By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
The throwback, time-capsule cooking being done at Deluxe (see review) is just the tip of the retro-nouveau iceberg. Adega is serving jumped-up TV dinners in the bar; Troy Guard plans a retro comfort-food menu of roasted lemongrass chicken and mashed potatoes (plus a raw bar) at his new place, which is taking over the old home of Moda; and Brix, which just marked its first anniversary of serving Cherry Creek hipsters white-trash cans of PBR and the kind of simple, mom's-kitchen cuisine that sustained owner Charlie Master through a lifetime spent as a galley brat at the heels of his parents, Mel and Jane Master, is already looking at sites for a possible second location.
And now Frank Bonanno, chef-owner of Luca d'Italia and Mizuna, has joined with new partner Mark Haber (formerly of the Wash Park Grill) to take over the former Rhino Room -- the big, triple-threat space at 1700 Vine Street that has gone through more name changes than the Artist Formerly Known as and Now (I Think) Again Known as Prince. "We're just waiting on the liquor license now," Bonanno told me last week, with the deal contingent on a smooth transfer and no funny business with the city. "The fire inspectors were already in here. We're ready to go."
And go big: Bonanno has designs on not one new restaurant, but three, scheduled for staggered openings over the next twelve months. This will bounce him from being Lord of the Corner at Seventh and Grant (where Luca and Mizuna sit back to back) to king of an empire of five restaurants with five different names, five different crews and five totally different cuisines. The first addition, right up front in the Vine Street building, will be the Milagro Taco Bar.
"You know El Taco de Mexico on Santa Fe?" Bonanno asked. Of course: excellent burritos, brain tacos, menudo on the weekends. El Taco is the best true Mexican in the city, and the ladies who staff the galley there could run circles around just about any pasty-white schoolboy line cook in the city. I wouldn't be much of a critic -- or any kind of gastronaut -- if I hadn't done my time at that counter. "Yeah, well, that's what I want to do," said Bonanno. "Just like that."
Just like that, but a smidge more upscale, he hopes. Bonanno and I both know too many people who've been intimidated out of El Taco by the overwhelming Spanish-only, straight-Tijuana-diner vibe of the place, and he's shooting for a happy medium between gringo accessibility and super-authentic Mexican food cooked by some of his guys from Luca who eat the stuff every day between shifts spent knocking out pappardelle Bolognese, saltimbocca and sopresata. To that end, Bonanno will have tacos only on the left side of the menu -- but a full taco-bar spread, with sides and dressings done in bowls, real Mexico City style. "We'll have a nice big bowl of beans and rice on every table, guacamole, limes," he promised. "Good cheese, too." And that means some import Oaxacan and queso fresco as well as the jack and shredded yellow that Denver's accustomed to.
On the right side of the menu, "simple but really good" entrees, according to Bonanno (not like he was going to say "simple but really sucky"), done with a Rick Bayless kind of flair. (Bayless is a Sunday-afternoon PBS workhorse with his show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, his cookbooks and his post as exec at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, and he's an excellent choice as inspiration: While he may come off a bit goofy, the man can cook.) Bonanno envisions potato-and-poblano hash and grilled salmon in a chile BBQ sauce. "I want it to be authentic," he explained. "You know, you can't get into the restaurant business to get rich, so you have a vision, and you follow it. And that's what I want my name to mean in this town. Authentic. The real deal. Just like what I do at Luca and Mizuna. And we're gonna kill it with service."
Bonanno and Haber are looking at a March 24 opening. "I would love to get it open March 15, but I just don't know," said Bonanno, who's a sucker for anniversaries. (He and his late partner, Doug Fleischmann, opened Mizuna on March 15, 2001, and Luca on February 15, the birthday of his son, for whom the restaurant was named.) "I've always had good luck with the 15th."
Three months after Milagro opens, the partners hope to unveil Harry's Chophouse in the Rhino space that held the Sugar Lounge. The menu there will be solid, old-school retro -- almost culinary camp -- with oysters Rockefeller, clams casino and a lot of classical sauces (Louie, gribiche, Lyonaise, hollandaise, etc.) that haven't been seen, or at least done well, since the dying days of New York haute cuisine, before the purity of the French canon was forever disrupted by the nouvelle turks.
Proteins, veg and starches will be served in the fashion of the culinary Lego menus at Craft in New York City: one price and choose your poison. When I mentioned Craft (which is Tom Colicchio's backward attempt at removing the artifice and celebrity from fine dining by throwing the burden of choice back on his customers), Bonanno said, "Yeah, exactly. Like Craft, but where it's not all deconstructed, right?" Meaning that customers will still assemble their entrees from separate boards of centers and sides, but a steak will remain a steak, not become a steak foam or a steak essence, and each plate will be what it is -- nothing more and nothing less.