Fresh start

StarEast Café brings back a taste of the Middle East
By BRIAN DUFF  |  February 20, 2008
insidefood_stareast

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.

1  |  2  |   next >
  Topics: Restaurant Reviews , Culture and Lifestyle, Beverages, Food and Cooking,  More more >
| More


Most Popular
ARTICLES BY BRIAN DUFF
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   LIMITS OF LANGUAGE  |  November 03, 2014
    Is it enlightened or provincial that we Mainers hear “ethnic” and don’t think, as many do, exclusively of non-Europeans?
  •   INFINITE BROOKLYNS  |  October 24, 2014
    Last year some national magazine said that Biddeford is to Portland as Brooklyn is to New York. No. Biddeford is a mash-up of Newburg and Poughkeepsie. It is East Bayside that is our Brooklyn.
  •   START DIGGING HERE  |  October 03, 2014
    Because music is now basically free (thanks to torrents, Pandoras, Spotifies, etc.), the only way for musicians to make money is through constant touring and related merchandise sales. Or they can appear as a judge on The Voice. Food, on the other hand, will still cost ya...
  •   PICK YOUR POISON  |  October 01, 2014
    The National Institutes of Health just published a randomized study that confirms the rumors: carbohydrates are poison and should be avoided. So how should we feel about Slab Sicilian Streetfood?
  •   A LITTLE WHINE  |  September 05, 2014
    The lessons of Lolita are that something simpler and less challenging can be lovely, and that some cheap wine could really loosen things up.

 See all articles by: BRIAN DUFF