Eat it raw in Starfish Bed

Oysters are fine, so now let up-and-coming chef Martha Wright come out of her shell

STARFISH OYSTER BED & GRILL (100 Adelaide East, at Jarvis, 416-366-7827) Those mad for molluscs who find Rodney’s a circus and Oyster Boy too Queen Street will find much to love at this New York-style downtown bistro. Moving beyond the oyster bar, the pricey menu stands staunchly in the middle of the road. Complete dinners for $60 per person ($30 at lunch), including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Open Monday to Saturday noon to midnight. Closed Sunday and holidays. Fully licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

for years, tourists stood at thecorner of Jarvis and Adelaide looking for Rodney’s. They’d consult their Fodor’s or Frommer’s in front of the Goodwill, stymied in their search for the almost unmarked basement oyster bar. Last summer Rodney hightailed it over to the other side of town to more easily identified digs. So when former Rodney’s shucker Pat McMurray decided to open his own seafood spot, Starfish Oyster Bed & Grill, this perplexing corner seemed like the obvious location. Where else are you going to find hungry cabfuls of potential customers looking for a place that’s no longer there?

Kitty-corner from the old Rodney’s, Starfish occupies the first floor of what many will remember as the Dominion Typewriter building, a business that went the way of the pointed stick a few years back.

Gone are the dusty piles of ribbons and replacement keys. In their place stands a sophisticated New York-style bistro, all exposed brick and beige banquettes, an after-work watering hole where Bay Street types belly up to a beautiful seashell-under-glass bar, knock back pints of Keith’s India Pale Ale ($5.25) and slurp down bivalves by the bushel.

Fan’s of Rodney’s boisterous sawdust-on-the-floor circus or Oyster Boy’s ironic Down East setting will probably find Starfish somewhat staid. Instead of Stompin’ Tom and the Tragically Hip wailing away, 50s Blue Note jazz soothes or Blossom Dearie coos Tout Doucement en français. Refined, like.

The oyster lineup changes daily with availability but usually features sweet, meaty Malpeques ($1.55 small/ $2.65 large) from PEI, citrusy Richibuktos ($2.30) from New Brunswick and briny Kumamotos from BC ($2.45). All are served simply on crushed ice with only lime and lemon wedges to add nuance to the oysters’ subtle flavours. Freshly grated horseradish acts as a palate cleanser, much like pickled ginger between sushi bites.

For those who insist on amplifying the flavour, either a shallot-and-champagne mignonette sauce or St. Lawrence Marketeer Anton Kozik’s prepared seafood cocktail sauce can be added.

But once it veers away from the raw stuff, Starfish — like Rodney’s and Oyster Boy — loses the plot. There are a few exceptions.

At lunch, Hangtown Fry ($12) sees a deftly executed three-egg omelette stuffed with breaded Malpeques and sided with first-rate Yukon old frites and a ramekin of chili-spiked red pepper rouille. And at supper, the leg of lamb ($23) — thick medallion-sized slices topped with tomato — amazingly arrives exactly as requested (somewhere between rare and medium-rare). Alongside, a mound of garlic mash supports al dente haricots verts. Top-knotted baby beets complete this sizable dish.

Pricey seared sea scallops, though more generously portioned than a starter, don’t make much of a main only five of the slightly overcooked suckers are presented on a mostly empty plate ($28). And its tart pomegranate reduction adds a one-note counterpoint to the shellfish with fingerling potatoes and more beets, but it requires another contrasting flavour. Risotto, fr’instance?

While it’s encouraging to come across properly composed Caesar salad ($8) with unripped inner leaves of romaine and shaved parmesan, the mild, creamy dressing could use more anchovy and the Fred’s Breads croutons are rock-hard. A healthy count of steamed mussels swim in a meek white-wine base that’s studded with allegedly smoked tomatoes and oven-roasted whole garlic cloves ($8) but lacks their expected caramelized sweetness. No one sops.

A trio of plainly grilled sardines ($13) bore despite their lemon-zested fennel slaw accompaniment. They’re pale compared to Cataplana’s superb butterflied rendition served on grilled pineapple rings with nippy Mediterranean salsa. And that Portuguese eatery’s expertly executed sardines are half the price of Starfish’s.

Baked in-house, desserts (all $7.50) hold promise but are let down by being brought to table straight from the refrigerator. The gooey magic of the butter tart, here gone way upmarket — plated in a puddle of custardy cream, with currants replacing the regulation raisins — disappears when the thing’s coagulated from being chilled. Chocolate cake must be pure heaven warm but resembles a Twinkie-esque hockey puck cold.

There’s much to warm up to at Starfish, especially at the raw bar. And when McMurray and one-to-watch chef Martha Wright have focused on the cooked details, Starfish might become the kind of place that warrants second thoughts.

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