Cafe Society

Fishing for Compliments

With a thriving winery in Provence and the wildly popular Mel's Bar and Grill here in Denver, why would veteran restaurateurs Mel and Janie Master want to cast yet another line into the water?

"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.

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.

But things went swimmingly with the rest of Starfish's sauces. The homemade cocktail sauce that came with the oysters on the half-shell ($9) at lunch was well-balanced between spicy and lemony, and nicely set off the strong Malpeque oysters. (I like a server who knows off the top of his head where the food hails from.) The citrus vinaigrette on the grilled-salmon salad ($8.25) was tart and tangy, just right for both the sweet fish and the bite of the arugula in the field greens. But by far the most inspired topping we encountered was the Roquefort dressing that came on a wedge of iceberg lettuce ($4.50). That's right: a wedge of iceberg lettuce. The salty blue cheese against the crunchy, cool--ultra-chilled, actually--iceberg made for an unexpectedly exquisite combination. After that, the spicy mayonnaise on the oyster "po'boy" ($5.95) seemed almost commonplace--although the sandwich was something special, with just enough sauce to prevent the crusty fried oysters from getting lost in the heavy baguette.

On our third visit, the fried Gulf oysters appetizer ($6.95) reeled us in. A plate coating of basil cream flecked with bell peppers and tomatoes was topped by four bivalves flanking a fiery, summer-squash-heavy ratatouille. The dish was good, but the crab cake ($6.50) was better. A timbale of crabmeat was held together with I don't know what, because it tasted like pure crabmeat coated with no more than a breath of breading; the sweet meat was hit home by a roasted-red-bell-pepper butter. A few more pieces of the meat adorned the crab bisque ($4.50), a thick soup that had an undercurrent of alcohol and a whisper of pepper.

Another bell-pepper butter made an appearance under the fish hash ($11.95), chunks of a variety of fish mixed with green bell peppers, celery, onions and grated potatoes, then fried until everything turned into a huge pancake. Although this would probably be a great way to get rid of some less-than-fresh product, Starfish's hash tasted impeccable. So did the potato-encrusted king salmon ($14.95), an amazing fillet topped by grated potato that served more as a shell than a true crust. To that was added one more layer, a lime-green citrus aioli that softened the crunch of the fried potatoes and provided a tangy counterpoint to the succulent salmon. The sauce also managed to cut through the richness of the grilled wild mushrooms that looked like an innocent-enough garnish but turned out to pack an unbelievable amount of oily, beefy flavor in their grill-blackened edges.

After such a production, the encore had to be something understatedly brilliant--and pastry chef Randy Stanton's desserts brought down the house. The key lime pie ($5.50) was a decadent, dense custard featuring intense lime flavor under a soothing meringue, and the cinnamon-kissed, warm chocolate cake ($5.50) was light and airy, with a gooey center.

Bravo, Mel and Janie. Starfish is a keeper.

Starfish, 300 Fillmore Street, 333-1133. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner