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Bite Me

Baby, It's a Wiard World

Forty-six years. That's a good run -- a historic run, even -- for any restaurant. And that's what Emil-Lene's Sirloin House (see review,) has rung up since 1958, weathering every storm, every up-and-down surge of the economy, by following one credo: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

"You don't change something that's working," says owner Karen L'Anglais. "Everything about the place is exactly the same today as it was back then."

Bistro 250, the restaurant that her husband, Rod L'Anglais, tried to start in Cherry Creek eighteen months ago, never got the chance to put that motto into action. It opened in the subterranean home of what had been Bistro Adde Brewster to virtually no fanfare whatsoever and closed roughly thirty seconds later. That was hardly enough time for the stoves to heat up -- let alone for the place to establish a tradition.

Karen does have a point about the often overlooked virtue of constancy, though. And it's something I found myself talking about with another veteran Cherry Creek restaurateur: Mel Master, owner of Mel's Restaurant and Bar, who over the years has learned that change is not always a good thing.

"You eat in a restaurant and you have this great dish, right?" Master asks. "It's the greatest thing you've ever had. You dream about it. And then you come back to the same restaurant a month later and it's gone. The menu has changed, or the chef has gotten bored and stopped cooking it. Well, that's like going to see the Eagles in concert and them not playing 'Hotel California,' isn't it? There's an expectation there, and I often think that restaurants hurt themselves more by changing menus than by staying the same."

Certainly the folks behind Emil-Lene's -- where the board of fare hasn't changed one whit since the '50s -- would agree. But Mel's has long been known for its seasonal and changing menu -- for tastes that sometimes ebb and flow according to the whims of a fickle dining public and the talents of whomever happens to be in the kitchen. Now, though, Master wants to change that. He feels that Mel's certainly needs a theme -- a motif through which the kitchen can express itself -- but within that theme, there needs to be some stability and a steadiness of hand that can craft a menu that will endure through modern foodies' often flicker-quick revisions of taste and preference.

And so Mel's brought back a former chef, Tyler Wiard, rescuing him from a tough spot at the Fourth Story (now ably commanded by chef Chris Reap) and putting the future of one of Cherry Creek's best (and hottest) kitchens firmly in his hands.

While Reap steps up to wow 'em at the Fourth, Wiard has stepped back -- both into his old post and away from the complicated, worldly New American foofaraw that never seemed to be his strong suit, anyway. In the cramped, aged kitchen at Mel's, all of his past sins of excess and omission have been sponged clean by a return to simple, clean cuisine and a reinvention of himself as a classical cook, turning out Mel's standards like mussels la Cagouille dozens of times a night and preparing simple, roasted corn-fed chickens juiced with tarragon butter.

Asparagus "three ways" is a riot of flavor: asparagus flan, asparagus grilled, and yet more white asparagus turned into a subtle, rich sauce. Wiard's seared tuna with baby bok choy is a barely Asian concession to those foodies who now think no restaurant is complete without a little fusion on the menu. The seared foie gras is a monster portion of Hudson Valley product, not always ideally veined, but handled with skill and obvious love, served over grilled figs with a fantastic, bittersweet red-onion jam that lends a perfect spike of acidity to the luxuriant foie.

Wiard's found his way home. This man can cook, no doubt about it. He always could -- but there was an element of grudging misery to what he was offering at the Fourth Story. At Mel's, that seems to have vanished entirely, replaced in almost every dish he touches with a focused concentration and occasional overwhelming decadence.

The kitchen has even had T-shirts made, according to Marco Colantonio,Mel's new floorman and general manager who, until recently, was doing time as a PR flack. And what do those shirts say? Just two words: Food Rules.

Who says you can't go home again?

Time's up:"It's kind of beyond belief, but also kind of draining, you know? For them. It just doesn't let up." So says John Imbergamo, restaurant vet and local consultant, talking about his client Racines.

Business has been pretty much non-stop since Racines debuted in its new home at 650 Sherman Street a month ago. "Each week has increased over the last," Imbergamo says. Two weeks ago -- which is to say, the week that included Memorial Day weekend, not generally a big moneymaker for restaurants -- the new Racines did more business than the old Racines had ever done at any point in its two-decade run.

