No Soft Sell

Restaurants have always been entertaining, even without the "concepts."
Nowhere else, for example, could you enjoy the delicious irony of a wave of water crashing down from a leaky awning over the group of people who founded Colorado's Ocean Journey--as they sat in a seafood joint picking at crab carcasses. And what other setting could inspire two grown men to toss tortillas at a bucket of beer and then pretend to mount each other--all to impress a big-breasted beer rep and win a couple of Corona T-shirts?

It helps if the restaurant is also a bar, because alcohol goes a long way toward making people more amusing. Swanky's, started by Rodney Franks and James Gibson, opened this past December in a space that the pair had been eyeing for a long time while they were bartenders at Wazoo's on Wazee. "This place was an old furniture-refinishing warehouse and showroom, but it had been vacant for six or seven years," Franks says. "We pitched the idea to some investors, borrowed a lot of money and then went for it."

They left the room looking a lot like a warehouse, which gives it a casual feel and a good bar atmosphere. The groovy booths and chairs, upholstered in metallic royal blue and bright green vinyl, add a classy retro look.

On our first visit, we had the good fortune to arrive on a night the Corona company was sponsoring some sort of promotion; the company representative wandered from table to table, cajoling customers into acting goofy for prizes. Since the place wasn't very crowded, our party of four won two much-coveted T-shirts and got to witness some stupid behavior.

While we were doing that, we tried to get into the spirit of things by ordering the deal bucket of five Coronas for $10, as well as a Swanky's Spank Me, a lethal combination of Everclear, triple sec, blue curacao, pineapple and orange juices and margarita mix that apparently exists solely so the server can say, "Do you wanna Spank Me?" The color of antifreeze and the consistency of a Slurpee, the drink tasted like a bad Jolly Rancher on the first gulp and an okay Jolly Rancher on the second; by the third, we didn't care what it tasted like. The two-drink maximum on the Spank Me is a very good thing.

Now, in a place that looks like a bar, where people are acting like they're in a bar, it's hard to hold out much hope that the food's going to be any good. But Swanky's hired David Neuman to run the kitchen; he's been spending time with the Larimer Group and at Hemingway's, and that doesn't seem to have ruined his ability to make appetizing dishes. "We really didn't want to get too crazy with the food," says Franks. "Our main objective was to do a dozen oysters and some beer for a good price, and then David came up with some stuff that people seem to like, and so that's become more of a factor than we thought."

It should be a factor, considering all of the crappy food being served in LoDo sports bars. And though Swanky's doesn't necessarily bill itself as a sports bar, it's in that same vein--which makes the cheap oysters on the half shell ($7.25 for a dozen) all the more appealing. It would help if they'd arrive in a timely fashion--the big-breasted Corona babe was only so entertaining--but everything at Swanky's took some time, so it was fortuitous that there was a spontaneous floor show starring the customers.

But once the food really started coming, we were able to pull our attention away from the guys trying to fling tortillas into the Corona girl's chest and focus on the munchies. The buffalo popcorn shrimp ($6.50) set our mouths aflame, so fiery were the little hot-sauce-coated baubles, and while the thick, rich blue-cheese dressing on the side tasted great, it offered little relief. Strangely less hot--considering the habanero--were the habanero-and-apricot chicken wings ($6.95), but they were nonetheless tasty, with a faint sweetness courtesy of apricot jam; they were a smidgen on the dry side, but not so much so that we couldn't polish them off. And the thinly battered sesame shrimp ($7.95) came coated in an addictively sweet goo that we scraped off the plate with a spoon after all the little crustaceans had gone to stomach heaven.

I was in heaven myself when I got my beer-battered fish and chips ($7.50). Since most places these days serve hunks of freezer-burned cod encased in soggy cardboard, I was delighted when two huge planks of juicy, fresh cod cloaked in a beer-bubbly, golden-brown batter arrived in front of me. The lightly seasoned chips were good, too, and the tartar sauce had been made up fresh.

Seafood is very much the focus of Neuman's Louisiana-oriented menu, and he once again proved he has a way with it. The blackened catfish ($9.95) was another fresh specimen, this time camouflaged with hot, hot, hot spices and served over well-cooked rice. On the side was one of Swanky's signature items: maque choux, a dish that's rarely prepared correctly, much less pronounced correctly (and here, billed as maque shoux, it wasn't even spelled correctly). But Neuman's version was pretty true to form for what's essentially a spicy corn casserole. He used andouille sausage--not necessarily traditional, but every Cajun mama has her own way--but it's the Paul Prudhomme kind, which I've always found to be greasier than most. Franks says they know it makes the maque choux oily, and they're looking at other brands. Until they change, expect a delectable concoction of corn, sausage, eggs and onions that you're dying to finish but can't because it's too greasy.

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