Friday night, with a perfectly seared steak in front of me, a whole lobster in front of my girlfriend, the smell of smoke from the wood-fired grill wafting through the air, the buzz of conversation and laughter of the bar crowd vibrating around, and a white jacket-clad waitress promptly refilling my glass, I thought to myself, "Wow, this is a big night out." And big seems to be the operative word when it comes to Stars Rooftop Bar and Grill Room, a big new addition to Upper King Street.
Stars opened with some fanfare this fall after the owners, including Keith Jones of Amen Street and Southend Brewery, completely renovated a massive building that once served as a multi-level antiques mall. Somehow, Jones and his partners got Nathan Thurston to pack his knives and leave his cushy post at The Sanctuary's Ocean Room to head up the kitchen at Stars. In a way, Thurston moved much farther north than Charleston, as Stars gives Charleston a real big city feel. It's local but with a New York state of mind.
The spacious dining room on the first floor feels like a 1930s club room and seats 150 people. There's plenty of room to move about without feeling congested. Elegant pearl, black, and green terrazzo flooring complement the high-backed black leather booths. Wooden beams and panels accent the walls, and beautiful hand-blown glass fixtures light the room. A magnificent hand-blown glass chandelier, worth more than the average car, dazzles over the chef's tasting table near the open kitchen.
In the front near the windows, the bar takes center stage. It's loud and lively with more than 15 artisan wines on tap, available by the glass, 500 ml, or 1 liter. Six mostly local beers are on tap, ranging from Crispin Cider to Westbrook IPA. The cocktail menu boasts a handful of specialty cocktails and spirits, but if it's a really big night, you might want to peruse the Captain's list, which contains bottles of wine ranging from $100 to upwards of $2,600.
Behind the bar, a staircase wraps around the elevator, providing two ways to get up to the banquet room on the second floor, or the popular rooftop bar. With its fully-stocked bar, wine and beer taps included, the rooftop has already become a favorite of the locals. The stunning 360-degree view of downtown Charleston provides a perfect place to enjoy a pre- or post-dinner cocktail.
The heart of the kitchen is Thurston's beast of a grill, which he calls The Grates of Hell. Mostly fueled by local Wadmalaw red oak, just about everything on the menu pays a visit to the fire-breathing beast that's outfitted with a six-spit rotisserie, an Argentine-style grill, a plancha, and a firewall for direct ember cooking. Thurston's menu has some true stars too.
We started with four Bulls Bay oysters, one of the three specially highlighted items on the menu. Presented on a bed of salt, topped with spinach, garlic, brandy, and melted, golden-brown Asiago cheese ($11.75), they are creamy, briny, rich, and addictive. If it weren't for the other two appetizers on the table, I would've ordered more.
The mini burgers ($10.75/pair) alone are worth stopping in for. The buns are soft, but firm enough to house the juicy peanut hay-fed beef from MiBek Farms. The flame-kissed beef offers a distinct smoky flavor which is complemented nicely by the grilled oyster mushrooms, caramelized onions, black truffle aioli, and buffalo milk cheese. To the side come slices of house-made pickles.
Along with tangy goat feta, crisp greens, and truffle vinaigrette, those same mushrooms top the wood-grilled bread ($9.25). The crunch of the crust adds a pleasing contrast in texture to each bite, and the smoke from the grill lingers on the palate.
The plancha, which is a steel plate grill, delivered a perfect sear to the generously seasoned prime beef filet, another of the highlighted menu items. Cooked to a textbook medium-rare, every bite was as good as the last. Included with the steak are two sides: red potatoes that are smashed, then fried, and presented with a dollop of crème fraiche — think big home fries — and crispy Brussels sprout leaves with citrus zest. Condiments are chimichurri and Stars' steak sauce. I preferred the vibrant fresh chimichurri over the steak sauce, where a strong citrus note coming from pineapple and lemon zest created an off-balance flavor.
The third highlighted menu item is lobster and grits (Mkt. Price/$37 recently). "Big grits" from Geechie Boy Mill come dotted with cubes of house-cured bacon, cauliflower, golden raisins, and a ladle of lobster bisque. A whole grilled lobster rests atop the creamy curd-like grits, and the bacon adds a brilliant touch of saltiness. The tender meat remains inside the split lobster tail while the claws have been cracked for you. Every component reveals a flavor that's unrivaled — smoky, salty, savory, and sweet.
And unrivaled is probably the best way to explain Stars' appeal. The owners and the chef have all decided to go big, and we think Charleston's booming dining scene will sparkle even more because of it. I, for one, can't wait to go back.