There are few Boomers who don’t want to yodel along when “I’m Back in the Saddle Again” pops up on a movie soundtrack. Nourished by Saturday afternoons in the dark, when Roy Rogers and Trigger galloped across neighborhood movie screens after an hour of Tom & Jerry, we who were born under wandering stars——and now threaten the solvency of Social Security——knew we belonged in the saddle. We know it still, despite just-incase daily doses of baby aspirin. Life on the open range seemed grand, offering unfettered freedom that’s the American birthright every right-on boomer embraces without reservation. On the other hand, reservations are advised at Cowboy Star, the hip homage to Hollywood cowpokes that is to 2008 restaurant openings what Kevin Costner was to Silverado: a blast of fresh air as sweet as the open range.
This East Village steakhouse, bar and butcher shop should have opened in April 2007, but, thanks to the construction delays that typically plague new restaurants, appeared in mid-2008. It wasn’t a moment too soon for proprietors Jon Weber and Victor Jimenez, who met when they respectively held the positions of manager and chef at JRDN, the beachside restaurant at Tower 23 hotel in Pacific Beach.
There’s nothing beachy about Cowboy Star, but it is keen, not least for the flights of songs Weber personally recorded, which can be savored like twangy flights of Burgundies and Bordeaux. “I’m a Lone Cowhand” prefaces “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” which is succeeded by “I Want to Be a Cowboy’s Sweetheart (I Want to Learn to Rope and Ride),” and all the yodeling is supplemented not just by bluegrass (a wicked version of “Wabash Cannonball”) but by country crooners like Patsy Cline (“I’m Walking the Floor over You”), Hank Williams (“The Lovesick Blues”) and Johnny Cash (lots of good stuff). You can’t eat to music like this anywhere else in town, and the food, décor and service rise to the occasion.
The butcher shop, a small space to the right of the entry on 10th Avenue, is the province of Mark Wheelan, who carves the steaks and chops for the kitchen and also sells prime cuts for home grilling. The shop is a unique feature for a restaurant, but then Cowboy Star moseys along its own path in most regards. The décor supposedly recalls Hollywood cowboy themes of the 1930s, and while connections to that specific decade are difficult to discern, photos of Gene Autry and John Wayne as young silver-screen stars set the mood immediately. Unless you despise the Old West, the décor delights: Rough wood beams and pillars appear to support the roof but are actually rustic sculptures that bring a horse-barn motif to the vintage-1941 warehouse.
Lavish, deep and richly tufted leather booths line one side of the dining room, and the bare-brick walls support various Western mementos, including cowboy hats that are reproductions of chapeaux worn onscreen by Autry and his ilk (since they’re not nailed down, it won’t be surprising if the hats by the bar walk out the door one of these days). A double-sided fireplace divides the dining room and a smaller, private function room; the granite hearthstone, discovered during excavations, lined the fireplace of the 1909 residence that formerly occupied the site. The servers, who by and large excel, wear jeans, heavy Cowboy Star belt buckles and finely detailed, custom-made cowboy shirts marked with the restaurant’s logo.
The chuck-wagon motif does not intrude on Victor Jimenez’ gleaming, stainless steel kitchen, which he, sous chef Christian Morrish and a sizable crew of cooks polish daily. A counter set with six or seven stools accommodates diners who want to get up-close and personal while Jimenez & Company cook a menu with a noticeable French accent.
The steaks—— whose listings identify their producers and home states in the same way wine cards specify growers and regions——are accompanied by fancier garnishes than might be expected of a place that boasts armchairs upholstered in cow hide. Jimenez has an amazing feel for classic French sauces and prepares something special each day: tart, buttery béarnaise, perhaps; or a green-peppercorn sauce built on deep, dark demiglace; or a savory bordelaise that makes every bite of the 12-ounce New York strip (aged 21 days, this is Meyer Natural Beef from Nebraska) a memorable experience. There’s also a potato of the day, and while Jimenez favors mashed potatoes (the texture frankly seems so very wrong with grilled meat, but not everyone would agree with this point of view), he occasionally bakes crusty rounds of pommes Anna and also produces frites (French fries) as good as those served along the Seine.
With a carefully cooked vegetable to complete the picture, the garnishes make pretty pictures of well-aged, richly flavored cuts like the 40-ounce porterhouse for two ($82), the 20-ounce, bone-in strip ($43), the 22-ounce cattleman’s rib chop ($39) and the 14-ounce ribeye ($34). If you want something different, order the 14-ounce American bison rib-eye (from Painted Hills Farm in Oregon, $36, it seemed rather greasy to one guest). If you want a steak that chews slowly and flavorfully, try the 10-ounce skirt steak ($29) from Snake River Farms in Idaho.
The flip side of the menu accommodates other tastes with entrées like pan-roasted duck breast with baby turnips and Armagnacsoaked prunes ($22) and halibut with perfectly cooked asparagus and an agreeable, mustard-flavored beurre blanc ($30).
Appetizers are wonderful, especially a creamy tart of leeks, bacon and Reblochon cheese ($9), buttermilk-soaked sweetbreads crisped in hot butter and served with greenapple slaw and bourbon sauce ($11) and an heirloom tomato salad with a dressing made of the fermented grape juice called verjus ($11). Desserts, produced in-house by pastry chef Stephanie Tesnow and priced at $9, reach their peak with offerings like the seasonal fruit cobbler (white peach!) and the tart-and-tingly Meyer lemon pot de crème.
Cowboy Star also serves a solid weekday lunch list and a rather delightful Sunday “Outlaw Brunch” (you’ll hear a lot more Johnny Cash at Sunday noon than on Friday night) with a menu that runs from such egg dishes as the house Benedict (poached eggs on buttermilk biscuits and sausage patties, topped with country gravy) to sautéed trout with celery- root purée and forest mushrooms. Cowboy Star serves lunch weekdays, dinner Tuesday through Saturday and brunch on Sunday at 640 10th Avenue, San Diego. Reservations are suggested; call 619-450-5880.