- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

Three partners from three different seaside worlds Cuba, Puerto Rico and Louisiana are behind the relatively new Starfish Cafe on Capitol Hill, a colorful addition to what is slowly becoming an international restaurant row in a booming part of town.

While claiming a specialty in seafood, the menu makes a point of being inclusive. Beef and poultry offerings include two puff-pastry packages: a beef Wellington a rarity in restaurants these days and a chicken en croute, with a stuffing of spinach and wild mushrooms.

The owners one of whom is chef Miguel Rodriguez hedge their bets on the New York strip steak, dubbed a house version because it comes with "Jack Daniel Pepper sauce."

Welcome to the Caribbean crossed with the Gulf Coast. It's cheers all the way for Mr. Rodriguez's seafood gumbo, the familiar combination of shrimp, chicken and smoked sausage that he makes properly spicy. A single portion at $6.50 will do for a meal. Team it with an appetizer, and you will be well filled.

As is the case these days in many Washington area dining establishments, appetizers win out over entrees. That might, in part, be because the hungry customers better absorb the flavors of the first course and can lose interest (or find their palates dulled) by the time the larger entree arrives. At Starfish, a scallop and salmon seviche salad served in a large martini glass is a mouth-cooling treat for $7.95.

Less enticing, we found, is the fried crab cake, which lacked bite or any real character. The cake is small, and its sauce is too sweet. The fried cracked-pepper calamari were hot and fresh, but the morsels could do with less batter for coating.

Starfish clearly aims to please and is working hard to build a neighborhood clientele. That shouldn't be difficult in fair weather because owners plan to have a sidewalk cafe similar to the popular one outside Banana Cafe across the street closer to Pennsylvania Avenue. A genial Jorge Zamorano is owner of Banana Cafe and a partner in Starfish. The pace at the latter picks up a great deal when he is present as host, even acting occasionally as impromptu server and busboy. He is also the creator of some of the bright lively paintings a lot of them fish that decorate the walls and sell so well he says he has trouble keeping up with demand. Louisiana native Dawn McGowen is the third partner.

Happy hour is from 5 to 7 p.m., with an advertised $3 price for six oysters on the half shell and $5 martinis. A selection of full bottles of wine are half-price every Monday, a considerable savings because many of the labels are top class, but even at regular prices, there are some bargains on the list. California is featured, with a few from Washington state, France, Chile and Australia.

On one occasion when we ordered a pre-dinner Cadillac margarita tequila, Grand Marnier and Cointreau we complained of its sweetness and asked for some fresh limes to improve the taste. We were promptly given a glass full of the tart green wedges. But nothing could overcome the cloying quality of the standard bottled margarita mix, so rather than risk our displeasure the manager took the item off our bill. We should have known better, having inquired earlier whether by some miracle fresh lime juice was used for this classic drink.

Typical is a mix of breads on the table. The Starfish waiter brings a basket of Uptown breads and asks diners to choose a slice or two. That may be all customers get unless they request a second round. Waiters were more accommodating when we asked for extra plates so we could share our selections.

A sesame-crusted loin of tuna is purposely undercooked and is served with a sweet honey-soy-ginger sauce and a portion of couscous a perfect dish to order before an evening at the theater because it is none too large. Blackened grouper, on the other hand, was accompanied by roasted potatoes (way too soft), which put it on overload. Nearly all entrees include a colorful array of julienned vegetables. Luncheon appetizers were made festive with the addition of spaghetti strings of beet.

The chef plays it safe with most of the seafood offerings, never venturing too far into imaginative terrain: grilled salmon, grilled lobster ($25 for one pound, topped with linguine in a fish-filled tomato cream sauce), a platter of fried seafood, fried lobster tail, blackened shrimp and salmon salad. Other offerings include a lobster bisque, a chilled seafood sampler, sauteed mussels, crab claws, and a corn and crabmeat flan.

Desserts, made in-house, are few, but the variety is pleasing. The flourless chocolate mousse torte served with raspberry and mango coulis was flawless, one of the richest we have tasted. The mango key-lime pie topped with macadamia nuts was equally decadent but wonderfully cooling on the palate. Starfish's two dessert specialties are a cheese flan with caramel accents and a dulce-de-leche baked Alaska. There's nothing shy about these offerings; just don't let your cholesterol count get in the way.

The interior is intimate and cozy; decor is enhanced by a brilliant use of warm colors everywhere. The front of the downstairs dining room is reserved for smokers; a section is separated from the much larger main room by a small bar. The rear resembles a brick-lined cave with a table that will hold six or more people who want some privacy for special occasions. Upstairs is a separate bar and additional seating that doubtless is designed for large groups with reservations.

Diners are greeted immediately inside the door by an enormous standing Tiffany-style lamp that makes a statement all its own: a mermaid riding a dolphin and holding a huge lamp overhead. This precious artifact, resembling a ship's prow, was found in a Baltimore antique shop and brought to its new home with great care.

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