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Cheap Eats: Downtown's Hidden Gem, Star Keeper Café

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We’re parking in the glorified alley that is Bamboo Lane, between Main Street and Ringling, in front of the Star Keeper Café. A good friend of ours visited earlier in the week and raved over the place. He’s meeting us here. He says, “Order whatever. It’s all good.”

We’re struck by how odd it is, this quaint little Old Florida house more or less hidden in an alley behind massive high-rise apartment buildings. If no one told you about this place, you’d never see it. Inside, the space is done in clean, muted tones, hardwood floors, with cozy little tables tucked in the house’s nooks and crannies. It’s one of those glorious fall days, so we decide to grab a table outside, in the courtyard out back, which is shaded by a tree populated by a number of songbirds.

Now right off the bat I have to lavish some praise, as not only does Star Keeper have a menu full of creative takes on American comfort food, but their breakfast menu is terrific sounding, and more importantly, it’s available all day long. We order some coffee, a strawberry-basil lemonade and some Warm Mini Donuts ($3), then take our time going over the entrees.

The lunch menu is largely soups, salads, and sandwiches, but that’s not to say that it is limited in anyway. There’s a glazed portobello sammy with goat cheese, spinach, and tomato; an open-faced black bean sandwich with tomato and spinach, served on cheese toast; a grilled cheese with your choice of brie, cheddar, Swiss, or Provolone, onion, raspberry, tomato, spinach, chicken, ham or bacon. There is also meatloaf and roasted chicken, brown sugar ham.

Eating Companion dives into the breakfast menu, going for the Breakfast Pie (sweet potato, tomato, spinach, squash, eggs, and cheese, $9.25) and the Campfire Platter (roasted veggies, bacon, egg, and cheese, $9). I order the coconut, ginger, chicken, and veggie soup ($4.50), the chipotle chicken salad (black beans, corn, avocado, red onion, shredded chicken breast, $8.75), and what our waiter claims to be their most notable sammy, a grilled Monte Cristo (thick-sliced ham, shredded chicken, Provolone cheese, served on, basically, sourdough French toast, with a cranberry sauce, $8.75).

The warm donuts arrive, as does the friend who tipped us off to this little gem, and on first bite we all agree that these donuts are the best way to spend $3 we can think of, all light and warm, with a dusting of confectioners sugar that melts to a glaze as they sit. Paired with their slightly above-average coffee and we’re pretty much in heaven.

The lemonade is stunning — fresh, muddled strawberries and torn basil floating in a just barely sweet, fresh-squeezed ‘ade.

The entrees take a bit to arrive, but we are in no rush, seriously, and enjoy the rather tranquil little downtown oasis, sipping coffee, talking, until our waiter brings out our very large portions of food.

The Breakfast Pie is quiche- or lasgana-like, dense squares of rich, earthy flavors, light on seasoning and salt, relying on the flavors of the sweet potato and squash to carry the dish, which works. The Campfire Platter takes a similar approach, but ends up a little messy, a little soggy, the various roasted veggies mixed up with the scrambled eggs into a sloppy, albeit tasty, mess.

The Monte Cristo is a triumph, the sourdough bread dense and hearty, egg-battered and grilled, with a massive amount of shredded chicken and four thick slices of sweet maple ham. The cranberry sauce gives the whole thing a really seasonal feel. The chipotle chicken salad is monstrous, with a generous pile of shredded chicken, which borders on being dry, but is delicious with hunk of avocado. It almost seems like it needs a chipotle dressing of some sort, to pull the whole thing together.

The exclamation point on the meal is definitely the soup, a Thai take on classic chicken and rice soup, with a sweetness that is vague and mellow, the coconut milk clearly slow-cooked, simmered to a creamy, rich thickness that has hints of lemongrass, a touch of curry.

We get some to-go boxes, pack it up, finish our coffee, whereupon EC proclaims suddenly, inspecting his flannel, “A bird just pooped on me.” He looks up, points. “That one.”

Star Keeper Cafe
1734 Bamboo Lane, Sarasota
955-9434, starkeepercafe.com
Last modified: September 13, 2013
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