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"It's a bit like being in the theater," Mel says. "You put on a play, it's written, it's performed, it's finished--and even if it's a big success and goes on playing night after night, it's done. So then you start to think about the next project. You start to think, well, maybe we could put on another play, and this time I'd like to see this actor playing this part, and this outcome and this theme. You start saying, 'I've been here already. Now let's write this.'"
So the couple decided to base their next plot on a simple premise: a seafood restaurant. But from the start their scenario seemed promising, particularly since Denver has never had more than about five decent fish houses.
5970 S. Holly St.
Englewood, CO 80111
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
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Now enter number six: Starfish. The Masters' new Cherry Creek restaurant has real star quality--fresh food, novel preparations and an attentively snappy staff. And then there's the location: It's close to Mel's, which means the producers are only a block away from either place during peak dining times. This choice setting became available when Kevin Taylor finally put Cafe Iguana to sleep earlier this year. In February Mel and Janie moved in, quickly revamping the scenery with underwater tones--sandy beiges, muted pastels, blue water glasses--and fanciful, sea-motif paintings by artist Andrea Selby.
Even before they took over the space, the Masters had a few key players in mind--and then they started casting. Starfish's lead role, that of executive chef, went to Don Gragg, who'd worked with Janie and Blair Taylor when they jointly ran Barolo Grill, then moved on to supporting roles as line cook and sous chef at Mel's. But Mel always knew Gragg had more to offer. "I like people who haven't had classical training," he says. "Don worked his way through kitchens, and while I'm not knocking the education to be had at culinary schools, I've always found that you can get some interesting and exciting ideas out of people who don't feel locked into the sort of framework schooling can put you in."
That theory paid off, because the menu that Mel and Janie have coaxed from Gragg is provocative enough to make choosing your meal an agonizing task--any seafood lover is going to have to throw back several options before settling on his catch of the day. And Gragg gets plenty of support from the rest of the cast, including the Masters' son, Charlie, who also worked at Barolo Grill, and Greg Bortz, in a reprisal of his bread-baker role at Mel's. (Bortz now also stars at his own bakery, the Denver Bread Company.)
Bortz's chewy, rustic-style bread was the first thing we encountered when we sat down at Starfish. First, though, we had to decide where to sit down. The umbrella-capped al fresco dining looked appealing, while Starfish's below-street-level location removes both the car exhaust and the sidewalk noise from outdoor meals. Instead, we opted for the dining room, where the heat of the day seemed to suggest that we start with chilled raw shellfish. But an appetizer of steamed Manila clams and Blue Point mussels with fresh fennel ($6.95) sounded too good to pass up, especially since the pan-fried mussels at Mel's are about the best in town. The fact that these mollusks were steamed didn't prevent them from being melt-in-our-mouths tender, and the clams were just as silky. Both sat in their own juices, to which feathers of fennel lent a slightly elusive anise flavor.
Our choices got no easier after the appetizer. Gragg meets with representatives of the Seattle Fish Company, the Alaskan Salmon Company and Ocean Beauty Seafoods daily to see what's fresh, then offers a half-dozen of these creatures done "plain and simple"--grilled or pan-seared with no sauces, no spices, no nothing. But the kitchen also cooks up six or seven more dramatic dishes complete with sauces, spices and other embellishments, as well as a few fish-with-pasta concoctions that include the painstakingly perfect risotto made famous at Mel's.
Still, it's the roster, actually titled "Plain and Simple," that Mel is most proud of. "This is what we really wanted to do at Starfish," he says. "If you have a great piece of fish, it's so nice to just enjoy it for what it is--not fussed over or covered up with stuff. Then you can really get into what marvelous flavors fish have."
Two of that day's "plain and simple" selections proved Mel's point. The six-ounce grilled Atlantic swordfish steak ($17.50) was glorious, firm-fleshed and medium-rare, its mild flavor piqued by the gentle grilling process and a squirt from a lemon half that arrived on a separate plate. Right next to the swordfish sat a ramekin of fresh tomato, olive and basil sauce that added a refreshing touch of the Mediterranean; the plate also held a hand-mashed mound of tarragon potatoes--Starfish offers several types of potatoes with your entree--and steamed baby vegetables tucked here and there. More of the vegetables and spuds--this time nutmeg mashed potatoes--came with the six-ounce ahi Gulf tuna ($17.50). Because of its inherent oiliness, we'd ordered the tuna pan-fried and were thrilled that it came out on the rare side, which heightened the fillet's fatty richness. It was fortunate that this "plain and simple" presentation was so successful, because the too-creamy tartar sauce that accompanied the tuna wasn't at all complementary. The tartar sauce had been offered as an alternative to the tomato-olive-basil mix, which wouldn't have worked any better.