Some of my best friends love the Star Top Cafe. It has a devoted cult following of risk takers who enjoy unusual, complex, aggressively spiced cuisine–people who would try antelope nipples if they were on the menu. Other friends, the kind who always wish those pureed turnips on their plate were mashed potatoes, don’t like the place at all.

The Star Top Cafe caters to a young crowd, and the clientele, like the food, is full of odd combinations. At adjacent tables were a good-looking guy in dreadlocks (the sort of “do” that should be a don’t) and a yuppie couple with a newborn infant (what a great age to take them out, before they can run up the tab). There’s a strange dichotomy between the uptown cuisine and the 60s, hippie-style downtown decor: scruffy storefront chic with silver alligator-stamped vinyl tablecloths, painted chairs with leopard-patterned seats, crystals as table decorations, and rock music. Service is exceptional, maybe because the owner’s girlfriend waits tables. Regulars tell me this is where the Grateful Dead go after a concert, maybe for one of the theme dinners, like the gigantic pig roast or the $69 Valentine Day dinner for two.

I find the Star Top’s cuisine problematic. Like creative accounting, creative cooking doesn’t always turn out to be such a great idea. The same goes for “aggressive” seasoning; too many spices tends to overwhelm rather than enhance natural flavors. These days chefs don’t need to disguise food that may be “off,” just as we don’t need to disguise our body odors like the ancient Egyptians did, by wearing perfume cones that drip down our heads all night. I also have a short attention span for long menu descriptions. Just tell me what you’re bringing me. “Fish dinner” works better than “lemon sole saute-beef marrow, shallot and fresh tarragon with merlot demiglace” ($16). Some of the food was great, but why call something merlot demiglace when it’s just brown gravy with wine?

Many of the chef’s flavor combinations were extremely successful, like a deliciously spicy appetizer of bay shrimp and chorizo saute with potato, poblano pepper, mole, cilantro, and tomatillo salsa ($6), and a marvelous salad of baked Montrachet cheese with Belgian endive, apples, and bacon-honey Pommery dressing ($5). The drum (aka croaker) saute with sour-plum ginger glaze and scallion vinaigrette ($15) and the delicately seasoned rare duck breast saute with lime, honey, and Szechuan peppercorn ($17) were both excellent. Bluefish, tilapia, shrimp, squid, mussels, and clams with saffron, garlic, and white wine ($16) turned out to be a lot like bouillabaise, one of my all-time favorites.

Other items were total misses. An appetizer of spedino a la mozzarella ($6), fried pizza bread with anchovies in a tomato sauce, was a soggy disappointment, as was the too-thin asparagus lobster cream soup with scallops, crayfish tails, and fresh tarragon ($5). The anise butter accompanying the bread on the table was way too garlicky, so garlicky I knew I wouldn’t be able to get near myself later, but at least we couldn’t taste the anise. Who wants butter that tastes like licorice? Salmon saute with hazelnut, cardamom, and lime in brown butter ($16) seemed fried rather than sauteed. Grilled chicken and fennel sausage saute with manila clams and sun-dried tomatoes in red wine ($15) was so overly spiced that I couldn’t tell one flavor from another.

Fortunately, just as our tastebuds approached meltdown, the side dishes arrived ($4 each): mellow creamed spinach with gouda; mashed potatoes with sage cream gravy (if only they’d left out the sage); wonderful soft polenta with roasted garlic and marinara; stewed greens with bacon and onions; and bow tie macaroni and cheese made with Edam and cheddar, a flavor sensation deliciously different from Kraft’s.

Desserts, which vary daily, were a surprising regression to old-fashioned simplicity. The strawberry and strawberry-rhubarb pies, missing from menus far too long, were most successful. An apple, pear, and cranberry pie, though less exciting, was still good, but rocky road brownies and a chocolate profiterole were disappointing, the latter somewhat soggy. Pastries come a la mode and cost $4 each.

The Star Top Cafe, located at 2748 N. Lincoln, is open for dinner 6 to 10 Sunday through Thursday, 6 to 11 Friday and Saturday, closed Monday. For reservations, call 281-0997.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.