And that's saying something, because the original location wasn't exactly sedate. The old Racines saw waits at the door on days when other restaurateurs would have danced naked on the rooftops if they thought it would bring in enough warm bodies to fill half the dining room. And on Friday evenings? You could forget it: Unless you'd started drinking early (and there were many who did), the bar was always full by quitting time.

Imbergamo laughs when asked what kind of troubles this sudden influx of trade can cause at a restaurant -- a restaurant, mind you, with an old name but in a new building with a new kitchen and an expanded crew. "There are plenty of other restaurants out there who wish they were having these kinds of troubles," he says. "But I'll tell you, it's not easy. On some nights, it just seems like there's no end."

And while such a rush of customers is great for the bottom line, it does present certain challenges. Ordering in the kitchen has to be recalculated; new staff has to be brought in and trained (talk about a trial by fire). With the kind of numbers that Racines has been seeing, the house is operating on a Saturday-night, second-seating clip seven days a week, and in time, that will start to wear on the crew. And while a full house is a happy house, it also means that diners who miss out on the initial seating are waiting longer and longer for a table. Some folks just leave, which is hell on a hostess when she has to go wandering around the restaurant looking for a party that's already pulled up stakes and headed over to nearby Benny's Restaurante y Tequila Baror Burger King. Others lounge outside, find their way to the bar or just sit sulking in the waiting area like the last kids picked for the neighborhood kickball game.

As a fix for this dilemma -- or at least to speed the process of locating errant parties -- two weeks after reopening, Racines decided to install a paging system similar to those used at some of the more popular chain restaurants. When the floor is fully committed, customers who check in at the podium are given a pager. When their table is ready, those pagers light up and buzz like really annoying cell phones. Actually, more like a vibrator for your beer -- because the pagers Racines is using double as coasters. Now, that's modern technology in action.

Leftovers:The aforementioned Benny's has completed the renovation of its enclosed sidewalk patio -- now, how about that pumpkin-orange exterior paint job? Lola, the popular coastal Mexican fish house on South Pearl Street, is pushing for a patio behind the usually jammed restaurant -- if fussy neighbors will just sign off on the plan. Hey, it works a few feet away at the Pearl Street Grill; it should work here, too.

Another Best of Denver 2004 award winner bites the dust. The Astoria Cafe (our Best Russian Restaurant) once held down the right flank of the Russian Plaza at Leetsdale and Oneida with a solid, dark solemnity. Sadly, it recently disappeared and has been replaced by Restaurant National, offering space for all your parties, weddings and special occasions. Luckily, just a couple of doors down (past the nail salon and karate studio, opposite the Taste of India restaurant and Russian medical supply store, but before you get to the RB+Russian book and video shop, the Balkan market or Ming Garden Chinese restaurant), the California Bakeryis still in business, serving the best piroshki and pastries in the area. The joint's also added pizza to its menu with a guarantee that the sauce is heartburn-free.

In a bit of good news for the local scene, Goose Sorenson and Brian Klinginsmith-- the guys behind Solera-- just got their marching orders to report for duty at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic later this month. They were on the back-up list of presenters and purveyors, and when some New York City restaurateur ditched out, Solera's number came up. With this honor come a few challenges, however. First, while every other chef and restaurant on the list has had something like four months to come up with a menu, arrange for provisioning and let the Aspen organizers know what they'll be cooking when, Goose and Brian had three days. A rush order, to be sure, but that's what being a pro means, right? And second, this is an Aspen festival -- as in sorta next door to Denver -- and yet the closest any local boy could get to playing with the big hitters was the back-up list? Something about that just ain't right. But, whatever. Their sandbox, their rules.

Regardless, Goose will be out there for all of us -- "pimping for Denver," as he so eloquently puts it -- and I suppose it's better to have one stand-up guy watching our backs in Fat City than having no one at all.

Finally, for all of the guys and girls in white who won'tbe headed for Aspen, Denver now has two more opportunities to S.I.N. Both Tamayo and Zengo are hosting service-industry nights every Sunday, when all restaurant, hotel and food-and-beverage vendors get a 30 percent discount on food. Tragically, booze isn't counted into this deal. And remember: Bring a business card or pay stub to prove you're walking the walk, not just talking the talk.

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