"You know, this isn't what I expected from a $350-a-plate benefit dinner," said restaurateur Pat Kuleto in a brief speech well into last night's "Stars Realigned" reunion dinner featuring former Stars chef Jeremiah Tower along with several former members of his staff. "This is a regular love fest in here tonight. It's like a bunch of old friends getting together. I love it." It did feel like a private reunion among a group of people who were sincerely thrilled to see each other after a long time apart, and Grub Street was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall for the occasion. The event came together quickly after it was announced last month, with Tower writing the menu along with his longtime chef de cuisine Mark Franz (who worked with him both at Santa Fe Bar & Grill and at Stars before becoming the executive chef at Farallon, owned by Kuleto), and Epic Roasthouse chef Jan Birnbaum. Old friends, regulars at Stars, and former staffers grabbed all the tickets, meaning that the room at Epic last night was filled with familiar faces, and a lot of laughs. Also, a whole lot of great food and wine, in the casually luxurious style of Stars.
"Stars was the quintessential American brasserie," said chef and friend Narsai David, who played MC for the evening. "There hasn't been another restaurant like it since." Everyone in the room cheered in agreement, and Tower was happy to receive the praise after so many years.
This was Tower's first time back in the Bay Area since his return for the Chez Panisse 40th Anniversary last summer, and the first time he had cooked for the public in the States in over a decade. When we talked to him last fall, Tower said of San Francisco, "Why would I not come back?" And last night he glowed in the spotlight again, laughing as his friends and former employees told snippets of stories. He introduced S.F. restaurant grande dame Cecilia Chiang by saying, "This is the woman who taught me how to look like a chef. She saw the beat up old Suburu I was driving and she said, 'Jeremiah, a great chef can not drive a Suburu.' She took me straight to European Motors, pointed at the first Mercedes she saw and said, 'He'll take that one!'"
The menu was a selection of highlights of Stars menus past, as well as Tower's favorites wines. Dishes included a plate of unadorned, wood-oven roasted shellfish in their shells, served with butter and lemon underneath and a glass of Didier Dagueneau Pouilly-Fum Silex 2009; and a fantastically rich and tender whole sturgeon stuffed with lobster and paired with a premier cru Chassagne-Montrachet. When the first menu was written last month, Tower said to us, "The only thing missing from the dinner is rich roast beef married with old d'Yquem," and ultimately he got his way and this was added as a last savory course but with a buttery, aged Australian Kobe ribeye. As Tower explained, the inspiration for this course was actually the daring pairing with a sweet Sauternes, in this case a 1989 Chateau d'Yquem. "My uncle Sergei Sheremetyev was one of the last of the Russian aristocracy and he used to say that when he had a perfect piece of beef, as rich as foie gras, the only thing to do was open a bottle of d'Yquem. I did this for some friends at a dinner party in the sixties, and everyone chewed the beef and put a bit of the wine in their mouths and they all nearly fell out of their chairs." It was an interesting pairing no doubt, but an odd one that only won over a few fans, and many saved their precious golden Sauternes for Emily Luchetti's dessert a rich, raspberry-strawberry summer pudding that she said Jeremiah taught her how to make.
While we never had the pleasure of dining at Stars ourselves, having moved to San Francisco just after it closed, we had a visceral sense of the energy in the place during isolated moments last night. Franz said that he and one of his former cooks joked that most of their memories of the restaurant were of seeing Jeremiah standing out by the bar, greeting customers and having a glass of Champagne, and that is easy enough to picture. Former Stars general manager Anthony Agnotti (who flew in from Vegas for the occasion) joked, "With all that Champagne, Jeremiah, do you even remember Stars?"
"There was a lot of Champagne," Tower replied. "And that's about all I remember too."