One of this spring’s most eagerly anticipated restaurants will make its debut this week. Cherry Pie Hospitality, the year-old company led by partners Lee Ellis and chef Jim Mills, will open its new seafood restaurant Star Fish in the next couple of days.
Located in the same Heights-adjacent shopping center as its sister concept Pi Pizza, Star Fish offers a more elevated take on seafood than what the company serves at State Fare, the comfort food restaurant in Gateway Memorial City that’s reached the finals of CultureMap’s Tastemaker Awards Best New Restaurant tournament, powered by Whole Foods. Ellis and Mills have been tight-lipped about the concept but gave CultureMap a sneak peek at what diners can expect.
“I don’t think there’s really anything (nearby) that’s super seafood-centric,” Ellis tells CultureMap. “There are restaurants in town doing seafood, but I think we’ve gone out of our way to make it special. I think once again it’s a lot of dishes we like to eat. We’re going to stick to the theme of doing things we like (as a company).”
Although some media accounts have described the restaurant as “Ellis’ take on Gulf seafood,” Star Fish takes its inspiration from a broader array of influences that reflect the partners’ travels around the world. While the Gulf gets represented in dishes like that include oysters (fried, raw, or roasted) and a whole snapper (grilled or fried), the menu also includes gravlax, ahi tuna, scallops, salmon, halibut, and other seafood that hail from beyond the region.
“I think (this restaurant) gives us an opportunity to focus on a part of cooking we both love, which is seafood, and certainly indicative of this part of the country,” Mills says. “There are some dishes that definitely have deep roots in this area and a lot of other dishes that don’t . . . Our food at State Fare is kind of big and bold. Our flavors here will be big, but our presentations will be prettier . . . It gives us the opportunity to look at seafood and have a higher profile product than we do at State Fare and to do some fun stuff that we’ve been dreaming about.”
Those dreams manifest themselves in a number of ways. Mills cites the restaurant’s french fries, which are fried in clarified butter, as one dish that he’s particularly excited about. Clarifying the butter allows it to reach temperatures hot enough to fry potatoes (without smoking) and gives the fries a buttery flavor that’s more reminiscent of mashed potatoes.
“It’s kind of crazy cause it’s not cheap, but it makes them really good. That’s one example, and we take some different approaches to dishes,” Mills says.” Like our steak tartare isn’t chopped beef with shallots and mustard and raw egg yolk on top. It’s going to be covered in crispy shallots. It’s just different. It’s not because we wanted to reimagine beef tartare. Let’s just say it’s more American-style, if there is such a thing. It doesn’t pay such strict homage to the European classic.”
In addition to the tartare, beef also shows up on the menu as steak frites and a cheeseburger that Mills and Ellis are still tweaking. Non-seafood entree options also include chicken, duck, and a grilled lamb T-bone. Daily seafood specials will be based on what’s available fresh from purveyors. In addition to the fries, side options include wood-grilled Brussels sprouts, braised heirloom carrots, and a sauteed cauliflower steak.
Raw and cold selections
Similarly, raw and cold selections will vary with options including raw oysters from Galveston Bay, Gulf oysters from specific reefs in Louisiana and Alabama, and East Coast oysters from north of the Long Island sound: all of which are available with a number of sauces, including a jalapeno mignonette that utilizes housemade vinegar.
Daily crudo specials and seafood cocktails (shrimp or crab) will be featured as stand alone items and included as part of one of the three raw seafood platters, two of which are affordably priced (one in the mid $40s and other in the $60s) to encourage diners to sample broadly. Those seeking something more over the top may opt for the Tower Royale (approximately $150), which offers selections from the entire raw bar including a dressed lobster.
Overall, the dishes’ presentations are designed to be a little more elegant than State Fare and the portions, while still generous, are a little more reasonable. Pricing had yet to be finalized but will reflect the quality of the ingredients used in the dishes. Star Fish will begin with dinner only and roll out brunch in a couple of weeks.
Ellis and Mills have assembled a veteran crew to run the restaurant’s day to day operations. Armando Ramirez moves over from State Fare to serve as the restaurant’s executive chef, and certified sommelier Leonora Varvoutis will serve as Star Fish’s general manager. Bar manager Akiko Hagio (Canard, Sanctuari at Triniti) reunites with her former colleague, Cherry Pie beverage director Laurie Harvey, to oversee the restaurant’s beer and cocktail offerings (with Varvoutis directing the wine list).
“This is the bar program I always wanted to do.” Harvey says. “I’m a gin fanatic.”
Menu built around martinis
The restaurant’s focus on libations designed to complement seafood opened the door for a menu built around martinis and elegant, Spanish-style gin and tonics. At opening, Harvey has sourced 32 different gins for the back bar, as well as a number of vodkas and vermouths, all of which can be turned into martinis.
“Our martinis are all served in two sizes, so you can get a mini martini or a martini with a sidecar,” Harvey says. “We did the you can’t beat 'em, join 'em Houston martini, which is a vodka martini shaken, dirty, with a really fancy olive brine and a blue cheese-stuffed olive.”
Harvey named the Star Fish martini for the version of the classic that she makes at home with Ford’s gin, Miro extra dry vermouth, and lemon zest. The menu also includes the oyster shell martini Harvey’s friend Leslie Ross Krockenberger developed for the opening menu at Bernadine’s, tiki drinks inspired by Hagio’s passion for the genre (served in tiki mugs), frozens, and a couple of highballs, including the Lady Snow Pea, which is made with a surprisingly delicate house pea soda.
Cordials and liqueurs are available as $3 “petites” to encourage diners to try something new at the end of their meals.
Just as the cocktails allow Harvey to indulge her passion for gin, the wine list provides Varvoutis with the opportunity to feature sparkling wines and food-friendly whites at a range of price points. In particular, she recommends the lambrusco rose from Italy’s Cantina della Volta, which pours a pale pink and possesses a very mild sweetness.
Cherry Pie developed State Fare quietly, within the context of Pour Society, before announcing the changes they had made. Given State Fare’s success and Star Fish’s prime location, the new restaurant won’t get that luxury, but Ellis, Mills, and their team have spent a long time developing these dishes and training the staff. All that’s left is to unlock the doors and see how diners respond.
Star Fish: 191 Heights Blvd Houston, TX 77007; Sunday through Wednesday 4 pm to 10 pm; Thursday through Saturday 4 pm to 11 pm.