First Look at Starfish

Giant lobster tacos at Starfish.EXPAND
Giant lobster tacos at Starfish.
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp
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Upon first entering Starfish, a new seafood-centric but not seafood-only restaurant in the Heights, it's evident that the owners, Cherry Pie Hospitality, have pulled some influences from those sleek tiled seafood restaurants of yore — gleaming spots of wonder like Grand Central’s oyster bar or Casamento’s in New Orleans or like the very oyster bars that Phyllis Laurenzo Mandola described a few months back to me as having a very important place in Houston's dining identity as she was coming of age in the city her mother, Mama Ninfa, helped make famous as a food town. It's always been a seafood town, she'd told me.

Of course, Starfish is more streamlined than those grandes dames of seafood, made for high-rollers, upscale but casual. The bar area is downright sexy, and the restaurant as a whole, stylistically, seems to work with elements one wouldn’t exactly imagine finding in such a sleek, hip operation — an entryway aquarium, collage art pulled from old Surfer Magazines and a print of Banzai Pipeline pioneer Greg Noll. I’ve seen the same decor in beach hotel bars from Pensacola to Daytona done to much less stellar effect. Granted, you’re unlikely to find any bikers in Starfish, except for its very owners, Lee Ellis and Jim Mills, who apparently take to the highway on chrome and steel when they aren’t planning dining areas of black and teal, or, in this case, turquoise.

It is a stunner, this restaurant.

The menu is as well, just more in the way that it actually stops the heart from beating for the brief moment when you realize just how much it will cost you to eat here.  A bouillabaisse, which includes lobster and clams, but also halibut, runs for $43. An order of steak frites is $39. An oyster roll is $20. A single raw Gulf oyster is $2.50. One grandiose seafood tower will set you back $150, the same cost as a prix fixe at Eric Ripert's famed Le Bernadin in Midtown New York.

Because this is the case, and because I am dining alone (a poor choice, as the menu is definitely geared toward sharing), I ask the server for recommendations.

“Steak tartare, for sure,” he says. “The short ribs are great.”

But I’ve come here, to Starfish, for seafood.

“The grilled oysters are amazing."

But I’ve come here, to Starfish, after living in New Orleans for a decade. Chargrilled oysters are a tough sell after you’ve already tasted them perfected at Drago's or Felix's or even at Superior Seafood with a styrofoam go cup of frozen French 75, a drink that Starfish also has on its menu, though on this day, the machine has just been installed and the frozen libations aren't on offer yet.

Instead I order an English Garden martini, which sits on the palate like rosebud salve does on the skin, dewy and floral and luxe. I point to another bivalve offering, the hot smoked oysters. They come topped with garlic butter and chaurice, a Creole sausage specialty I can get behind, and I guess one that Ellis can get behind too, because I read in some online profile that he is originally from Lafayette, which is, for the most part, the land of chaurice as well.

Hot smoked oysters at StarfishEXPAND
Hot smoked oysters at Starfish
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

It is indeed a porcine highlight of the hot smoked oysters, which are hot in temperature but not in terms of spiciness, and perfectly tender, doused as they are in that gurgling garlic butter. I’m not the type of person to waste a Gulf oyster, especially when six of them are costing me $17, but if these were smoked, I couldn’t exactly tell since the melty provolone overwhelms the dish a tad. Like a big old grandma sweater thrown atop a model heading to Coachella, the cheese wasn't totally out of place on this hot number but it did detract from an underlying sex appeal. I  longed for each bivalve to have just a dusting of tart Mahón or salty Idiazabal, something lighter, a little more aged, a little more progressive —- it is reported that executive chef Armando Ramirez worked at the World's Best Restaurant El Celler de Can Roca — a little more Spanish.

But I'm not entirely sure progressive is where this menu is reaching. It seems more concerned with trends and nostalgia, a selection of seafood highlights among things you couldn't give up for Lent. Pastas and a burger and crab cakes and a lamb T-bone and East Coast oysters. There is always the risk, however, that a menu of this size is just doing too darn much.

A second drink arrives. A goblet big enough to keep a carnival fish or two happy. Big enough to warrant a cautionary discretion from the server.

“It looks really big,” he says. “But it’s just a regular amount of gin with a lot of tonic on top.”

Two sips in and I'm a carnival fish in a goblet of fading sunlight, which pours in from the windows at Starfish sweeter than those candies that come wrapped in pink cellophane. A two-top of men are seated to my left, another group of high-glossed women arrive, decked in platform heels and armed with gift bags. There are several two-tops of couples sharing appetizers, at least one Lifestyle Lift-ed elder picking at a crab salad. It isn't packed, but it's starting to fill up.

“Eat,” a sign on the wall encourages us, and we do.

Cauliflower side at StarfishEXPAND
Cauliflower side at Starfish
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

I obsess over a side of cauliflower. At $10, this is a relative steal at Starfish, drenched in a beurre blanc, a pop of white wine in that sinful puddle of butter with fried capers, sweet dates and bacon. I could very well see myself plagiarizing this dish for the holidays.

Lobster tacos at StarfishEXPAND
Lobster tacos at Starfish
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

The lobster tacos too are a standout, with housemade masa tortillas deep-fried and puffy and crunchy as all hell despite a delightful layer of oil slick, topped with so much tender lump lobster it beckons for a fork and the will to dredge like a 1960s Everglades developer. Caveat, though: You better be a huge cilantro fan to eat this. The micro cilantro packs a punch flavor-wise, like most living things that are micro-sized, yielding its Napoleon complex in monumental albeit successful fashion. Unless you’re one of those weirdos who think cilantro tastes like soap. Then you're going to take to this appetizer like a deer to Irish Spring.

The lobster tacos are $22, but for what it’s worth, the portion is large and filling. I downed the entire plate, as the last of the cauliflower sat helplessly on the edge of the table, and Ellis passed by my table, joking, "You better finish that."

Key lime tart is a highlight of the Starfish menuEXPAND
Key lime tart is a highlight of the Starfish menu
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Instead, I opt for a takeout box and a key lime tart from the restaurant group's bakery Petite Sweets. It's actually pretty incredible, one of the best versions I’ve had in a while, not overly sweet or tart, but somewhere close to the Publix bakery variety, which is not a put-down but a legit compliment coming from a true Floridian.

Are you a bad fish too?EXPAND
Are you a bad fish too?
Photo by Gwendolyn Knapp

Perhaps in time, maybe with the addition of a happy hour, in particular an oyster happy hour — which would absolutely kill given the location and appeal of Starfish’s raw bar and cocktail program — many people will come to frequent this spot and understand how it fits into Houston's identity as a seafood town, or in California, where a second location is reportedly being planned. The restaurant already has one unique thing going for it. Starfish does not serve poke.

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