Second Helpings

Back in the Swim of Things

Business was going swimmingly at Starfish in the months after busy restaurateurs Mel and Jane Master opened their second Cherry Creek place (Mel's was the first) back in 1996 ("Fishing for Compliments," May 30, 1996). But in the wake of Starfish's sale to John Richard two years ago, rumors kept floating to the surface that the place just wasn't the same. With the original chef long gone, the new kitchen help lacked the expertise to pull off the split-personality menu, and the whimsical atmosphere the Masters had brought to the restaurant was lost. Or so the story went.

My recent visit to Starfish, though, netted above-average food served by very gracious staffers to a crowd of folks who acted as though they couldn't get enough of the place. That crowd included a substantial number of seemingly eligible bachelors lingering over dinner and an equally interested and large quantity of females languishing at the bar area well past happy hour, some grazing on the bistro-style bar menu that Starfish offers until midnight.

In short, it was awash with action.

There's something about the way the outdoor lights along Third Avenue and the candles inside trade reflections that creates a warm, cozy glow, one that's a perfect backdrop for dining on Starfish's sensual, decadent dishes. For starters, there's the squishy gyoza ($6.95), dumplings filled with a mixture of chicken, crab, leeks and scallions -- not too oniony, but the tang is in there -- that arrive swimming in a pool of good-quality soy sauce that stops just shy of being too salty. The crab cake ($8.95) wasn't quite as impressive, but the sweet taste of the slightly dry cake was nicely augmented by a thick, roasted red pepper puree.

There was less crab flavor to the crab bisque ($5), which was curdy, rather than creamy, in consistency and would have been more properly labeled fennel bisque. But the blue-cheese concoction on the iceberg lettuce wedge ($5) was a creamy dream -- packed with big, fat balls of cheese that made every bite of the ice-cold, celery-crunchy lettuce an oral delight. Starfish was one of the first places in town to resurrect the retro iceberg, and this salad deserves its continued popularity.

So do the scallops ($18.95) and the grouper ($19.95). Like most of Starfish's seafood roster, these two items can be ordered either "plain and simple" or gussied up with special sauces and sides. Although the fish here is so fresh that it tastes wonderful plain, the special preparations sounded so intriguing that we couldn't resist ordering them. And so we were treated to a mild but fun lobster green chile and mango salsa with the scallops, and a delectable blue crab and goat cheese potato tart with the plush-fleshed grouper. Both combinations worked well -- and the staff worked hard, delivering everything in a timely fashion.

Give credit where it's due: Richard is a very hands-on owner, in the restaurant early and late; his assistant, Steven Moreno, does a good job with the waitstaff; and Mark Walz, who had been Starfish's sous chef for two years before taking over a few months ago when chef Scott Elliot moved on, has taken the menu and made it his own. Although Richard promises a few changes over the next couple of weeks, you can count on more savvy preparations and efficient service.

Forget any rumors you may have heard: Starfish is far from washed up.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner