By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
While I enjoyed Little India (see review), eating there made me think about the best Indian place I'd tried in Denver: Maruti Narayan's. Because of Narayan's location at 12200 East Cornell Avenue in Aurora -- way back in a forgotten corner of the multi-tiered Regatta Plaza, a graveyard of great restaurants that could have been -- it was probably doomed from the start. There was no road from which you could see it, and it was flanked by nothing more interesting than an Indian grocery, a Latino grocery and a tanning salon. But I loved everything else about Narayan's -- the smell, the casual vibe and the food, which was absolutely fantastic.
Now a new Indian restaurant has moved into that cursed location, and Denver Woodlands is making a brave attempt to revitalize an address that's been dark over a year. The kitchen serves all-kosher, all-vegetarian food, and almost everything is some riff on the crepe, pancake or set cake, stuffed and/or sauced in the style of Southern Indian chefs who can trace their culinary traditions back through centuries of religious perfectionism. The specialties are dosa -- a kind of rice crepe, arguably originating from Southern India, Tamil Nadu or Malaysia -- and the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. This translates to idly rice cakes with coconut chutney, vada lentil-flour doughnuts, curries, the cooked-wheat chow chow bath from Bangalore, and more dosas than I've ever seen. Buttered potato dosa; an unbelievably delicious masala version, in which the crepe is stuffed with curried potatoes; another with green chile; another with sautéed onions and chutney; another with cottage cheese and chutney. The list goes on forever, as do the dosas themselves, which look like stunted baseball bats -- each as long as my forearm, and as big around as the business end of a Louisville Slugger.
Not being a vegetarian, I couldn't help wondering what a bit of lamb or chicken might've done to jazz things up, but still, if I ever give up my omnivorous ways and go over to the dark side, Denver Woodlands will be the first place I stop.
Shot and a beer:In the September 2 Bite Me, I raved about the wonders of the small-batch, artisan Del Maguey mezcal (with a little m) being served up by Mezcal (with a big M), the cantina at 3230 East Colfax Avenue, and pushed by Pablo, champion white-lightning sommelier.
Well, I've since learned that one of my other favorite bars, Brix (at 3000 East Third Avenue in Cherry Creek), is also serving the stuff. I was down there a couple of weeks ago digging the scene, hanging out among the beautiful and the botched, furthering my boozy education (still amazed after all these years that slouching at a great bar, drinking and shooting the breeze with friends and complete strangers, is considered part of my working day) and holding an irregular conversation with Tony the bartender about how George Lucashad betrayed the vision of our collective youths by releasing his remastered versions of the first three Star Wars movies when the talk turned to favorite drinks. I professed a fondness (okay, more than a fondness) for Kilbeggan Irish whiskey, which Brix doesn't serve, and then happened to mention the Del Maguey. At which point Tony lit up, scampered off and fetched a bottle from deep in the back of the rack at the far end of the bar.
Apparently the cult of Del Maguey -- with Pablo as its prophet -- had already made it from Colfax to Cherry Creek. And at Brix, as at Mezcal, the plain bottles with the hand-numbered labels soon became a staff favorite. I had a quick knock of the stuff, chasing it with the dregs of my Pacifico, and thought about how if Brix weren't already the perfect New York-style neighborhood bar, owned by the prodigal son of Brit/American restaurant royalty and run by a bunch of veteran Latino cooks and good-time Denver food-service hooligans, it could easily become my favorite Mexican bar.
Furthering Brix's cross-cultural fertilization, Charlie Master (the prodigal son in question) recently signed the papers to bring on Sean Yontz (once of Vega, now the man behind the scenes at Mezcal) for a six-week consulting hitch. If all goes well, absolutely nothing about Brix will change noticeably. No new decor, no menu changes, no radical alterations of the vibe that's made this joint one of the rare winners in a restaurant season marked mostly by memorable losses. Yontz's work -- with an assist from his friend and Mezcal chef Roberto Diaz -- will be all back-of-the-house tinkering with ordering and kitchen operations, bringing food and labor costs into line. All the stuff that, by his own admission, isn't Charlie's forte. He's a front-of-the-house guy, born and bred, and can get more money and mileage out of five minutes working the dining room than he ever could from five hours poring over the books.
So what is it with Yontz making the leap from chef du moment to in-demand restaurant consultant? Simple: He has the touch.
In the battlefield that is the restaurant business, there are essentially three kinds of chefs. First is the working chef, who thrives down in the trenches with the grunts, pulling station duty, expediting, commanding troops from the front lines. The Corporal Kilgore, "Charlie don't surf" kind of chef who does his best work under fire. That was the kind of chef I was, and my experiences are drawn from that unique, bottom-up view of the job.