Chewing the Scenery 

Star's a new bright spot for downtown theatergoers.

Grilled snapper, the star of this evening's show. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Grilled snapper, the star of this evening's show.
One minute, our server is at our side, pouring wine and making small talk. The next, she's standing before the black baby grand, eyes bright with excitement.

From her perch on the small circular stage, she pauses to take in the view. The softly lit dining room of Star at Playhouse Square, awash in a golden glow, is endlessly reflected in five enormous mahogany-framed mirrors. Then the pianist strikes a chord, and diners' forks and spoons momentarily stop in mid-air. Dapper in her white shirt and black tie, our waitress begins to croon. "I know Seymour's the greatest, but I'm dating a semi-sadist/So I got a black eye and my arm's in a cast!" Ah, Little Shop of Horrors. We smile and nod, watching as she is temporarily transformed into a dining-room diva, a player who handles the microphone with aplomb. The music crescendos, and her big ending receives a well-deserved round of applause. Then -- faster than we can say "Somewhere That's Green" -- she is back waiting tables, and a co-worker takes over the mic.

That's how it goes at Star, Gary Lucarelli's new cabaret-style restaurant in the heart of Cleveland's downtown theater district, where the enthusiastic entertainment, supported by sparkling decor, thoughtful amenities, and reasonable prices, helps make up for dishes that occasionally miss their marks.

In particular, diners and theater-lovers alike should cheer long and hard over Star's rediscovered matinee-idol good looks. It's hard to believe this is the same long, narrow, featureless space that was previously occupied by the failed Ciao!, so thoroughly has it been remodeled. Gone is the dreary plum and gray-green paint job that made the room seem as dull and cavernous as the Goodyear Airdock. In its place are buttery yellow walls, a champagne-toned ceiling, and warm lighting from alabaster chandeliers and handsome wall sconces that give the room an intimate Mediterranean feel. Fourteen delicate plaster cameos, set into a series of alcoves near the ceiling, have been stripped of their dark finish, repainted a soft ivory, and accented with halogen spotlights. Bold abstract oil paintings by well-known Cleveland artist James Longs hang on the walls, each one depicting a different type of theater art; their earthy colors are reprised on the artful menu covers and in the handsome slate floors.

While Star caters to more than just a theatergoing crowd, its convenience for those attending events at Playhouse Square can't be ignored. Inexpensive valet parking at the door makes it ridiculously easy to dine before or after a show, without having to worry about reparking the car or making a late-night trek down wintry streets. (During lunch service, $2 parking is available in a nearby lot.) Unlike Ciao!'s previous policy of "Take your coats and get outta here," Star diners are now welcome to leave their parkas or furs in the restaurant's coatroom when they head to the theater and pick them up at the end of the evening, maybe pausing for a nightcap while they're at it. And although the staff is careful to avoid the appearance of hurry, the brisk pacing seems guaranteed to get playgoers to their seats with time to spare.

As for the food, Executive Chef Odell Boone's contemporary American menu incorporates both Italian and Southwestern flavor notes -- pappardelle with Cajun-spiced chicken, scallions, and chorizo sausage, in a tomato-basil broth being a good case in point -- and his open kitchen fills the dining room with comforting and familiar aromas. Many of the dinner menu selections are favorites from Lucarelli's other restaurants (pistachio-crusted lamb chops from the former Tutto a Posto, say, and char-grilled beef tenderloin from Players), and nothing is priced at more than $20 -- a true value by upscale downtown standards. For those who are feeling particularly tapped out, a small late-night/after-theater menu is even more economical, with salads, sandwiches, and pastas pegged at less than $10. The mostly West Coast wine list also has features designed to please cost-conscious diners. In addition to a fairly comprehensive and reasonably priced collection of wines by the bottle, half-bottle, and glass, there are 19 wines priced at only $19 per bottle. But fans of hard liquor should note: A smallish top-shelf gin martini, with three blue-cheese-stuffed olives, was no particular bargain at $7.25.

Yet while it may be reasonably priced, the food also proved to be the weakest performer in Star's ensemble, with dishes that ranged from very good to barely adequate and oversights that hinted at a lack of attention to detail. Consider, for example, those signature lamb chops, ordered medium-rare but served well-done and tasteless on a bit of gummy, overcooked risotto. (We're not going to grouse about the small portion: The three bite-sized chops were about all we expected for the $20 price tag, although hearty eaters might well be disappointed.) Then there was the slow-roasted "crispy" duck, almost blackened on the outside and predictably dry within, and served with a dull blend of wild and white rice, which was studded with flaccid sliced almonds; a pool of jammy, sweet-tart plum sauce turned out to be this dish's saving grace, adding both flavor and moisture to the otherwise ho-hum preparation.

Likewise, a generous portion of ruffled tortellini in too-timid pesto sauce, tossed with strips of slightly chewy grilled chicken as well as piquant bits of sun-dried tomato, was no better than what you might expect from a distracted home cook; and a lunchtime veggie burger, topped with a portobello cap, tomato, onion, mozzarella, and barbecue sauce, was moist and tender, but lacked real flavor.

Still, there were some obvious show-stoppers -- dishes that exhibited the kitchen's true potential. A starter of jumbo sea scallops -- perfectly pan-seared and custard-soft, in a dab of Chardonnay butter sauce -- was divine. An entrée of pan-seared Chilean sea bass -- gently cooked to glistening succulence, settled on a feather bed of mashed potatoes, and garnished with a few luscious drops of truffle oil -- was perfection. And a blue-cheese encrusted beef filet -- grilled as ordered to juicy medium-rare and sided with perky potato hash, apple-pear chutney, and a touch of thick balsamic syrup -- was a pure delight.

Salad productions were also first-rate. A luncheon companion and I shared the ample Sweetwater Salad (which the kitchen agreeably split for us before serving) as a first course and gave two thumbs up to the toss of tiny shrimp, chopped egg, blue cheese, and satiny field greens in a deliciously tangy vinaigrette with overtones of black pepper. And we're looking forward to trying the tempting-sounding Sirloin Cobb Salad (with beef tenderloin, bacon, avocado, and other goodies) or the Tuna Nicoise Fusilli (with grilled tuna, roasted red pepper, fennel, green beans, capers, and olives) on future visits.

The items on the small dessert list -- ice cream, sorbet, cheesecake, carrot cake, and three variations on chocolate cake -- made up in quality and freshness what they lacked in inspiration. The Star Signature Chocolate Torte (made by Old Brooklyn's Gateau Royal), in particular, was a rousing final act, with three layers of chocolate cake interspersed with an exceptionally rich, buttery, but understated semi-sweet chocolate frosting, then finished with real whipped cream and a handful of red raspberries.

Lucarelli opened Star in October, at the start of theater season, and staffers say they continue to fight the perception that it is merely an amenity for playgoers, rather than a destination in its own right. But the truth is, with its scintillating ambiance, lighthearted entertainment, and reasonable prices, Star is worth a look, even when Playhouse Square is dark. And once the kitchen gets its performance down pat, chances are that Star will steal the show.


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