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Shine On

"Lucky Star." "Shining Star!" "The Star Chamber." "Enough," I said. "Star Quality!" I held up a hand. "That just sucks. Okay, who's got that key lime thing?" The decimated remains of a key lime tart were passed my way, and I pressed my thumb into the crumbs, then licked off...
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"Lucky Star."

"Shining Star!"

"The Star Chamber."

"Enough," I said.

"Star Quality!"

I held up a hand. "That just sucks. Okay, who's got that key lime thing?"

The decimated remains of a key lime tart were passed my way, and I pressed my thumb into the crumbs, then licked off the buttery pastry shards, tasting the faint memory of key lime filling. Our waitress had told us that the patissière hadn't shown up for work and that the house was a little short on desserts, which meant the kitchen would be pulling yesterday's back stock out of the coolers, limping by on leftovers. But even this day-old tart was superb, the only version of key lime pie I've had since the Cream Puffery closed over a year ago that actually tasted like key lime pie -- not green pudding in crushed Saltines, not a lime popsicle, not radioactive Jell-O. It was a clean, three-ingredient wonder -- key lime juice, condensed milk and eggs -- and so pure, I felt a little high.

"Starry Night!"

I glared down the table. "You're ruining this for me, you know."

There were three of us for dinner, me and two idiot friends. We'd had a fantastic meal, probably drunk a little too much off Cafe Star's surprising wine list (chiming flutes of Prosecco bubbly, glasses of cheap Spanish red, Portugese white like iron dipped in cold melon liquor). And now they were proffering titles for my future review of Cafe Star.

"What about 'Girl Cook'?" said idiot #1, leaning back in his chair and jerking his head back toward the open pass rail of the pocket galley where chef Rebecca Weitzman stood, sweat in her hair, flanked by her boys, starting to break down the kitchen for the night. Although Star closes officially at 10 p.m., it was 10:30 and we were far from the last table left in the house. Other customers were lingering, unwilling to put aside their napkins, get up, step outside and break the spell. At a four-top, a toddler who'd been doted on all night by the staff finally laid her head down on a folded napkin and slept that way until Tom Sumner appeared from somewhere with a little embroidered pillow. It was about the most considerate act I'd ever seen from an owner, and even if everything about Cafe Star hadn't already been wonderful -- even if Sumner hadn't already stopped by a dozen other tables to do a dozen thoughtful little things, and even if Weitzman and her crew hadn't already banged their way through a three-turn, full-book Saturday night with effortless grace -- this single move would have bought him a lot in my book. The last time I demanded a pillow from an owner at the end of a long night and fell asleep at my table, he threatened to call the cops -- and I was a paying customer.

"How about 'Everything I've Ever Said About Female Chefs Is Wrong and I'm Very Very Sorry'?" suggested idiot #2, idiot #1's wife.

That was low. I've never said that women can't cook professionally; I've just said that for the most part, they don't. Because women are smarter than men. They've wisely avoided kitchen work, because -- at least until recently -- the only things such a career promised were bad knees, worse hours, and ready access to cheap drugs and waitresses of questionable moral character. So while guys like me were hunkering down in thousands of murderous hotlines and festering prep kitchens across the land, women were...what? Probably becoming senators and running companies and joining the military and doing whatever it is that normal people do to avoid getting stuck on the graveyard shift at Denny's, working blind drunk next to a guy missing two fingers who only speaks Hindi and has to take a break every thirty minutes to change the gauze on the seeping head wound he got last night so he doesn't bleed on everyone's Moons Over My Hammy.

But things are different today (or so people keep telling me), and I'm glad that Rebecca Weitzman kicked her way into the club. I'm thanking Jesus and all the food gods that she made a wrong turn somewhere and ended up here. And believe it or not, I'm thanking Bobby-motherfucking-pretty-boy-Flay, for whom I've never had anything but a vague disgust, because it was Bobby-self-appointed-prophet-of-barbecue-Flay who gave Weitzman her first serious job, at his Manhattan joint Bolo, after she dropped out of college and graduated from culinary school. I'm thanking the folks at Bloom for bringing her out to Colorado from New York, and thanking Frank Bonanno for stealing her away from Bloom and obviously influencing her cooking style, because her menu at Cafe Star is heavily reminiscent of Bonanno at his best. And I'm thanking owners Tom and Marna Sumner for giving Weitzman her shot at a place of her own last year. She deserved it. Without even seeming to try, she's embarrassing a lot of other cooks scrambling (and failing) to fill an eclectic/New American/comfort-food niche by just doing it -- not talking about it, not getting all cutesy about it, not being a smartass or a scientist. Weitzman simply cooks, and when you've got the chops, that's enough. Enough to make her food a benchmark for excellence in Denver. For anywhere.

