(out of 4)
3201 E. Colfax Ave., 303-320-8635, www.cafestardenver.com
Must-Try New Dishes Star Club, arugula pizza
Old Favorites Menu has been completely revised.
When 5280 restaurant critic Elisabeth True praised Café Star in August 2005, she sent readers off to try chef Rebecca Weitzman’s Mediterranean-influenced seasonal dishes at the height of summer produce season. Biting through sweet cherries and roasted beets, readers would understand how Weitzman and Café Star had repeatedly been named among Denver’s top chefs and restaurants. Yet despite the accolades, Weitzman needed a new challenge, and in late 2007 she announced plans to move to New York City. While this could have thrown Café Star owners Tom and Marna Sumners into a frenzy, they didn’t panic. Instead, they hired chef Mike Carlin (previously of Bang! and Vail’s Mezzaluna), closed for a week, and opened with a new menu and concept. We returned to Café Star wondering how all the changes added up.
On Fridays I like to eat a leisurely lunch, which is why, slightly after noon on this sunny day, my friend Maria and I are headed eastbound on Colfax Avenue. Our destination is Café Star for a relaxed midday meal. Having recently moved away from Congress Park, Maria is curious to check out her old ‘hood, and I’m hungry to try the lunch menu. My recent brunches and dinners at Café Star suggest that the restaurant is maneuvering a bumpy road as it transitions from a gourmet restaurant to an affordable neighborhood spot.
We walk in, the sun streaming through the large windows, and opt for a booth. The cozy red seats invite chatting and we settle in, talking and hardly glancing at our menus. No server rushes us to order. Finally, hunger presses through and we pick up the menus to find a pleasant list of salads, pizzetas, and pastas. Maria orders the Star Club ($11), two pieces of golden brioche toast wrapped around chive cream cheese, smoked trout, bacon, and a fried egg. I select the arugula pizza ($13), which comes with fontina cheese, portobello mushroom, and truffle oil. And then we wait—the time between selecting our dishes and the arrival of lunch fills fast with awkward waitstaff interactions. Shortly after we order, a new server asks to take our orders again, and then the same server, confused in her timing, brings out bread only moments before our meals arrive. But, with the arrival of food, we return to uninterrupted conversation. I bite into the pizza, acknowledging that the peppery arugula holds its own against the dark portobello, and Maria breaks the yolk of her fried egg, delighted as it douses her sandwich in a creamy sauce.
At that moment, I turn to the open kitchen, but chef Carlin isn’t there. This was true of my other meals, too. While it’s Carlin’s straightforward cooking that puts crispy fried polenta and poached eggs ($11), as well as pork loin with a sweet potato succotash ($18), on the menu, he often isn’t the one who ensures the dishes come out to standard. On previous occasions, I’ve eaten solid poached eggs and irregularly cooked pork chops. Which is disappointing because each slapdash meal is a setback compared with the delicious bites of creamy pea and chive risotto with buttery scallops ($17) or the light and crispy lemon blueberry ricotta pancakes ($11) that I’d gobbled up the previous week.
Maria, who hadn’t eaten at the reconcepted Café Star, is having none of these thoughts. Instead, she is thinking how rarely she enjoys going out for lunch and how good her sandwich tastes. This makes me hope that everyone who dines here has Maria’s experience. That way, the average dinner entrée price of $17 seems like a deal, and diners will be sure to return for the Sunday night $12 drink-and-dinner special, or to catch a ball game on the new projector TV. I, on the other hand, will leave the cafe on my Friday lunch list, but won’t be returning for brunch or dinner until more time has passed. By then, Carlin and staff should have ironed out their kinks, and the new Café Star should live up to its old potential.