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Starr gazing 

The lower end of Portland Street seems to be enjoying a renaissance of sorts, with the building of executive-style townhouses nearby, and a general clean-up of an area once dominated by strip bars. It’s a sunny day, and as I walk down the wide brick sidewalk I can glimpse the sun glinting off the blue water of the harbour.

Starr’s is a small bakery at the end of a row of storefronts that includes a flower shop and pizza place. Outside there’s a small roped-off patio, which is an absolute necessity because inside the cafe it’s sweltering hot (it is, after all, a bakery first, cafe second).

The interior might be described as low-key and eclectic, but that would be generous. It’s messy, with tables and chairs jammed everywhere, racks with baked goods stuck about haphazardly, and a floor badly in need of refinishing or a paint job. It’s a little off- putting because it’s a clean place that comes across as dirty because of the disarray, which doesn’t make a good first impression.

The other thing I find distasteful is the way the counterperson is dressed. I realize it's very hot, and maybe I'm just getting old, but I don't care to see the armpits and ass cheeks of the person who is serving my food. At least she's friendly and courteous—in fact, all of the staff I encountered there were very welcoming and chatty. Their friendliness creates a homey atmosphere that almost overcomes the cafe’s messy appearances.

Starr's serves light lunches of paninis, soups and salads between 11am and 2pm. Everything is made there, including (as one would expect) the bread for the sandwiches. I have the soup of the day ($3.25), a nice butternut squash. It could use a little more seasoning, but it's pretty good and very filling—so much so that I have to take my panini ($5.95) home to finish. The sandwich is large (you have to ask for the bread to be grilled, which is a little odd, as panini are generally assumed to be served hot), with thick slices of yummy bread encasing a lot of filling—in this case sliced turkey and cheese. I've ordered tea (they have several kinds of loose tea available) and I like that it comes in a little pot, so you can have a couple of cups. I drop in several times to sample the baked goods.

The cakes ($3.47/ slice) are very homey, nothing too fancy or pastry shop-like. Blueberry streusel coffee cake is delicious and moist with a subtle cinnamon flavour, and not too sweet, perfect for a midmorning snack. There’s a white cake called “Coconut Dream,” with a soft meringue icing; the cake is a little dry but the icing makes up for that. The sticky buns are really good, especially first thing in the morning, as are the tea biscuits. The biscotti looks promising, orange and chocolate (a classic flavour combo), but is very soggy. Typically, biscotti is twice-baked to achieve a very dry, almost hard texture, as it’s designed to be dipped in coffee. This biscotti is crumbly and can’t be dipped because it falls apart. It tastes great, though.

After trying a wide array of the offerings at Starr’s, I conclude that the old-fashioned baked goods like the tea biscuits, sticky buns and coffee cakes are what they do best. The staff is friendly, and if you can overlook the initial appearance, Starr’s doesn’t fare badly. Baked goodness combined with a great sandwich, good soup and wide selection of coffees and teas make Starr’s a good spot to stop for lunch or a sweet treat.

Starr’s Bakery & Cafe 55 Portland Street 461-4535Mon-Fri 7am-5pm Sat 9am-3pm Sun closed

How sweet it is. Find more of Liz Feltham online at www.foodcritic.ca

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