There are plenty of reasons to visit Restaurant Starlu this New Year's Eve. Like many area restaurants, they will be serving a prix fixe menu that will showcase some of the chef's best work. New Year's Eve is a great time to check out a new and exciting restaurant, and as one of the newest and most exciting places to open recently, Starlu is certainly a good bet on that front.
But if I were you, I'd go for the cheap champagne.
I don't mean cheap champagne in the headache-inducing, sugary bubble water way. I mean it in the good champagne for very little money way. For New Year's Eve, Starlu will be serving Perrier Jouet Grand Brut for $29 a bottle, which is about $10 less than you can buy it at the supermarket. Chef and owner Sam Poley says, "I want everyone to have champagne on the table on New Year's Eve. I want to see every single table drinking bubbles." This attitude is part of Sam's greater philosophy, and the philosophy of the restaurant. It's not just champagne--Sam Poley wants to bring wine and truffles and fine dining to the masses.
Restaurant Starlu is located in the Southcourt Building at the corner of Shannon and University roads in Durham near the old South Square mall site (phone 489-1500). It used to be a big fancy sports bar, but you'd never know. The interior is clean but warm with a large open dining room, white walls and tables, great looking black chairs with orange piping, an open kitchen, a modest bar and lots of windows. From the appearance, the restaurant could be a super trendy and exclusive place in any big city. But the food and prices tell a different story.
Most of the dishes on Poley's menu are riffs on comfort food, and the prices are significantly lower than you might expect. "Too many chefs make menus that are all about themselves, and not enough about what people want to eat," Poley says. One of the entrees on both the dinner and lunch menu is baked macaroni and cheese with bacon and caramelized onions. It's really good, and at $10 it's a bargain, too. Other dishes include house-made gravalax, pork chops with sweet potato and onion tart and mustard sauce, and grilled salmon with vegetable caponata. Poley has set the cap for menu items at $19 (although specials may be more). His wine program is also set up in a way to be easy to understand and easy to drink well for not much money--bottles are grouped by price, $19, $29, $39, $49 and reserve. There are a surprising number of decent bottles for $19, and 13 wines by the glass.
Poley is one of those chefs who talks about "feeding people" in the spiritual sense of the phrase, by way of doing it in the physical sense. He speaks of a revelation he had while working at Pop's, when a man came in who looked to be beaten badly by life, but the bowl of food that was placed in front of him rejuvenated him and was obviously the best part of his day. At the time, Poley was wavering between a career in PR and advertising and his new career as a cook. In that moment, he says, he made his decision.
Since then, he's worked at many Triangle restaurants, from Mondo Bistro to Squids to the Governor's Club to his most recent gig at the Weathervane. He's now taken the next step in owning his own place. He says he knew that was the only way he was going to be able to give customers what he thinks they deserve: a neighborhood fine dining experience, quality without stiffness, comfort with luxury.
For New Year's Eve, Starlu will be serving a four course menu for $50 a person. The menu is much more French influenced than the regular menu, and in many ways more fancy. The cheap champagne may be the draw, but the food will surely complement it. Champagne on New Year's Eve way below retail price is just one of Poley's dining crusades. Right now and throughout truffle season, Starlu will be offering shaved fresh black truffle on any plate for $7. It's part of Sam Poley's quest to democratize fine dining on the back side of a building in South Durham.
Ring in the New Year with a dinner bell
Haven't been invited out and don't feel like staying home and watching Regis Philbin sub for Dick Clark on New Year's Eve? Or looking for a place to eat off your hangover on New Year's Day? Here's what's going on around the Triangle: