketchup though the roasted Mariquita Farms padron peppers, sea salt & olive oil beckoned to me. The corn dogs were a perfect two bites. When ordering you get an option of how many you want, we decided on 4 since sharing a corn dog sounds like sharing a toothbrush to me. It can be done, but just doesn't sound all that appetizing. The corn dogs had the perfect light crunch on the outside, a delicious cornbread taste and the hot dogs were complimented perfectly by the spicy mustard and house made ketchup. I couldn't decide which I liked better, the outside of the corndog or the ketchup. I think I may have just been using the corndog as a vehicle to get the perfectly sweet but not too sweet ketchup.
After spying another tables salad size we decided to get two salads, the marinated japanese cucumber, summer tomato, raw milk feta & black olives as well as starbelly salad - leaf lettuces, local goat cheese, cherry tomatoes, salt & pepper vinaigrette. The dishes come out whenever they are ready, and based on what we ordered everything came out individually, us sweeping the last bites off the plate, just in time for the next plate or bowl to arrive. The salads were dynamically different. Both were bright and had the freshest ingredients, both were delicious. I love love love salad and am always excited when it is done well.
For our main dishes we opted for the romano beans, tomato ragu & crumbled pecorino and for the roasted porchetta, salsa verde & salsa calabria, market greens. The waitress told us that a recent review had referred to the porchetta as a giant slab of meat on the plate and so knowing that we had come based on the buzz we'd been reading, she wanted to, I don't know, warn us? But a giant slab of porchetta on a plate did not sound like a threat to either my sister or I, it sounded like a tasty tasty promise. The romano beans came out after the salads and I was very pleased that we got to enjoy them by themselves. The beans were crisp tender and the sauce & pecorino together tasted like the best pizza you've ever had, just on a romano bean instead of a crust. You could tell that the tomatoes were from the height of the season and flavored impeccably. I cannot tell you how many times I ran my fork across the empty plate hoping for one more sweet, subtly kicked up with oregano, bite. Next time I may just order 3 of those, or show restraint and just have a plate for myself.
The porchetta was an experience. I admit it, I have never eaten porchetta before. When it came to the table, I was surprised, very pleasantly. The outside of the porchetta was crisp to the point of being able to snap bits off and crunch it merrily in your mouth. Wrapped in a intensely flavorful and fatty pork belly, the inner boneless pork roast was moist and flavorful and absolutely humming. It was a big piece of meat. And for that, I am glad my sister and I shared. We didn't even get through the whole thing between the two of us. There were some spicy (braised perhaps) greens and the duo of salsas took your mouth on a flavor roller coaster where you can only hope not to scream out loud at delight. I took turns taking bites of the meat alone which was flavored well enough to stand on its own and taking bites with all the goodies on the plate which turned it into a flavor dynamo. My recommendation for anyone getting the porchetta however is not to accompany it with other heavier dishes. Don't get a pizza and porchetta. Don't get multiple plates. Go with the flow of the menu and order multiple plates for sharing.
I look forward to going back to Starbelly and see how it changes and develops its menu over time. For a first go, it is incredibly promising. Though the dessert menu looked tantalizing, we did not partake in any since we had the best gingerbread cookie in all of San Francisco (and a nice surprise of shortbread cookies too!) waiting in the car. My experience at Starbelly was a winner. I recommend it. The service was excellent, the staff extremely helpful and enthusiastic and the atmosphere buzzing but not overwhelming. I look forward to returning to Starbelly and checking out other items on the menu and tucking into another housemade Pimm's cup. Perhaps even a brunch or lunch one day? I think so.