By Jamie Swinnerton
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When Denver Pavilions opens early next year, there won't be any room on the 16th Street Mall for sloppy local restaurants--if there's room for locals at all.
A half-dozen blocks away from the Pavilions site between Tremont Place and Welton Street, we've already seen that people are willing to wait an hour and a half to eat at the Cheesecake Factory, which last year gobbled up millions of dining dollars that might otherwise have gone to homegrown restaurants. One of Pavilions' future residents, Cafe Odyssey, just posted obscene sales records at its second location, the year-old store in Minnesota's Mall of America--and if Cafe Odyssey can find enough employees to work at its Pavilions outlet, it'll do the same thing here. Maggiano's Little Italy, a 48,000-square-foot--at that size, it's almost as big as Italy--eatery, a Hard Rock Cafe and two Wolfgang Puck places will open in Pavilions, as well. Add the existing Palomino Euro Bistro, Willie G's, The Palm and a slew of fast-food chains that already call the mall home, and Houston, here we come.
Pavilions has been lauded because it will bring retail back downtown, but the eatertainment enterprises that come with those retail outlets aren't the kind that natives in other cities frequent repeatedly. Denver, however, could be different: You don't have to look any further than the Cheesecake Factory to see that.
Of the forty or so current or impending restaurants on the mile-long 16th Street Mall (by the way, that number--which includes food-court establishments but not mall vendors--was determined by me in a very scientific study conducted on a mall shuttle the other day), I counted fewer than a dozen that seem to be either locally owned or part of homegrown chains (hello, Rock Bottom Brewery). The rest are either locally owned links in national chains or corporate-owned national chain outlets.
Two of the mall locals are owned by Premier Ventures Inc., a five-person company that also runs Govn'rs Park on Logan Street and Caldonia's in Aurora. Its two biggest enterprises, however, are the Paramount Cafe and Marlowe's, which sit side-by-side on prime real estate, around the corner from the Paramount Theatre and right across from the future Pavilions. Marlowe's opened in 1982, back at the end of the last boom; this winter, when Premier bought the place, the company inherited executive chef Larry Bergstein, a CIA grad from New York, whom they've been working with to give the menu an update that would better meet the dining needs of the current clientele.
Having eaten at Marlowe's three times recently, I can only surmise that the restaurant thinks its current clientele needs more bland, greasy food--because at least half of the dishes I tried fell into one of those categories, and sometimes both. In Bergstein's defense, some of the culinary gaffes resulted from production problems, rather than flaws in his recipes. But Bergstein himself admits that they've pulled back on flavor in response to customers' demands. "Everytime we up the spice factor on dishes, people start complaining," he says. "So we've cut down on the seasonings and let people add their own flavorings at the table. And we'll always change a dish if people ask for it."
Okay, how about starting with the calamari appetizer ($6.75). Our server sold us on this, one of Marlowe's most popular items. While the squid was tender, its tasteless coating was greasy, the kind of greasy that leaves a little slick on your tongue. My guess is that most people who order the calamari immediately dunk it into Marlowe's excellent marinara, a concentrated tomato puree pumped up with herbs, and never taste the unadorned squid. But someone in the kitchen should.
The choucroute starter ($9.95) was much better, if oddly named after the French word for sauerkraut. A mere half-cup of the pickled cabbage (it was good, and we wanted more) sat in the center of the main event, an arrangement featuring two dry, dry links each of flavorful pheasant, buffalo and duck sausage.
The kitchen created another compelling blend with the well-melded blue cheese dressing that came on our house salad. But the small Caesar ($4.50) arrived awash in a mayo goo that tasted of little but garlic and was in bad need of salt--in any form, such as Worcestershire or anchovies--to cut the creamy richness. (I had to chuckle when Bergstein later informed me that oil added to eggs is what makes mayo--I may not be a CIA grad, but I do know that much. And I also know that this dressing didn't have the classy, refined quality that characterizes homemade mayo.) A more major miss was the paella ($17.95), a dish that traditionally uses saffron rice as the base for clams, mussels, shrimp and chicken. This rice seemed to lack the telltale yellow hue that saffron brings to everything it touches, but I thought perhaps it was Marlowe's lighting. So I took some of the paella home--the dish was so lackluster that there was plenty leftover--and in the harsh lights of my kitchen, that rice was as white as my bare behind. Without saffron, this just wasn't paella. (The mussels were another problem; there was something funky about them. When I later mentioned this to Bergstein, he said they're the frozen ones everybody's using because El Nino screwed up the spawning season. As for the rice, Bergstein guessed the kitchen had to use white rice and simply forgot to add saffron.)
