By Mark Antonation
By Nathalia Velez
By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
It was a beautiful piece of fish. Generously cut from mid-body with a gentle, mathematically pleasing slope from the thick flank to the thinner, slightly more tough back quarter. The lovely white flesh was shiny with oil, golden-brown on the top and bottom from a pristine pan-sear and a broil under punishing heat; its edges were crisp. Smelling of browned butter, it sat on the plate looking as pretty as a picture in one of those glossy food magazines.
Of course, that food is fake -- doctored up and retouched like a car or a supermodel or any other artificial commodity -- but this fish was real. It was my dinner. And as I pushed my fork through and twisted away my first bite, watching a little curl of steam rise from inside the fish just like on a commercial, I thought there was no way it could taste as good as it looked.
But it did. The flesh was juicy -- not at all flaky, but rather squeaky-stiff and slightly chewy; having been given just enough internal heat to become the fishy equivalent of a perfect medium rare, it was then removed from the fire and served, unrested, before any residual heat could take it beyond the magic moment of ideal temperature. As a result, much of the fat and fish oil was retained in the meat, giving it a mellow but broad flavor while avoiding the abject fishiness that comes from overcooking and the American cook's ingrained fear of underdone seafood.
11211 S. Dransfeldt Road
Parker, CO 80134
Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs
Lobster salad: $6.95
Tuna tartare: $6.95
Beef tataki: $8.95
Foie gras: $13.50
Chilean sea bass: $23.50
Niku maki: $16.95
Lamb chops: $21.95
It was a singular achievement, a small masterpiece of the poissonarde's art and a great goddamn piece of fish. This was the first honestly good piece of Chilean sea bass (aka the Patagonian toothfish, an ugly, nasty, bottom-feeding critter considered absolute junk until the over-fishing of snapper, sword and other more socially acceptable whitefish demanded a name change and a PR makeover for this substitute stock) I'd had since a meal four years ago at the Spring Mill Cafe -- one of my favorite restaurants in the country. The only trouble was, I was having this somewhat transcendent toothfish experience in a restaurant that I didn't particularly like.
Junz opened last year in a generic space in a generic strip mall out in the vast, low-density commercial/residential sprawl of Parker, a place considerably off-center on the radar of most metro foodies. And while the truly dedicated gourmand is willing to cross not just local borders but time zones in search of the new, the different and the delicious, all but a very few restaurants live and die by the goodwill of the neighborhoods in which they exist. As Tip O'Neill said of politics, all eating is essentially local, so Junz was created with a little bit of Parker -- a little bit of suburban Tuesday-night dining -- at its heart. The place is pretty but not fancy, comfortable for both families (of which there were many on each of my visits) and couples on a casual Saturday night out, and the menu is complicated, worldly and expansive without being overly fussy or at all intimidating.
That's all smart business, but for the food-obsessed -- those who, like me, believe deep down in their own hearts that food is neither a means nor an end, but should exist in a perfect vacuum, absent commerce, absent any sullying by the gross influence of crowds or fads or tastes du jour -- the discovery of who's in the kitchen on that Tuesday-night dinner shift can't help but carry with it a small sense of betrayal.
Chef Jun Makino is young, not yet thirty. But he comes from a restaurant family (his father owned Todai here in Denver; the extended family ran other left-coast establishments) and cut his teeth working prep shifts in one galley after another. That alone isn't so odd, because most genius chefs, and probably a good share of the merely mediocre ones, can trace their kitchen lineage down through childhood Saturdays spent mincing garlic or peeling potatoes. But Makino's story takes a celebrity turn: He worked under the late, great Jean-Louis Palladin.
Palladin was (and still is) a Name -- something you put in bold print on your resumé once you left his kitchen and went out into the world. He was also a monster, a hard-living, hardworking, flesh-and-blood dinosaur who shook the trees wherever he walked. He was a champion of haute French cuisine, a perfectionist, a brilliant cook and a wunderkind who got his double Michelin stars at age 28 -- the youngest ever -- then labored under their weight until lung cancer took him down at age 55 in 2001. You had to be more than good just to get onto one of his lines. You had to be great. And traveling in his orbit couldn't help but make you better. Friends who worked for Palladin at the height of his power alternately describe their time with the master as one of the most inspiring, instructive periods of their careers...and a season in hell. To a man, they also say that having Palladin's name on their resumés is a double-edged sword.