Creative dishes shine at Cooper City’s Star Bistro

Visiting a new restaurant for the first time is a little like a blind date. You’re full of expectations, but fear you’ll be disappointed. All the more gratifying, then, when you encounter a pleasant surprise like Star Bistro, a small, family-run restaurant in Cooper City.

Sweet and charming, it’s owned by chef Rod Aracki, who is striking out on his own after decades in other kitchens, first in his native Serbia, then in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and, in South Florida at Café Maxx, East City Grill, the Down Under, Martha’s and The Forge. At Star Bistro, open since November, he’s joined in the kitchen by daughter Maja and her husband, Goran. His sons Steven and Patrick wait tables with their neighbor Brian and friend Jason, who watches over your water glasses intently — if only most romances had this much commitment. You’ve got to like this young staff — well-trained, accommodating and so earnest. Our waiter said he was learning about wine, but he knew enough to steer us to a delightful, dry South African Graham Beck Brut rosé for $33 (“the same beverage with which Nelson Mandela toasted his inauguration in 1994” and Barack Obama his election in 2008, according to the label). The wine list features about 30 mostly boutique labels with helpful descriptions and five by the glass for $7-$9. The cheery storefront has six comfy, oversize booths, bare, dark wood tables and a colorful, circus-style mural left from its previous incarnation as Mustard Seed Bistro. The menu features creative renditions of American dishes with Asian and European influences. Just about everything is made here, from the freshly baked, tomato-studded focaccia to the yuzu-flavored cheesecake. Save some bread to sop up an aromatic tomato bisque, made with carrots, onions, lots of garlic and basil — a good vegan pick.Aracki escapes salad boredom with choices like banana-crusted goat cheese — small discs that are coated with unsweetened banana chips and panko crumbs and fried to a light crisp. They’re served with sliced, caramelized bananas on cool field greens tossed with a sweet-tart banana-lime vinaigrette. The chef dresses up a spinach salad with strawberries, Macadamia nuts and creamy polenta croutons. There are so many tempting starters you could easily make a meal of small dishes. Aracki skillfully pan-sears three plump, porcini-dusted scallops to a bronzed yet tender finish — a feat many restaurants flub. They’re served with mushroom polenta. Escargot, however, got mixed reviews, with most at our table finding them chewy. Star Bistro’s menu changes a few times a week, though there are staples like the tender skirt steak, marinated with fresh herbs and green and pink peppercorns and served with hash browns and vegetables. Rack of lamb is another victory, juicy and well-seasoned, served with a fun angel-hair pasta “pie” (cooked in a ramekin with custard and Parmesan) plus grilled asparagus and roasted red pepper, zucchini, portabello and eggplant slices. Even a humble chicken breast was prepared with care, marinated with white wine and fresh herbs and served with roasted fingerling and purple potatoes. Beef Madagascar is also a hit. The flat-iron steak is deglazed with brandy, cooked with lots of shallots, leeks and tomatoes and finished with heavy cream.Servers present a tray of five desserts including a warm, flourless chocolate soufflé with vanilla ice cream, a slice of refreshing cheesecake made with yuzu (a lemony Japanese citrus) and a lovely, cinnamon-scented apple tart drizzled with house-made caramel sauce and served a la mode. Like a successful blind date, Star Bistro is an experience we can’t wait to repeat.

If you go

Place: Star Bistro

Address: 8616 Griffin Rd., Cooper City

Rating:★ ★ ★  (Very Good)

Contact: 954-252-5545,

Hours: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday.

Prices: Soups and salads $5-$8.50, appetizers $10.50-$13.50, entrees $12-$27.50, desserts $5.50-$6.50

FYI: Reservations suggested on weekends. Wine and beer; corkage fee $15. AX, DS, MC, VS.