This first meal at Cafe Star was so good I figured it had to be a fluke, one of those rare perfect nights where everything -- the food and service and scene and crowd and ambience and sheer pleasure of eating a meal at a place that has found both its groove and its audience -- just flows. We'd had flatbread pizzetta smeared with fig jam, topped with pancetta, blue cheese, onions so thin they looked like they were shaved with a razor, and a jungle of basil leaves; composed salads drowned with dressing that would have been offensive had the dressing not been so sinfully rich and buttery; a shallow bowl of goat-cheese agnolotti swimming in a parsley broth; gnocchi glazed in truffle oil; little plates of amazing, salty, house-cured bresaola with goat-cheese-stuffed whole Mission figs; homemade mozzarella sliced into planks and served beneath a fall of summer vegetable brunoise.

And then there was the lobster-and-rock-shrimp pot pie, as comforting as comfort food gets, as luxurious as anything, presented in a white bowl capped with puff pastry. If restraint is the hallmark of mastery -- that learned skill of knowing when some is plenty and enough is enough -- then this pot pie was Weitzman's thesis on American cookery. Fresh peas, cubed carrots, mushrooms (button mushrooms, of all things) and whole pearl onions that looked like they were clipped off the dome of the Cathedral of the Assumption in Moscow, all suspended in a flour-thickened gravy touched with sherry, with just enough tarragon and pepper, with a mountain of butter. When I broke the pastry cap, steam curled out like in a commercial for Stouffer's; inside, I found delicate curls of blushing lobster meat, nuggets of rock shrimp, and 200 years of tradition that could have come straight from Beard or Escoffier and would have made either of those fat bastards squeal with delight.

I returned to Cafe Star with Laura, saying there was no way it could be so good again, warning her that these things happen: I eat somewhere, I fall in love, I go back for another meal, and everything falls apart.

Sumner greeted us at the door, seated us beneath the white globes hanging from the ceiling that look like the ass ends of gigantic fireflies caught cavorting, beside the organic curve of the stained-glass wall that separates the main floor from the bar, which is quilted in red leather and just made for Dean Martin, for Bettie Page, for sipping champagne and supping on small plates and pretending you can't hear the ambulances screaming up and down Colfax outside. At our table in the dining room, I drank whiskey because I was afraid of being disappointed. In the kitchen, Weitzman was almost hidden behind a slammed rail full of tickets, but I could see that she was smiling.

We ate a flawlessly done leg of duck confit, a sprinkling of greens hiding a smear of Cabrales blue cheese, another of butter-browned Medjool dates. Repetition is big on this menu, with motifs of sweet and savory, salty and sour replicating themselves from plate to plate to plate. Done wrong, this smacks of desperation, of a flailing chef in over his (or her) head. Done right, as it is here, it's a brilliant culinary Fibonacci exercise with competing, complementary swirls of taste and flavor spiraling down to riffs on the same few ingredients.

The escargot skewered with more button mushrooms, set in a tarn of parsley beurre blanc, was the least successful of all the dishes I tried. Served by a kitchen with less talent, these snails would have been a highlight. But at Cafe Star, other dishes were so good as to be incomparable. The pork, three ways, for example, a deliberate discursion on Luca d'Italia's infamous rabbit, three ways. Weitzman offered a perfect pork chop, grilled mid-rare, as well as smoked bacon and a wild-boar canneloni filled with powerful, shredded, chewy meat laid down in a pork-fortified veal stock smooth and slick as oil. After that, more duck, a Moulard breast fanned over a delicious fried-potato-and-mushroom cake that was like the best hash browns ever. And after that, dessert, this time a sweet fig-and-pistachio pie surrounded by a sauce of sugar-roughened caramel and a chocolate pots de crème that I can't even begin to describe. But if there were only one order left in the house and you were standing between me and it? Watch your back.

We overstayed closing time again.

A few days later I stopped by for lunch, which Cafe Star started serving about a month ago. At lunch, Star looks like a slightly different place, like a comfortable little neighborhood bistro. Technically, that's what it is at night, too, but then the rough brick walls, the hot candy colors and the soft lights make the place seem diffusely sexy. During the day, it's like having lunch at your sister's place in Soho. Also at night, the crowds will sometimes stack up on the curb, waiting, and that doesn't happen as much during the day. Yet.

I took a seat on the patio, asked for a little shade. Sumner lifted one of the big umbrellas off its base and carried it over to my table to keep me out of the sun. I ordered iced tea, and my waitress playfully talked me into wine instead. It was a couple of minutes after noon, so why not? Happy hour starts early in this business, and my dining companion was late. After half an hour outside, I decided I'd had as much tanning as one Irishman could take without bursting into flames, and asked for a table inside. "Anywhere you like," Sumner said.

Finally, the other half of my twosome arrived, and we got into a shouting match over the Slow Food movement. The floor staff didn't throw us out, didn't even move to shush me. As we argued, we ate shrimp salads with pine nuts and warm grapes, a duck-and-fig pizzetta, a fresh-mozzarella-and-pesto sandwich on buttery grilled bread. We ducked out for a cigarette between courses, and no one freaked out. In fact, when we come back in, the waitress said that looked like a good idea, then brought us another pots de crème, some more wine. We looked at our watches and saw that it was almost three in the afternoon. The place officially closes at two, but no one had said a word. We were the only table left.

I apologized to our waitress for overstaying (again), and she shook her head. "Have fun," she said. "Stay as long as you want."

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