Great books and films about contemporary Iraq (like Prince of the Marshes and My Country, My Country) uncover admirable and encouraging details but ultimately leave you with a sense of foreboding about the country's future. The experience at StarEast Café, a new Arabic restaurant and coffee place with an Iraqi owner, is analogous. Luckily, what is most encouraging about StarEast is what is most important: the food, which is generally well-crafted and impressively fresh for a place that so far seems very slow at dinner.
But the big empty-seeming space, the location, and the somewhat awkward amalgam of coffee shop and restaurant seem like tough obstacles to overcome. The folks at StarEast wisely keep things informal, even during dinner service. On the stereo Arabic music alternates with soft-rock over the hum of the beverage cooler. You order at the counter from one of those slightly nonplussed ethnic-restaurant white girls so distinctive to Maine, wearing an old-school “My Name Is” nametag.
Just about anything you ask for will come with or on the terrific flatbread. Served warm and fresh from the oven, it is puffy and light — less doughy than naan — with a whisper of crispiness on the side that had been pressed against the oven wall. You can get it with cream cheese and honey for what I imagine to be a very good breakfast. For my morning meal at StarEast the bread came with a soft, cheesy omelet crumbling with diced vegetables.
In the evening we tried the flatbread with a creamy hummus with strong flavors of sesame. It came with a bright, fresh tabuleh that offered much more parsley than bulgar and a zing of lemon. The flatbread also came wrapped around the koba sandwich. The tender balls of beef, onion, potato, and rice, wrapped together with tomato, cucumbers, and hummus, were a mild but interesting alternative to falafel, which is also on the menu.
Moderation in the use of spices, so as not to overwhelm the flavors of their other ingredients, was the rule at StarEast. This was evident in the kofta kabob. More beef than lamb, it was a bit like a juicy Arabic meatloaf sprinkled with paprika. We also tried kabobs of lamb and chicken. While meat on a stick is too often charred into oblivion, at StarEast the large chunks of meat and vegetables were tender, attractively browned, and cooked with restraint. If anything the chicken could have used a touch more heat. The kabobs came with more of the terrific tabuleh. Lamb Biryani, with the pleasant fragrance of cardamom, featured fluffy tender rice and tender meat, but desiccated vegetables. It was a bit disappointing, as was a chocolate cake for dessert.
But overall the experience at StarEast was more a pleasantly odd surprise than a disappointment. If the space were busier some of its quirks would become less glaring. On a slow Saturday evening it seemed like a great place to bring kids. One youngster got pancakes (breakfast is available all day) while his parents tried something more interesting — and their dishes were mild enough for their kids to enjoy sampling. He and his brother danced to Middle Eastern music and eventually got some of the adults involved.