Asia Minor

It's dinner time on a Friday night, and the LoDo streets are packed with people in cars looking for places to park and people on foot looking for places to eat. At some restaurants, there's an hour wait for a table; at every restaurant within a six-block radius, the wait's at least twenty minutes long.

With one exception. At 1515 Market Grille, there are tables to spare in the quiet, tastefully decorated upstairs dining space once occupied by the European Cafe. "We haven't been able to fill it up yet on weekends," says owner Gene Tang, the former proprietor of Cafe Potpourri on Parker Road, which had a successful run from the time he opened it in 1985 until he sold it last year. (The location has since gone through several incarnations and is currently a Mexican joint.) "I think a big part of it is that you've got Rocky Mountain Seed across the street, which doesn't exactly make for boutique shopping, and you've got Cosmo's next door, which keeps changing its mind and doesn't know exactly what it's going to take to make it work. Then you've got the construction from P.F. Chang's next door, which is a big mess. It's not exactly the kind of area where people are just wandering around looking for a restaurant yet."

But you can bet that once P.F. Chang's opens, they will be. The super-successful chain will debut its second metro location just around the corner on 15th Street two weeks from now, and when it does, the LoDo P.F. Chang's will benefit from the reputation of its year-old sibling at Park Meadows, which is known for its hip-happening singles scene. Tang, however, says he welcomes rather than fears his new neighbor. "I think it will bring people down to this area," he says. "And if it's packed and people can't get in, well, then they'll come here."

The only problem with that theory is that Tang will want those people to keep coming back--but unless 1515 Market's kitchen shapes up, they won't. That would be a shame, because the space is inviting (it's nice to slip upstairs for dinner after having a few cocktails at the downstairs bar), the prices are a bargain (there are even $1.49 happy-hour specials), the restaurant is that rarity that serves dinner until midnight on weekends, and Tang is a fine host, having polished his impeccably friendly, gracious and charming maĒtre d' talents while working for Leo Goto in the early Eighties. And when the food is done right, it's innovative and excellent. But getting your food done right is easier said than done. During my three visits, I experienced several screwups--and that was with an experienced chef in the kitchen.

After Tang opened 1515 Market last spring, he ran through a couple of inept kitchen staffers before hooking up in June with Shannon Hayashi, who came from the Warwick Hotel. (Before that, Hayashi graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, trained in Japan and honed his culinary skills at New York's Waldorf-Astoria as a pastry chef and sous chef.) Born and raised in Hawaii, Hayashi has more than a passing knowledge of Asian cooking. So one of his first acts at 1515 Market was to create a new menu, one that he and Tang call "Continental fare with a touch of the Pacific Rim."

Unfortunately, it's often more of an insulting slap than a touch. The appetizer pistachio-crusted calamari ($6.95), for example, arrived at the table looking as though it had been cooked an hour before. Almost all of the nut topping had fallen off the lukewarm squid and onto the plate; the crust had the texture of something that had been deep-fried and then left to sit in cool air until it crumbled and congealed. And while the accompanying Asian slaw, with its vinegary tang and slight chile punch, was fresh and appealing, the side of spicy aioli had started to form a skin from its exposure to air.

The combination spring rolls ($6.95) were a mixed lot. One supposedly contained house-smoked salmon, goat cheese and spinach but tasted of nothing but spinach. (Tang says he thinks the kitchen got lazy and failed to put in enough goat cheese.) The contents of the other two--a smoked chicken and a coconut shrimp--were right on target, though, and all three rolls had been well-wrapped and fried until the shells were crispy and golden and the insides were hot.

1515 Market's entrees, which are generously portioned, come with a substantial salad and a relatively small price tag: The average is $14.95, and items that run higher are such things as venison and prime rib. But the salads would be a better deal if they came with the right dressings: On two visits, I asked for the creamy ginger and received the sesame-soy vinaigrette; on a third stop, I thought the kitchen had goofed again, but it seemed someone had forgotten to put any ginger into my choice. Luckily, the sesame-soy vinaigrette was excellent, with a slight sugary sweetness balancing the salty soy; prepared correctly, the creamy ginger proved to be another wonder, rich and loaded with ginger flavor.

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