The lame Kansas City strip steak ($20.75) was another disappointment. I'm beginning to think the strip isn't the best cut to showcase the beauty of certified Angus beef, because I've had it elsewhere lately and found it lacking in flavor. This sixteen-ounce steak was so dull I teamed every bite of meat with a daub of the wonderfully pungent garlic mashed potatoes that accompanied the steak. More of those good spuds came with the Maine lobster ($25.95), but this perfect crustacean didn't need any help. It was filled with juicy, juicy meat, the likes of which I haven't found before in this town. Everywhere I go in Denver, kitchens steam, broil, bake and grill the flavor right out of the lobster. (When I asked how Marlowe's avoids that lobster trap, Bergstein said those other places must cut the shell before cooking it. Marlowe's, though, cuts the shell after cooking, and does so in convenient tear-apart spots, so all the diner has to do is rip the sucker apart and start slurping, with no need for autopsy-like utensils.) Another winner was the cheese ravioli ($14.95), made on the premises. The kitchen stuffed these pasta packages with enough ricotta cheese to make them look like little fat guys drowning belly-up in a lake of that outstanding marinara.
Marlowe's does not, however, make the menu item that turned out to be the most drop-dead fabulous: the chocolate cake ($5.55), a stunning cross between the moist, sweet, Duncan Hines version you got as a kid and the dense richness of today's flourless chocolate cakes that use better chocolate and less sugar. Four layers were glued together with a lush icing punctuated on the top with hundreds of chocolate chips. But Marlowe's does make its own blueberry cobbler ($5.45), a superior version with a toothsome pastry lid and super-sweet berries.
On two subsequent visits I encountered the same irritating mix of execution snafus and decent fare. Twice I ordered the onion rings ($5.50) and couldn't get past three or four of the slim, parsley-flecked onion strands, which left grease stains on everything they touched and made me a little queasy. There were enough of them in one order, though, to feed ten people who don't mind oily food. The BBQ ribs ($9.75), on the other hand, were dry and chewy, although their sweet sauce was quite good. And as an appetizer, the mussels ($7.95) tasted absolutely fresh and were well-matched with a broth sparked by black and green olives and sun-dried tomatoes.
At these meals, Marlowe's did better by its meats, too. A solid cheeseburger ($7.95) that came more rare than the ordered medium-rare still featured Angus at its best: moist, meaty and magnificent, presented on an egg-white-shiny kaiser roll and topped with cheddar cheese. The filet mignon ($23.95) was eight ounces of velvet, with Angus's distinct sharpness taking well to the tart bordelaise sauce. But the beer batter on the fish-and-chips ($9.95) was so greasy I could only eat one of the three fillets.
As consolation, I ordered the chocolate cake again. This time, though, the kitchen decided to cover it with strawberries and strawberry puree--yuck.
That unfortunate choice just reinforced my sense that Marlowe's isn't running as tight an outfit as it should be--especially considering that competing eateries will soon invade its home turf. For a long time, Marlowe's was the only real option for the drinking-and-eating crowd that erupts from nearby offices on Friday evenings, as well as the post-concert groups coming from the theater next door. (Marlowe's walls are covered with photos of famous types who've stopped by after playing the Paramount.) But soon Marlowe's will have to compete on its own merits. Of which, I must say, there are several: The location can't be beat; the space, with its open windows, outdoor seating and mismatched tables, is fun; the atmosphere is noisy and conducive to good times; and the service is exceptional. But the food has got to get better.
Because this is war, and it would be nice if our side could win.
Marlowe's, 511 16th Street, 595-3700. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday.