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Bite Me

Second Helpings

Things are tough right now in the restaurant industry. Okay, things are always tough in the industry: That oft-quoted statistic (most recently quoted by Rocco DiSpirito during commercial breaks on The Restaurant) that nine out of ten restaurants fail in their first year isn't an absolute number, but it isn't all hyperbole, either. The actual figure is probably closer to six or seven in ten, but the nut of it is still true: The restaurant trade is a rough gig, and the odds are against you. And Denver's restaurants aren't just fighting the poor economy bedeviling everyone else in the country; they're also battling a glut of fine-dining options. There are plenty of diners out there willing to pay solid green for a good meal in a high-end house, but there are also too many high-end houses for them to choose from. The ratio of willing butts to serviceable seats is lopsided, heavily slanted toward the seats side of the equation. And while the pool of available money is broad, it is also shallow, spread thinly over many houses rather than lavished on a few.

Which is exactly the way this game is supposed to work. In the microeconomics of food towns headed toward culinary respectability, if twenty polished-silver-and-linen-tablecloth temples of haute cuisine open in any given year, and then fourteen or sixteen of them close within the next twelve months, the handful that survive are the ones that deserve it. They put out the best food, have the best service, make the fewest mistakes, provide the best cost-to-benefit calculation. Absent any discussions of fate, luck or freakish mishap, this winnowing process is how the market finds its level. I don't think any of the recent newbie closings took many industry-watchers by surprise. Aquarela? Seeing the lights dark there would have only been a shock to a coma patient. Bistro 250? That was over before it started.

Others hang on, though -- some deservedly so. People had incredibly high expectations of Vega (410 East Seventh Avenue) when it opened in the old Sacre Bleu space last fall, but the nuevo Latino restaurant got off to a rough start, suffering through a rushed and rocky opening and losing some staff -- including a partner -- early on ("A Room of One's Own," April 10). Still, chef/owner Sean Yontzsoldiered on -- and today Vega is as good as it's ever been (which can be very good indeed). True, the dining room is too fancy by a degree for a neighborhood where Benny's (301 East Seventh Avenue) packs 'em in every night of the week. And perhaps because of the sudden profusion of white-tablecloth eateries, Vega slips too easily off the radar of some foodies.

But when I stopped there for dinner last week, the food was excellent, with tightly controlled flavors and plates almost as beautiful as they were tasty. The service was personable and exacting, with just enough warmth to feel friendly, but not so much that the chumminess gets intrusive. The restaurant wasn't very busy, though.

Back in April, I closed my review of Vega with this: "When I asked Yontz how he was handling the stress and the pressure of his first chef-owner's gig, he graciously thanked the guys who'd gone before him into the weird, brutish, awesome world of being The Man. 'I'm just doing what all these guys taught me,' he said. 'What I learned from them. It's a tough time right now in Denver, and these last four months have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I was with Kevin for ten years, so believe me -- I know how to get through tough times.' And then he laughed. 'Really, I just want it to be a year. I want to be open a year, get through all the bullshit and get on with the routine.'"

Not only has he gotten through the bullshit, but Yontz and his kitchen have settled into their groove, even loosened up a little. Flavors that once seemed strangled, forced into a constricting balance on plates crowded with competing tastes, now have some room to breathe. The salmon napoleon that failed to move me on my first turn through Vega is no longer on the menu; the superb veal albondigas are better than ever, displaying an equipoise between the heavy, solid weight of the truffle, veal and manchego and the light sweetness of the corn purée and baby vegetables. And the butter-poached salmon is still as perfect as I found it last spring, still dripping with butter.

Vega's coming close to the one-year mark. If it sometimes has trouble attracting a crowd, that has nothing to do with the product -- and everything to do with the market. So if it's been a while since your last visit, it's time to return. The albondigas alone are worth the trip.

Two degrees of separation:In the beginning, there was Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street). That's the house where chef Sean Yontz and floor manager/frontman Marco Colantonio first got the opportunity to work together under the watchful eye and exacting administration of bi-coastal restaurateur Richard Sandoval. Then there was Vega, where Yontz and Colantonio struggled to reinvent the Sacre Bleu space owned by third partner Michael Payne. But a few months into that project, Colantonio left Vega and announced, somewhat prematurely, that he was going to be starting his own restaurant-consulting business. His first client? Cielo, the concept that Curt Sims and Pam Savage wanted to put into the old Denver Buffalo Company spot at 1109 Lincoln Street.

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