Catching up with a star on the rise

Restaurant CriticFebruary 4, 2005 

I have just enjoyed, over the brief span of 10 days in January, the two most memorable meals I've had in at least a year. And I'm kicking myself.

Allow me to explain. Both meals took place at Starlu, which opened in November on the ground floor of an office building near South Square in Durham. The restaurant is the first venture of rising star chef Sam Poley, but it isn't the first time I've had the opportunity to sample Poley's cooking. Over the past four years, I'd had two opportunities at two different restaurants. I missed both, however, and that's why I'm kicking myself.

Maybe I'm being too hard on myself. After all, I really did intend to visit Squid's when I learned in 2001 that Poley had taken over as chef at the Chapel Hill restaurant. I knew that the young chef had worked with a veritable Who's Who of notable Triangle chefs, including Ben Barker and Scott Howell, and I was eager to see what he could do.

But not eager enough. Before I could pay a visit to Squid's, Poley had rolled up his knives and moved down the street, where he'd donned the chef's toque at The Weathervane at A Southern Season. Again, I was too slow. Just as I was planning a visit to The Weathervane, I learned that Poley had left -- this time to open his own restaurant.

I finally caught up with Poley at Starlu. And I've been consoling myself with the notion that Poley could never have been as freely inventive at someone else's restaurant as he is at his own.

Given the free rein of ultimate authority, Poley has created a seasonally changing menu that, in terms of creativity, is on a par with the best in the Triangle. The young chef is a prodigy when it comes to understanding and respecting ingredients, too, and in terms of execution, he rarely falters. What's more, he accomplishes all this with a menu whose entree prices top out at $19 -- a steal in a world where entrees in the $25 to $30 range are increasingly common.

The only exception to this pricing rule is the nightly special, which recently served up a 16-ounce dry-aged rib-eye for $26. Even that tariff is a bargain, given the market price of dry-aged beef and the fact that the steak was topped with foie gras butter and accompanied by grilled broccoli raab and a gratin of blue cheese and purple Peruvian potatoes.

Nor is the foie gras butter a case of chef showboating, but a well-thought-out foil for the iron-rich, slightly gamey taste of dry-aged beef. To my taste, it's a far superior match than the overpoweringly rich reductions that most chefs seem to favor. My wife agrees, having declared when she tasted it: "This is why I could never become a vegetarian" -- this coming from the woman who ordered a vegetarian entree both times we shared a table at Starlu.

One of those entrees, goat cheese ravioli made in-house with parsley- and black pepper-flecked pasta and tossed in a lavender-thyme cream sauce with grilled artichokes, shiitakes and green peas, is every bit as impressive as the steak. The other, a trio of empanadas with three different fillings (mushroom and sweet potato; roasted winter squash and greens; and potatoes, green olives and cheese) comes close, though some might find the accompanying vinaigrette of roasted red pepper, almond and sherry a shade too acerbic.

Indeed, just about any disappointment you may encounter is likely to be more a matter of taste than a failure in execution. Some, for instance, may lament the lack of a crisp, golden crust on the crab cake appetizer, even though the menu description of "roasted" is ample hint not to expect a pan-fried or deep-fried crust. Others will revel in the fact that the cake is a generous cylinder of almost pure jumbo lump crabmeat, held together by little more than a few brush strokes of creme fra"che.

Likewise, some may find the braised lamb shank dry, wishing that it had been served with a little of the braising liquid to moisten it. I'd be inclined to agree with them, though I confess I'd order the dish again just for the sake of the subtle notes of red wine, orange and cinnamon that subtly permeate the flesh.

But I can't imagine anyone finding fault with North Carolina grouper, steamed on a bed of marjoram and served on a savory melange of white beans, oven-dried cherry tomatoes and oil-cured black olives.

And if chef Poley's take on a crab cake isn't what the doctor ordered for a starter, just about anything else on the appetizer list is sure to fill the prescription nicely. Crisp-crusted, creamy-centered three-cheese arancini, for instance, or fine-textured pork rillettes gently tinged with coriander and cumin, or Prince Edward Island mussels in a spicy Portuguese-inspired white wine broth. Or, most distinctive of all, sweet pea and tarragon ravioli in a creamy black trumpet mushroom-lobster-veal sauce.

Nor is your sweet tooth apt to be disappointed, with dessert options ranging from dried cherry-brioche bread pudding to lemon creme brulee to warm pear crostata with red wine and clove sorbet.

Starlu's value-pricing approach extends to the thoughtfully chosen wine list, where the markup is less -- sometimes considerably less -- than in most restaurants. Especially helpful for the budget-minded is the arrangement of the list by price, with bottles going for $19, $29, $39 or $49.

The wait staff is as well-trained as I've seen in a new restaurant. Servers are anything but stuffy, though, and are adept at matching their approach to the mood of the table they're serving. The style of service is ideally suited to the upbeat contemporary atmosphere of a large, airy dining room whose clean lines, tailored upholstery and sweeping cherry wood and granite accents are evocative of a California bistro.

Together, service and decor combine to set just the right mood for a dining experience that's at once unpretentious and the most exciting to hit the Triangle in a while. You can bet the next time Sam Poley makes a move, I won't lose any time in following him. *

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Greg Cox can be reached at ggcox@bellsouth.net

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