By Chris Utterback
By Mark Antonation
By Kevin Galaba
By Mark Antonation
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Cafe Society
By Mark Antonation
By Mark Antonation
But still, an orchestra is not judged by the stage it plays on, and I could forgive every shortcoming of the space (except for those curtains) with my first taste of the kitchen's art.
Executive chef and co-owner Michael Long, a Culinary Institute of America grad and a veteran of several East Coast kitchens who came to Denver to open the nearby 5280 Roadhouse and Brewery (which explains the 5280 shirts on some of the staff and the matchbooks at the bar), has put together one of the more interesting -- and ethnically unclassifiable -- lineups in town. At Opus, he gleefully mixes East with West: Big lump crab cakes bulked up by Asian noodles and painted with a sweet Thai chile butter share a page with a new American/Italian inside-out bison ravioli that's rich with smooth cheese, a wine-dark red sauce and ground buffalo meat.
All that humor missing from the dining-room decor managed to find its way onto Long's menu, and the talent it took to create a dish as striking as the seared tuna PB&J absolutely floored me. Thick slices of ahi tuna loin, fire-kissed along the edges and sashimi-raw in the center, had been stacked between tiny doughy pancakes with the mushy consistency and blandness of Wonder Bread. The pancakes were smeared with a sweet, handmade peanut butter that had just enough flavor to overcome the dullness of the bread without clashing with the tuna, and the "sandwich" was served with an electric green dollop of wasabi jelly speckled with black sesame seeds. Although there was technical perfection in the balance between hot and sweet, dull and sharp, what really got me was the skill required to intellectualize such a dish. Fun like this does not come easy or cheap in the kitchen; it takes an original mind and a sense of humor that most chefs don't have the luxury or confidence to exercise. I don't know which muse it is that moves a cook to those occasional flashes of culinary brilliance that make or break them by name, but I'd put Long's tuna PB&J up against the best of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry any day. It was genius on a plate.
2575 W. Main St.
Littleton, CO 80120
Region: Southwest Denver Suburbs
Tuna PB&J: $9
Bison ravioli: $9
Lamb tenderloin: $27
Sesame chicken: $21
Autumn fruit crisp: $7
Whimsy, harmony and globe-trotting culinary piracy marked every dish we tried at Opus. Even the roasted chicken (the weakest dish I sampled, but still better by far than some of the best dishes I've had elsewhere) came speckled with black-and-white sesame seeds clinging to its crisp, fatty skin; these lent a nutty bass note to the workhorse bird. It was accompanied by a twist of julienne zucchini beside two halves of a brittle spring roll filled with buttery wild rice and blazing-hot chiles. I was also drawn to the most solidly middle-American entree on the menu: a simple tenderloin of lamb crusted with baked goat cheese. I say "simple" not because anyone could go out there and whip one up for himself, but because this kitchen realized the fantastic cut of meat could -- and should -- stand alone on the strength of its own flavors. Our server didn't even ask how I wanted it done, since there was no point in asking: As with duck, you get it rare, or you go to Burger King.
The lamb arrived at the table a ravishing pink, warmed through but still full of life, wrapped in a thick jacket of smooth, earthy goat cheese. The smell alone -- of lamb and spice and milk and earth -- would've driven me crazy had I ordered something else and seen this brought to another table. The flavors of the cheese blended with the juices of the meat, and each bite seemed to melt the moment it hit my tongue. Old people could have eaten this with their dentures out. The lamb was simple, beautiful, perfect, and though the cheddar-and-hominy-macaroni-hash concoction that filled the center of the plate was forgettable -- I was served some from the bottom of the pan -- the sweet red cabbage that came on the side was like candy. I mounded it up on slices of the lamb, and I put some on bread. And I don't even like red cabbage.
Desserts -- handled with flair and more humor -- are provided by pastry chef Anthony Polakowski, one of my new heroes, because while I have no clue how patissiers do what they do, I'm convinced that with the best of them it's just magic. Throughout the meal, our ever-helpful (and ever-present) waiter had offered suggestions, and he came up with another winner in the autumn fruit crisp: thick slivers of apple swimming in a syrupy reduction swirled with caramel and topped with a baked crumb crust and a melting snowball of vanilla ice cream. Imagine the best apple Betty you were ever served at a roadside diner, and you're halfway to how good this one was.
My wife and I forgot we were mad at each other. We forgot about the shoes, the cats, the reservations, the wait, the everything. I forgot about the room, the bad lighting, the weird acoustics. After the hour and a half we spent at the bar, we sat for another two hours over dinner, which brought the hands on the clock dangerously close to eleven o'clock and closing time for Opus. Yet the restaurant was still seating. As I was signing my name on the dotted line, tables were being pushed together for a party of six just coming through the door.