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LEAN CUISINE

With all the action just a few blocks away, the 16th Street Mall is starting to feel like it's off the beaten path. Most of the restaurants along this stretch rely on lunch crowds to help them make it through the night, and some have redecorated or changed menus to avoid getting lost in the Larimer/LoDo shuffle.

On the sidelines, quietly overlooking the mall like a culinary wallflower, sits the two-year-old Beacon Grill. Inside it resembles a less-overbearing replica of wood-lined clubs where men meat over martinis, except that here the prices are easier to swallow and so are the steaks, which are cut from the lean Limousin cattle known for its solid flavor and low fat content. The restaurant does offer a number of seafood dishes (scampi, salmon, steamed mussels), most of which come as specials, along with a free-range chicken and a linguini primavera, so you can't call the place a steak house. But the meat is what really shines at the Beacon Grill--it's juicy, tender and cooked to play up the natural textures that you find only in ultralean cuts.

The beef comes direct from part owner Joan Jaffe's other project, the Double J Ranch, which the former IBM executive and her lawyer husband, Peter Jaffe, bought in 1978. They expected to play rancher for a few years and then go back to the real animals of the corporate world. He did, she didn't, and now, seventeen years later, they're riding the wave of healthier attitudes toward eating on the back of a true cash cow.

Intrigued to learn that the beef came from an owner's farm, I called Joan to get more information, but the journalist-shy rancher gave me very little to go on. First there's the mysterious disappearance of Rich Salturelli, one of the initial owners and a longtime Denver restaurateur, but no one wants to talk about that. And then there's the interesting saga of how an executive turns rancher and restaurant owner, but she didn't really want to get into that, either. Even the size of the Double J operation is not for public consumption, since Joan says that asking a rancher how many head of cattle she has is akin to asking how much money she has in the bank.

Apparently, the food at Beacon Grill is supposed to speak for itself. Some of it, however, doesn't have much to say; many of the ingredients are no more exotic than cauliflower and basil. What keeps the restaurant from being a beef-only destination is the excellent service in the dining room--it's tightly run, which makes for a fast-paced business lunch--and the magical patio, with a postcard view of the mountains and a location high enough above the mall to keep bus exhaust and street noise from being too much of a factor.

We dined alfresco on our first visit, on one of those rare patio-perfect nights where the stars shined bright and the breeze didn't mess up my hair. At the door, after a breathy walk up the steep stairs that lead into the building, we were given the valuable information that two waiters had called off that night and service would suffer. "I just want to warn you," said the maitre d'. "I understand if you want to go somewhere else." Right there, Beacon Grill earned major points: If more restaurants were honest instead of pretending to be above the mishaps that plague the rest of the world, I'd probably be out of a job. Even more laudatory was that once we sat down, fully expecting to be there for four hours, the service was fine.

So were our meals. An order of escargot with shiitake mushrooms and pine nuts ($6.95) came drenched in butter and perfumed with garlic; the soft snails and mushrooms complemented each other well. More complex was the Caesar salad ($4.95), proof that chef David Minty listens to his audience. I'd heard complaints that the Caesar had a great dressing but was unfortunately draped with just-out-of-the-can anchovies. No more. Our salad came adorned only with that excellent dressing--not mayo-creamy, not overly garlicky, not too salty--and a shake of freshly grated parmesan.

The entrees were even more austere, with only a parsley sprig here and there to color the plates. The Double J Limousin filet ($22) had been chargrilled and was everything beef should be and more. The biggest surprise was the intense flavor, something I hadn't anticipated given the beef's lack of fat (one of the few things Joan did tell me is that her steers keep their body fat down around 5 percent). The filet was substantial--about the size of a flattened softball--but, disappointingly, came with just a spoonful of burgundy butter to smear the meat in and an even smaller portion of red-onion relish (I counted seven pieces of onion). The plate also bore a smattering of steamed vegetables and a huge, swirled mound of piped, piping-hot mashed potatoes left slightly chunky and touched with parmesan.

Beacon Grill's mixed grill and its price change daily; we lucked into the day that mahi-mahi, salmon and tuna made up the order ($18.95). All three were impeccably cooked, with slightly crispy edges that held concentrated crunches of flavor and buttery-tender insides that confirmed the fish's freshness. More steamed vegetables came with the grill, along with wild rice prepared pilaf style and kissed with lemon. A sound round of creme caramel ($3.50) was a light and friendly finish.

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