Fresh start

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

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
Share this entry with Delicious
  •   COPING WITH ADULTHOOD  |  August 07, 2014
    The neighborhood’s newish Central Provisions is grown up. But it also embodies our ambivalence about adulthood, and our persistent hope that a few more drinks will help us cope with it.
  •   PATHS TO GREATNESS  |  July 31, 2014
    India, like the American university, is mostly in the news these days for its bloated and ineffective administration and an epidemic of underprosecuted sexual assault. But let’s not give up on either—India or college—as a source of wisdom and repository of culture.
  •   THE QUAY TO GOOD LIVING  |  July 11, 2014
    Though they offer an appealing moral clarity, in practice zero tolerance policies have ruined any number of urban schools, fragile marriages, and card-marred soccer games. Zero tolerance almost ruined Portland a few years back, too.
  •   BITING INTO THE FANTASY  |  July 10, 2014
    Is it a sign of the shallowness of our national culture that we have spent half a decade excited by the idea of food served from trucks? Sure. But is it a symptom of some deeper condition? I suspect so. This summer offers a chance to investigate thanks to the arrival of a critical mass of food trucks around Portland, along with the film Chef, about a restaurant chef who starts a food truck.  
  •   A RAIL-CAR PALACE IN BIDDEFORD  |  June 11, 2014
    The barrel roofed train-car looks incredibly good given it’s nearly a century old.

 See all articles by: BRIAN DUFF