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Poor Josh Wolkon.
This past summer the 26-year-old former Bostonian finally opened his own restaurant, after years of envisioning a grill with no pretentious "e" on the end, a place where people could have it their way--selecting sauces to match their entrees--in the midst of architectural splendor, with live music and a cool bar. And everything has gone according to plan, except for one major kink: The chairs suck.
How can you suit yourself when you can't seat yourself?
The chairs look great, though. Designed by local artist Doc Watters, these marvels of design have coppery sculpted backs and long, lean legs that swoop out about a foot behind the rest of the chair--and therein lies the problem. It's hard to concentrate on your meal when someone's tripping over your seat every five minutes.
And that's exactly what happened--once we finally were seated, that is--on our first visit to Vesta Dipping Grill, one of LoDo's hottest spots for dining. Overall, the food's good, if a bit pricey, but that's not what people are remembering about their Vesta experience.
1822 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
They're all talking about those damn chairs.
Wolkon, who opened Vesta in July, is quite aware of the problem. At this very moment and at considerable expense, he's having new chairs made up. They're due to arrive at the restaurant sometime next month, and Wolkon hopes that will be the end of it. "I've had a few customers tell me they call the place 'Vesta Tripping Grill,'" says Wolkon, who's trying his darnedest to retain a sense of humor about the whole thing. "I can tell you that it's been a nightmare."
The chairs haven't been the only stumbling block. Wolkon and his first chef, Alec Bethune, parted ways a few weeks ago; the former sous chef, Matt Selby, is now the executive chef. The transition made for a few production snafus, but nothing too serious. In fact, Vesta's staff is pretty impressive; as Wolkon puts it, "They're a young crew of very motivated people with a great energy level." Several of them, including the 23-year-old Selby, are even younger than Wolkon, but what they lack in years they make up for in competence.
Most of the employees were culled from the places where Wolkon worked in Boulder before taking some time off to focus on Vesta's business plan--Oasis Brewery, the Foundry, Spice of Life Catering--and he stole (with Dave Query's permission) Jennifer Cinader from Jax to be his general manager. Many of the staffers have talents that extend beyond serving: Tony, one of our waiters, is a member of the soon-to-be-defunct local band Sweet Water Well, and the other, Richard, created the figures on the bathroom walls, the lighted grates in the floors and the menu hanging in the window. He also designs all of Vesta's flower arrangements.
Vesta's look is half of its attraction: groovy pink-and-white lighting, sexy booths for big parties, mismatched old wood floors. Luckily, this hip interior gave us plenty to look at during the long wait for a table one recent Friday night after the early performance of Cirque du Soleil, when all of Denver seemed determined to squeeze into Vesta at 8 p.m. I had called earlier that day to make a reservation but was told that the restaurant makes them for parties of five or more only. It turned out that Wolkon was the person who'd answered the phone--I had not given my name--and he'd said, "Usually there's a wait of about thirty to forty minutes on Friday nights. Come find me if it starts to take closer to an hour, and I'll find you a table." So one of my companions did just that, and Wolkon did just that--even though he had no idea who was in our party.
As we were being seated, another friend tripped over the back of her chair, and Wolkon immediately said, "I'm so sorry. We're getting rid of those." But not fast enough, because all through dinner we were faced with the terrible junior-high dilemma of whether to laugh when a person falls down.
My inner child won out. Most of the time, it was hilarious.
Not that we didn't try to warn people. Since our table was located on the path to the loo, just about everyone in the place passed by us on one side or the other. But since our mouths were often stuffed with food, it wasn't always possible to offer a timely alert.
At first our mouths were full of the incredible breaded jalapenos ($6), Vesta's version of the usually pedestrian poppers. Wolkon says this starter is so unpopular that it will be dropped in an upcoming menu revision. I'm surprised that the poppers haven't caught on, but then, I imagine this upscale crowd goes more for the Vesta roll ($8). The six little rounds of raw tuna were supposed to be sesame-crusted but instead came out with an odd breadcrumb coating that completely outdid the tuna. So did the accompanying wasabe cream sauce, which was too horseradishy and thick. The mellow pickled-ginger salad worked nicely, however.
We encountered the wasabe cream sauce again later, on the spice-rubbed grilled tuna entree ($16), and while we still weren't crazy about the flavor--and if it was wasabe, why was it white instead of green?--at least this time the sauce didn't overpower the fish. The slightly spicy tuna had been well-grilled to our specification of rare; it arrived on top of a pile of Creole rice that was so dry, it was crunchy. A zesty tropical salsa rode sidesaddle, but since it, too, was thick and gooey, it didn't help the rice at all.