Have you ever noticed the more brightly lit a Chinese restaurant is, the higher its prices? Think of those grand San Gabriel Valley seafood emporiums that might as well be basketball arenas. If this axiom holds, then the inverse is true for Western restaurants: the cozier and darker a place is, the more exclusive it becomes—and the more you can expect to pay.
Nancy Wilhelm's Starfish is an Asian restaurant lit like a Western one. A bar dominates a room, steeped in shadows and illuminated by tea lights. It does a good job softening the features of those who are there to see and be seen, but it is not an atmosphere conducive to menu reading or seeing your food. Starfish isn't the first to follow this kind of opium-den aesthetic: Fashionable Asian-themed eateries from LA to NYC have repeated the design philosophy, taking it as conventional wisdom that if you want to sell upmarket Asian food to Westerners, you needn't spend much on electricity.
Of course, there are other required elements. A Buddha is a token tchotchke, but Starfish goes further. The men's restroom has wallpaper featuring nude Asian concubines in coy bondage poses. And in a bid to entice those who might still use the word "Oriental" to describe more than just rugs, they utilize the phrase "mysterious and magical" to describe the countries of Thailand, Vietnam, China, Korea and India. The menu is a mishmash of foods from all those listed, and if you find a few borders blurred and origins obscured, Starfish justifies it by the term it has coined for its cuisine: "AmerAsian."
Starfish, www.starfishlaguna.com. Open Sun.-Mon., 4-10 p.m.; Tues.-Thurs., 4-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 4 p.m.-midnight. Dinner for two, $16-$70. Full bar.
Wilhelm's executive chef, Jarvis Yuan, is of Taiwanese descent, and you get the impression he's really trying hard to not resort to the lowest common denominator. Since he is required to go all over the map, it's a tightrope act as perilous as the price of the $10 bowl of pho is high. He skewers nubs of well-marinated filet mignon on sticks for well-played satays. Instead of traditional peanut sauce, Yuan opts for a pesto-like substance that has lemongrass and mint pulverized into a piercing condiment. Calling the skewered mochiko chicken a satay, though, is a stretch. The strips of white-meat chicken are obviously battered in rice flour and fried—a delicious variant of Japanese karaage, just on a stick. A loving if somewhat less bold version of Roy Choi's bulgogi tacos is offered with Vietnamese do chau subbing for Kogi's kimchi-like slaw. And for a Cambodian salad, cucumber is sliced into coins, then tossed with tomatoes in a lime-inflected vinaigrette dressing. If it's one of Yuan's weaker forays, it's because it feels more like a palate cleanser than the standalone dish it's designed to be.
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Yuan is most successful when he eschews the traditional and applies his ready stash of Asian flavors to such Western standards as barbecue. His best dish is a Lincoln Log stack of slow-cooked baby-back ribs seasoned with five-spice. He roasts the bones to a char-flecked crispiness, the fire permanently fusing the warmth of star anise and cinnamon to meat so tender it peels off with nary a tug. The sugar snap peas were too soupy to be called a stir-fry and consisted of too much produce to be considered soup, but whatever it was, the tang of vinegar and garlic highlighted the natural crunch and sweetness of the peas.
But even those winning attempts, family-style meals at their heartiest, are disconnected from the rest of the restaurant, which isn't family-friendly and features a front of the house that doesn't know how to serve the food. A Thai red curry with the requisite flavors of kaffir lime and coconut milk is offered à la carte without rice, as if you're expected to slurp it up like chowder. When you do order a bowl of rice for $4, it'll take you exactly a second to realize you also need to ask for a spoon—the restaurant never thought to supply it alongside the fork and chopsticks. It also should be noted that Starfish charges $1 per guest for water. There is no option for plain tap. They serve it tableside in tall bottles, always in danger of being knocked over by your clumsiness, which is exacerbated by that dark, dark room.
This review appeared in print as "Asian, But of No Persuasion: Starfish relies on tried-and-true 'Oriental'-restaurant tropes for its so-so food."