Before moving to the Merchants Village shopping center on James Island, Starfish Grille was a more seasonal venue, located at the Folly Beach pier. I never went to the old Starfish, but I imagine that the new one has retained that salty, touristy beach shack feel it must have had on Folly.
Its color palette is tropical, with pastel shades of turquoise and sea foam green all around and a red chair thrown in here and there. There are colorful murals and paintings of fish and starfish on the walls. The bar feels well used, and the staff and waitresses have the look and demeanor of Starfish veterans. Many of the patrons seem to be veterans, too. You can tell there's a lot of history here, a history from somewhere other than this brick shopping center.
Owner and restaurant veteran Kerry Gionis has brought on a new chef in Richard Barlion, a Johnson & Wales graduate and most recently a sous chef at Circa 1886. Barlion aims to give the menu more focus and freshness and ideally position Starfish Grille as a destination for area residents to find local seafood on James Island.
Starfish Grille's food is an interesting mix of Greek American (Gionis brings that to the table), Lowcountry, and beachside seafood. There's a she-crab soup ($5.25/$6.50) and a Greek shrimp pasta ($9). There are sandwiches like a B.L.F.G., which is a BLT with fried green tomatoes and herb mayo ($8), a gyro ($7.50), and fried catfish on a bun ($9.50).
Dinner starters like fried eggplant, with tomato gravy and cheese ($7), and a pickled shrimp and vegetable plate ($9) sound intriguing. Mains include Gullah fried chicken with mashed potatoes, pepper gravy, and greens ($13), Greek chicken with roasted potatoes, feta, and marinated onions, and roasted local flounder with red eye gravy, Hoppin' John, and mustard greens ($15). That comforting mix of culinary influences had me really excited the first time I read through the menu.
On my first visit with a friend for lunch, the Southern shrimp salad ($9) was pretty good. A generous helping of shrimp is tossed with — or rather covered in — a mayonnaise-based dressing on top of a bed of undressed greens, sliced cherry tomatoes, and cucumbers. The shrimp were fresh and good, but it was hard to taste them through the dressing. The veggies were bright, but I wished they had been dressed just a little, maybe with a squeeze of lemon and a light drizzle of olive oil.
The Greek salad ($8, add chicken for $3.50 or gyro meat for $2.75) was better. The serving size was generous, a trend at Starfish. The lettuce was great looking and fresh and lightly tossed with a tart vinaigrette. There were generous chunks of feta, black olives, sliced red onion, and a few big pickled Greek peppers, plus an aggressive scattering of woodsy dried oregano. It was a commendable Greek-American green salad. My friend loved it and ate every bite.
For the main event, I chose the Gullah fried chicken breast on benne seed bun ($9), which was over the top. (I think we both said "whoa" when it got to the table.) It was a tremendous, aggressively seasoned, juicy deep-fried chicken breast (I'm talking hanging over the bun on two sides by about two inches) smothered with boatloads of melted pimento cheese and topped with lettuce and two thick slices of pickled green tomatoes. What else can I say about this one? My only complaints were that the fries weren't as crispy as I would have liked, and I was so full I had trouble walking to my car.
My friend went for the braised barbecue pork sandwich ($9), which was another gargantuan sandwich. A big mound of pulled pork came piled high underneath another big mound of thinly sliced ham, plus a few huge strips of bacon to gild the lily, all on Texas toast. It was salty, meaty, decadent, and plentiful. My friend called it "pork city."
On my second lunch visit, the mixed green salad ($4/$7) was just OK. Some pretty good-looking mixed greens and a smattering of cherry tomatoes and cucumbers, which weren't at their peak, came topped with a couple of big pickled okra spears and pickled red onions, plus four or five garlic croutons that were frankly a little stale. The Greek vinaigrette on the side was good, but overall it seemed like a halfhearted attempt at a salad.
The Southern Reuben ($8) was decadent like the other sandwiches I tried, but not in the most appealing of ways. The rye bread was pretty well saturated with whatever fat it was grilled with. The corned beef was really rich, too, and there wasn't a whole lot of it. Instead of the traditional cole slaw you'd find on a Reuben, this one was smothered in housemade chow chow. A great idea, but it was so saturated with dressing that, combined with the beef and grilled bread, it made for a soggy situation. I missed that contrast between piled-high spicy corned beef and sour crunchy sauerkraut that I look forward to in a Reuben.
At dinner, a beef and potato soup special was a good version of that American cafeteria favorite: rich broth, shredded tender beef, and big starchy chunks of potato. Not bad. The lemon-baked wahoo ($18) was even better. A generous portion of fresh wahoo filet was infused with lemon flavor and served atop a solid version of old school Charleston red rice generously ladled over with rich, creamy bacon-studded red eye gravy, all surrounded with six or eight whole fried okra pods. Even though the under-seasoned batter didn't stick too well to the fried okra, and the fish was thoroughly cooked, this was the best Starfish dish I'd had.
Specials like the tomato pie with pickled shrimp salad sounded good, as did the coconut cake and key lime pie desserts. But with these gut-busting portions, I didn't have the room.
I had high hopes for Starfish Grille, anticipating an unpretentious gem of a restaurant. Its combination of unique and authentic culinary influences and the way those influences are combined on the menu had me really excited. But right now, the cooking at Starfish tends to feel a bit stale, like the ghost of its seasonal past lingering. The new chef's idea to make Starfish a more local, seasonal, and fresher spot is a great one. But it's not quite there yet. With a little more attention to detail, a freshening and lightening of the menu, and a little love, I think Starfish could become that gem.