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Sauteed cauliflower steaks with lemon, dates and capers

FEATURES

Lone Star Power

By Robin Barr Sussman

Photography by Julie Soefer

08.29.17

Restaurateur Lee Ellis’ new Star Fish reels in guests with beachy-keen vibes, and a wide net of seafood and Texas flavors.

AT THE STILL-NEW Star Fish perched on the edge of the Heights, the showy trilevel Tower Royale of fresh oysters, clams, dressed crab claws, rosy lobster tail, Gulf shrimp and spicy tomato juice oyster shooters glistens with crushed ice. Six homemade sauces, including Meyer lemon pesto, are proffered with appellation oysters, and the martini menu beckons with nine specialty cocktails, including classics like an Old-Fashioned made of apricot-infused bourbon. Hold on, we’re just getting started.

If you’re familiar with restaurateur Lee Ellis’ style and his growing empire of concepts (such as State Fare, Petite Sweets, Lee’s Fried Chicken & Donuts and Pi Pizza), you know he does everything as large as Texas. This includes his flair for interiors like this inviting brasserie-style space with pops of turquoise and nautical navy, gleaming white subway tiles, a 300-gallon aquarium, roomy booths and a raw bar. And Ellis doesn’t believe in short menus. Even his tiny Lee’s Creamery ice cream shop boasts at least a dozen house-churned flavors, including a rarity: avocado lime.

Here, seafood stars but the menu, executed by corporate chef-partner Jim Mills and exec chef Armando Ramirez, invites every kind of eater. A giant whole Gulf redfish (tempura-fried or grilled) shares menu space with a cheeseburger—made with short rib and brisket—Rohan duckling, lamb chops and five pasta dishes, like the impressive orecchiette laced with lump crabmeat, microgreens, an artistic swipe of basil pesto, and a splash of white wine and lemon.

“We’re trying to do something different with a wide variety of dishes, all done very well,” says Mills, a veteran chef and former culinary director for The Houstonian Hotel, Club & Spa. Take for instance the stellar steak frites made anew with a 2-inch-thick filet mignon (instead of thin hanger steak) lavished with umami-inflected wild mushrooms and decadent french fries deep-fried in clarified butter. Or the lobster tacos—a must—prepared with blue corn tortillas fried puffy San Antonio-style, and crowned with shredded lettuce and spicy avocado salsa. “We visited Fiesta Loma Linda Houston several times, tasting the puffy tacos to get our version right,” says Ellis, a perfectionist. Vegetarians will be all over sides like the cauliflower steaks and Moroccan carrots. And who doesn’t get a craving for loaded shrimp po’boys or fried chicken—one of the best dishes on the menu.

The Starfish martini is a concoction of Ford’s gin, Miro extra dry vermouth and lemon zest.

You may gravitate toward lighter, silky house-smoked pepper gravlax with creme fraiche, capers and toasted brioche—terrific with the Lemon Drop martini. Even better is the lovely composed Japanese cucumber salad laden with jumbo lump crabmeat, avocado and tangy vinaigrette. We made a meal of the generous appetizers, including PEI mussels punched up with pancetta, shishito peppers, cream and crusty bread (even the bread here is exceptional), and littleneck clams from the raw bar.

Just as bracing as the seafood are the myriad bright cocktails designed to pair with the menu. A signature is the Oyster Shell martini made with oyster shell dry vermouth, Aylesbury Duck vodka and housemade ocean water tincture. Don’t do cocktails? The wine list spotlights nearly 40 bottles of bubbles, clear winners with seafood.

Hearty, rich entrees are best to share, featuring fish of almost every species, including halibut, salmon and tuna, in addition to clever takes on lobster and scallops. Come hungry for grilled deviled lobster with shrimp and chaurice Creole sausage stuffing, and spinach-rice casserole, another testament to Ellis’ regional food quest. Meanwhile, plump sweet scallops from cool East Coast waters get a Texas twist with piquant jalapeno glaze, ruby red grapefruit and fried avocado.

For dessert, Susan Molzan of Cherry Pie’s Petite Sweets whips up nostalgic treats like the gorgeous strawberry bomb, a dome of angel food cake covered in shimmery mascarpone cream, glazed shaved strawberries and its crowning glory, a delicate fondant starfish. It’s a sweet ending to a fun day at the beach.  

Owner and restaurateur Lee Ellis

STAR FISH
191 Heights Blvd., 832.831.9820

PRICES Appetizers, $7-$22; chilled seafood towers, $56-$150; entrees, $25-$43; desserts, $8-$10

HOURS Dinner Sun.-Wed., 4-10pm; Thur.-Sat., 4-11pm; Mon., closed

WHY GO
With a vast array of inventive seafood, a raw bar and a slew of hearty Southern eats, plus happy hour for oyster and martini lovers, Lee Ellis, Houston’s king of comfort-food chic, offers a menu with broad appeal.

DRINKS
Laurie Harvey’s savvy cocktail program features Tiki rum drinks with umbrellas in beautiful retro highball glasses, perfectly balanced oversize gin and tonics, and food-friendly wines in all price ranges, such as the Bourgogne Blanc, La Jacarde, France ($54).

PARKING
There’s a valet at the entrance and self-parking in the front lot.