By Gretchen Kurtz
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Skydiner, bo-biner, banana-fana fo-finer, fee-fi mo-miner, Skydiner.
Before they opened their second venture, the principals from The Hornet -- Dave French, Brewster Hanson, Paul Greaves and Lisa Quinn -- held a contest to name the space they'd taken over at 1700 Vine Street, the spot long occupied by Juanita's Uptown. But the suggestions that future diners came up with weren't very exciting, so they eventually devised their own: Skydiner.
While the moniker could fit a Star Wars set, it focuses not on the future, but the past. The name reminded the partners of the Skyliner, the classic '50s-era Ford. "We were down to the wire, and at first we thought of Vox Diner, and then Pangea, to call to mind a sort of all-world thing, but we couldn't make up our minds," says Quinn, who is the general manager. "Finally, I said, 'Guys, if we're going to get a liquor license, we need a name right now.'"
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.- 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Skydiner had the added benefit of not just sounding sleek, but also of referring to the dreamy blue ceiling over the bar, part of the exceptional design work of Guy Thornton and his wife, lighting maven Maggie Thornton. And then there was the food that would be served under that ceiling. "We liked Skydiner, too, because it makes it sort of clear that this isn't going to be about biscuits and gravy," Quinn adds.
Skydiner is a difficult name, though, because it doesn't really flow off the tongue. Meet me at Skydiner. We're going over to Skydiner. Adding "the" doesn't help: The Skydiner sounds like an in-air kiosk United Airlines might set up in the back of a plane so it doesn't have to serve its so-called meals anymore. "I kept telling them it was called Skydiner," one woman told another in the restaurant's ladies' room, "and they thought I was talking about something out at the airport." The name simply doesn't evoke visions of the sort of destination eatery this place has the potential to become -- nor does it speak to what Skydiner is right now.
Sure, the space has something of a funky diner feel, both neo and retro at the same time, with gleaming metal tables, gleaming metal exposed air ducts in the ceiling, and booth lights that look like nipple attachments for Woody Allen's orgasmatron in Sleeper. And, yes, the bright, open space has an airy, almost ethereal feel, but it's almost too trendy for a part of town that hasn't caught up with LoDo or Cherry Creek in terms of traffic or residents' disposable incomes. But then, the area around the Hornet wasn't hot when the partners moved into the Baker neighborhood a few years ago, either.
"Half of the houses around here are businesses," Quinn says of Skydiner's 17th Avenue setting. "But the residents are changing. When we first opened the Hornet, we didn't know what we were going to get, and at first it was a lot of Mary and Lou's old customers, who didn't really get what we were about. And that area wasn't really hopping, either, and now it's crazy. So we're thinking the same thing will happen over here."
In the meantime, they're hoping the fun, comfortable cooking of Karl Rinehart will appeal to the mix of customers who find their way to Skydiner: some beautiful people, some neighborhood moms and their kids, a lot of drinking buddies, a few couples obviously on first dates, and construction types who get lost on their way to the Rhino Room, the smoke-filled, dimly lit pool hall that the foursome bought along with the Juanita's space. Before moving on to Skydiner, Rinehart had been cooking at the Hornet for a year and a half, creating a menu that kept the place busy even during hours when excessive beer consumption wouldn't be in good taste. His food leans toward the international in a casual way, and his menu at Skydiner has the same mid-scale appeal as the roster he created at the Hornet, with dishes that are ambitious and interesting but not fancy or overblown.
Skydiner's kitchen has its cloudy spots, however. Although the appetizer albacore rolls ($7.95) were filled with fresh tuna cured with ginger and chiles, as well as soft rice vermicelli and fresh sprouts, the rice-paper wraps hadn't been dampened enough, so parts were hard and chewy, and other parts just chewy. The peanut sauce that was supposed to come on the side had transmogrified into two sauces that did nothing for the mild tuna: one was a too-sweet hoisin dipper, the other a much too powerful combination of red bell peppers and chile peppers. The chiles hit the tongue gently at first, then continued to burn, badly, through bites of everything we stuffed in our mouths in an attempt to douse the fire. Meanwhile, the mussels ($8.95) needed something to bring up the mellow sea taste merely hinted at in the broth beneath the big pile of tender bivalves, a broth enriched with cream and fresh herbs -- heavy on the thyme -- but lacking anything to tie those flavors together, like a hint of cayenne or some salt. Actually, a drop of hollandaise or an egg yolk might have done the trick, turning the liquid into almost a classic billi-bi, an exquisite cream of mussel soup.
But there was nothing lacking in Skydiner's glorious version of the ubiquitous spinach and artichoke dip ($4.25): A creamy, cheesy mixture glued the veggies together with just the right amount of tart tang, and a nice gratin lid added crunch to the buttery croutons that came with the dip. Rinehart's wonderful bread also worked as a dipper: He makes a dense, doughy, yeasty loaf that's also heavenly smeared into Skydiner's good-quality table olive oil. And the fried shrimp ($7.25) should be the golden rule for anyone thinking of offering the too often overcooked, over-battered crustaceans: These were ideal, with a thin, crunchy-crumbly shell that housed still-moist shrimp and accompanied by a Jack Daniel's-sweetened cocktail sauce.
Like the appetizers, though, Skydiner's entrees were also partly cloudy. A plate of penne arrabbiata ($9.95, or $10.95 if you throw in Italian sausage and peppers, definitely the better deal) brought underdone pasta in a gummy sauce that needed the traditional cayenne -- or at least some of that chile dip from the spring rolls -- to add the fire that arrabbiata is supposed to have (they need to fix the spelling on the menu, as well as the preparation). And while the herb-crusted lamb loin ($18.95) was a beautiful piece of fork-tender meat coated with thyme, rosemary and oregano, the port wine sauce was bitter and the painfully raw garlic in the mashed potatoes even worse.
But it was clear sailing for the duck tamales ($12.50), with their silky bits of duck stuffed inside steamy masa dough, all blanketed by a sophisticated, ancho-pumped mole, replete with garlic and wonderfully smooth-textured. This heady concoction was perfect for the tamales and just as addictive adorning the sides of juicy black beans and cilantro-enhanced rice and super-sweet shoestring sweet potatoes. The duck was equally succulent as a seared breast ($12.50); here the port wine sauce, improved with dried cherries, was rich and sweet, a perfect partner for sweet duck meat that had been balanced by cracked pepper. The dead-on flavor combination showed that Rinehart is capable of some very savvy cuisine.
Skydiner's pastry chef, Mike Fulenweider, knows his stuff, too. An order of chocolate soufflé cake ($4.50) brought a moist, cocoa-dusty set of three slices of not-too-sweet chocolate cake set down in a solid crème anglaise, next to a thick slick of housemade strawberry coulis. The blueberry cobbler ($5) had been made with fresh berries, as promised, along with a welcome gratin of granola that added some texture to the blue goo while also providing a nice nuttiness that kept the dish from being too rich.
Still, a few other glitches clouded our meals. The wine list, although it features a well-priced inventory, doesn't match the menu's savvy selections. It seems like two small lists smashed together -- one an intriguing compilation of little-seen bottles, the other a mix of Horse and Ferrari-Carano, with plenty of misspellings sprinkled through both. We also sensed some tension between the front and back of the house. On a dead Sunday night, service lags were blamed on the kitchen because it was "hectic back there" -- making us wonder what it would be like when there were more than four tables. On Friday that same week, a different server blamed numerous minor glitches on "the slow guy in the kitchen."
Clean up those glitches, though, and Skydiner's future looks sunny. In fact, the sky's the limit.