In the month since Stars Grill opened, chef Phil Liesenfeld has learned in pretty quick order what customers want -- and what they don't.
He took the chocolate panna cotta off of the menu because people didn't know what it was.
Patrons have noted that the mango barbecue sauce for the pulled-pork sandwich has a peculiar orange color. (He hasn't removed that because people like it, despite its rusty hue.)
Such is the lament of a classically trained chef who owns a restaurant in the depths of a strip mall, next to a budget movie theater.
But there is hope, Liesenfeld said of the restaurant at 2584 Bethel Road, in the Carriage Place shopping center.
His patrons really like the burgers, which are hand-patted, freshened with olive oil to preserve moisture, and lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.
"The burger is king here," he said.
That includes the Ohio burger, topped with house-cured bacon, sauteed mushrooms and either blue cheese or cheddar.
The classically prepared poutine uses fresh-cut fries, slow-braised beef and homemade gravy spruced up with peppercorns and brandy.
Liesenfeld said he's particularly encouraged by the 25- to 40-year-old demographic, which seems to like the various chef-driven twists the menu has had to offer.
"The people who have enjoyed it the most are the younger people," he said. He recently got a full liquor license but is offering only beer at the moment. He will roll out a complete bar menu in a week or so.
Liesenfeld, who's held myriad Columbus restaurant jobs as a teenager and adult, got his formal culinary training at Columbus State Community College. The 1996 graduate of Upper Arlington High School, who also earned a degree from Ohio State University, worked for such area institutions as Barcelona, the Athletic Club of Columbus and the Ocean Club, now Mitchell's Ocean Club.
But for nine years, he was immersed in the high-brow, high-energy world of hotel dining and restaurants in San Francisco, Reno and Lake Tahoe, Nev. As the bad economy took its toll on the dining scene out West, he returned to Columbus to be closer to family
Stars Grill takes over a space that has housed a string of restaurants, most recently Buffalo Wings & Bowl and, prior to that, Bollywood Bistro.
Liesenfeld said he's somewhat daunted by the location but he thinks he can change minds with his concept: a modestly priced contemporary American menu using seasonal ingredients. By his estimation, there's nothing like it in the area.
"If you're done with run-of-the-mill stuff, you'll come here," he said.
Stars Grill is open for lunch and dinner hours daily. For more information, call 614-388-8999.
In other news from Carriage Place, Lido's Pizza & Restaurant is returning to its former glory.
New owner Jim Williamson said the restaurant's founders have given him the original recipes for the pizza and some other fare, and he plans to introduce some of his own dishes.
Williamson expects to reopen the restaurant, which has been around for more than 20 years, this weekend at 2540 Bethel Road.
Its most recent owners left abruptly, leaving Williamson an opportunity to make a career change. A polymer chemist for a number of years, he was most recently quality-control manager for a chemical company in central Ohio. As the region's manufacturing base continued to shrink, Williamson's territory widened, taking him farther away from his family.
He said he feels he can apply his knowledge in chemistry and the business world to the restaurant industry.
"People go out to eat for a variety of reasons but at the end of the day, a restaurant has the responsibility to provide an uplifting experience," he said.
Service will improve under the new ownership, Williamson said.
"There's an old saying in the restaurant business that you will remember the service long after you remember what you ate or how much you paid for it," he said.