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Chef John Duran, then in charge of the kitchen of Bradford Heap's Full Moon Grill in Boulder, was teaching a workshop last summer at the Cooking School of the Rockies. While most of the school's visiting chefs provide detailed recipes for the dishes they demonstrate, Duran's written directions were minimal. The handout page headed "Zabaglione with Marsala fresh fruit garnish," for example, was simply blank, as if Duran couldn't imagine that having seen him make the dessert, we'd have any trouble duplicating it at home. For most of the evening, he gave offhand instructions as he worked. "You can add saffron," he said, stirring up his pasta dough. "Or squid or cuttlefish ink. Herbs, if you're planning to use it right away."
"What herbs?" asked an audience member, pen poised.
Duran looked up. "Marjoram," he recited patiently. "Oregano, parsley, basil...whatever floats your boat."
Duran has been cooking since he was a kid, and to him, there's nothing mysterious or arcane about it. He's a come-as-you-are kind of guy, as apt to settle down over a bowl of menudo in a tiny Mexican dive as he is to suffuse a plate of risotto with white truffle oil. So it's no wonder that at the beginning of the year, he left Full Moon for Canopy Grill, a restaurant that had just been opened in the burgeoning suburb of Lafayette by two longtime kitchen friends: Bob Thiele, who owns Bob's Sandwich Shop in Louisville, and Paul Price, onetime manager of Radek Cerny's European Cafe.
The theme at Canopy Grill is tropical: red, yellow and dusty green walls, paper lanterns swaying on large hanging umbrellas, and strings of little lights. The restaurant is open and airy, with large windows and pleasant views; there's also a patio. The owners' idea was to create a place where customers feel as though they're eating and drinking on a warm beach or in their own back yards. In summer, there'll be outdoor grilling and buckets of steamed mussels and clams. "If we could have called it 'Barbecue,' we would," says Price. "But everyone thinks that means Southern barbecue and slatherings of sauces, and that's not what we're about."
What they're about is Cuban-Caribbean cuisine -- although hardly a purist version. "It's just adding some tropical flavors," explains Duran, "making dishes lighter and fresher."
"Fruit finishes to the meat, fish and pasta as opposed to butter and cream," adds Price.
"Cuban food has always been an interest of mine," says Duran. "It's a whole new realm of food to experience and play with -- great new ingredients."
Canopy Grill is open for lunch and dinner, as well as weekend breakfasts, where a conventional morning menu is augmented by such items as French toast made with coconut milk, or mango-filled pancakes. The dinner roster includes appetizers such as papaya shrimp, seviche, and calamari with quince aioli; sandwiches (jerk chicken, blackened fish); and meat and pasta dishes. The scallop penne features an orange/cilantro sauce, and salmon and pork dishes are accompanied by Manchego-cheese mashed potatoes. When the staff realized how many adults were ordering the grilled cheese sandwich from the kids' menu, Duran came up with a grown-up, open-faced version featuring two cheeses and avocado.
The desserts, too, cross generations. There's a coconut-rum brûlée, and a fresh key lime pie made by sous chef Michal Seligson that's to die for. But Canopy Grill also offers brownie ice cream sandwiches, a grilled banana split, and gooey, chocolately marshmallowy s'mores.
Changing the menu to suit customer preferences isn't the only adjustment that's been made at Canopy Grill. "We all come from a more formal training and background," Price explains, "but people here are ordering beer and cocktails, not wine. So where there was an amazing wine list at European Cafe, our wine list is minimal. This is the 'burbs."
While the stagnant economy has been tough on high-end restaurants around Boulder, places like Canopy Grill -- where the food is fresh and inventive and the pretension minimal -- seem to flourish. And after just four months, this restaurant has already caught on: At lunch it's thronged with workers from nearby offices, in the evening by neighborhood families -- people with children, who want good food but don't want to pay $20 a plate for it. Canopy Grill also does a lively takeout business.
Duran can't remember a time when he didn't want to cook. His parents split up when he was young; he lived with his father and soon began preparing dinner nightly. His father was patient and supportive, Duran says, enduring such experiments as barely cooked pancakes and chicken that was black on the outside and raw in the middle; he even gave his son a basic cookbook. Duran doesn't remember its title, but he can visualize the yellow cover. "I still make the chicken-and-dumpling recipe out of it," he says.
He worked in Boulder kitchens after high school, washing dishes at Azar's Big Boy, prepping vegetables in the kitchen of a Perkins, and finally joining the staff at Mr. Steak, where the owner encouraged his interest in Italian food. "Rigatoni with sauce," Duran remembers. "Simple stuff."
Restless, Duran next tried a few out-of-the-kitchen careers -- cosmetology school, construction, a butcher shop -- before eventually deciding to go to cooking school in Louisville, Kentucky. He paid his way working at nearby restaurants.
Degree in hand, Duran returned to Colorado, and jobs at various Boulder eateries followed. At the original European Cafe, where he met Price, he learned a great deal from Cerny's sophisticated cuisine. "Doors were being opened for me," he says. Then came stints at the Med and Dandelion and, eventually, in the kitchen of Full Moon Grill, under Tim Bouse.
Bouse helped Duran get a job in Las Vegas, opening Lupo's for Wolfgang Puck; he stayed there for a year. But after Heap got the contract at Chautauqua Dining Hall and Bouse moved to that kitchen ("Food for Thought," February 28), Duran took over Bouse's slot at Full Moon.
"I enjoy making good food," he says. "I try to keep it simple -- not necessarily simple to make, but so that people understand what's there. I'm not into high food or arty food or a lot of sauces."
As time goes by, Canopy Grill will introduce a few more high-end dishes, but it will stay true to the owners' original vision, Duran says. "I want my food to be accessible to a lot of people. I don't like feeling I have to put on a suit and tie to eat dinner."