Entrees Will Make You See Stars -- Starters Were Hit-And-Miss, But Main Courses Dazzled


# # # Stars Bar & Dining Pacific Place, 600 Pine St., Seattle ($$$) Reservations: 206-264-1112 Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. daily; dinner 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m. daily. Bar menu available 11:30 a.m.-midnight. Prices: Lunch appetizers: $6.50-$12.50, lunch entrees $9-$29; dinner appetizers: $6.50-$16.50, dinner entrees $14.50-$32; bar menu: $3.75-$29 Full bar Credit Cards: AE, DC, MC, V Wheelchair access Smoking at bar only (not in lounge) Parking: Pacific Place garage -------------------------------

As I wound my way through Pacific Place, up escalator after escalator, ascending past Tiffany and Cartier, past the beer-drinking revelry at Gordon Biersch, finally flinging open the doors to Stars, I felt like a blushing sophomore about to meet the hottest-looking guy in the senior class.

Yes, it's in a mall. Yes, it's a San Francisco knock-off. But I had stepped out of the incessant, depressing Seattle rain and into the warm, irresistible embrace of Glam World. Who needs the Columbia Tower Club when the Jeremiah Tower Club is open to all comers?

To the left, the bar: its central, circular fireplace (over)heating things up as elbow met elbow in a sea of studied suaveitude and little black dresses. At the piano, a vocalist sang "The Nearness of You." I was relieved of my wrap, then led to a comfortable arc of a table poised between lounge and dining room: the perfect perch to take in the scene.

And what a scene: sky-high windows and blond-wood ceilings; gauzy draperies and white-slipcovered chairs; white-coated servers plying overpriced fussy water; an airy room finding colorful relief in vintage advertising posters; soft lighting that makes everyone look like a million bucks - or at least feel that way.

Even if you bypass the bar and head straight to the dining room, never to sit at those tiny tables eating black-bean cakes dressed up with duck confit (or hot dogs dressed down with sauerkraut), ask to see the bar menu. The well-crafted missive is fat with top-shelf booze and interesting elixirs served in elegant glassware. The wine list offers length and breadth, with labels both worthy and affordable.

Seafood galore

It's hard to resist the lure of Stars' raw bar, which runs a brisk business in oysters on the half-shell, Absolut-spiked seafood shooters and jumbo prawn cocktails. Though $48 may sound excessive for the Stars Shellfish Platter, the sheer amount of seafood on this dual-tiered, extravaganza-on-ice makes the tab easier to swallow. Or should have.

Food enough for four, the prawns, oysters and ceviche were fine, the shooters fun, the baby octopus and calamari rubbery. Skewers of gravlax rolled in harsh, pithy-tasting citrus zest puckered faces all around, while dull periwinkles, mussels and overchilled crab offered no flavor at all.

Sea bass paillard - a sliver of fish baked on a scorching-hot plate - is a classic Jeremiah Tower preparation, as is the accompanying Chinese black-bean sauce. Shiso leaf was an interesting taste tweak, but the dusty fermented black beans (badly in need of a rinse) ruined the final product.

Too much coarse salt marred the terrine of foie gras. Escorted by date-stuffed crepes and a spoonful of Meyer lemon jam, the individual salt, sweet and tart flavors worked against the whole. Soups were perfect: creamy cauliflower puree with a delicate prawn souffle; Penn Cove mussels in a rich shellfish bisque floating Dungeness crab.

Sparkling dishes

With so many iffy starters, Stars' main courses came as a shock. They were, across the board, among the best entrees I've encountered in recent memory.

Well-marbled and carefully dry-aged, the grilled, prime New York steak may have been the best steak I've ever eaten. The glistening duck - a moist, meaty bird-on-the-bone, is dusted with Asian spices and brought home to heaven by a caramelized fruit compote. Venison was another stunner, with homey potato spaetzle begging to be dredged in the intensely reduced demiglace.

Butter sauced and chive-strewn, the winter squash risotto was a Gourmet cover shot with shards of Parmesan, sliced portobellos and a spray of arugula. The braised lamb shank? Flintstonian in proportion, fork-tender and nearly bested by its garlic-black peppercorn mashed potatoes.

One night, when half the room ordered wood-oven roasted Maine lobster, I more than made-do with lobster's trashy cousin, Pacific skate wing. The olive oil-seared fish du jour, with its firm, naturally scalloped flesh, got a slight kick from black pepper aioli. But it was its side dish, asparagus-leek "casserole" - a fancy-veggie gratin - that kept my fork and tongue dancing. As did the desserts - lovely creations with star-quality ingredients (try the warm chocolate cake, if only for the drunken cherries in the ice cream).

I found the "All American" cheese plate a badly composed disappointment in need of a well-aged stinker. But I'll bet I could slip on a little black dress and find one of those sipping a manhattan in the bar.

Nancy Leson's phone number is 206-464-8838. Her e-mail is nleson@seattletimes.com.