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Bite Me

For the Birds

The most telling thing about my time at Sparrow(see review, page 53) was that I never felt the least bit of sympathy for the place -- and it takes a lot to set me off that way. It takes such a wholesale breakdown of every aspect of the dining experience that I am left holding out no hope, no belief whatsoever, that any amount of time or tender loving care could alter the course of the kitchen or improve its end product. Most houses would have to work really hard to fuck up enough to fall into this category. But Sparrow made it look effortless.

As my record as a critic shows, for the most part, I'm a pussy -- an easy mark, a guy whose mercy can be bought (figuratively speaking) pretty goddamn cheap. Show me anything -- some glimmer of talent, some spark of potential genius, however faint -- and I will take my time. I will wait to review a restaurant that I think is making strides -- hell, that's making any kind of move whatsoever -- in the right direction, and when the place finally gets to where it's been going, I'll be right there at the finish line, cheering.

I didn't like Bistro Vendome at first, but I could see that chef/owner Eric Roeder had a worthy goal, so I waited until he got his legs under him before I reviewed the restaurant ("The Waiting Game," May 6, 2004). I did the same for Deluxe("Californication," March 3), which took nearly a year to come together. Although both houses started out doing plenty of things wrong, I could tell that they had the potential to do everything right, so I bided my time until their respective kitchens had gotten it together before I returned for my official meals. The resulting reviews were raves -- as I knew they would be, even back when these places were terrible.

But I didn't see any hope for Sparrow -- didn't see anything in the menu, in the kitchen, in any of the flavors on any of the plates on any of the nights I was there -- that suggested things were going to get any better. There was no light at the end of the tunnel. The food wasn't even interesting enough to be wretched, and was such a disappointment that my meals at Sparrow will now be the bad meals against which all my future bad meals will be judged. Two years ago, that position of dubious renown was held by le grande dame, Tante Louise, where then-newly minted chef Marlo Hix seemed barely able to flail her way through a single dinner service. Lucky for Tante, Hix and crew recovered admirably -- never letting my spouting off bug them too terribly much. And today, Tante Louise is back in the game and holding its own on Colfax Avenue, the centerpiece of a revitalization that includes relative newcomers like Solera and Ivy Cafe.

Tante was soon supplanted by Rhumba, where my meals were so bad that I've never been moved to return, so I don't know if it's improved. But I do know that another Boulder restaurant, the Kitchen, quickly took its place in my hierachy of awful ("Boulder Blahs," July 15, 2004). And I have been back to the Kitchen, which disappoints me (and occasionally infuriates me) as much as it ever did. It's tough to taste the food there because the ego of the house always gets in the way. Too proud of accomplishing not very much at all, those guys.

But now the Kitchen is off the hook, because Sparrow is my new benchmark of suck: a nice room at what should be a great address with a crippled, lazy, clueless kitchen chewing at the heart like a cancer. I hope the galley crew takes a hard look at what they're doing and comes out swinging, hell-bent on proving my chump ass wrong. Trust me, nothing would make me happier.

But I'm not putting any money on it -- or into it.

Pham here to eternity: Speaking of suck, Opal, the winner of the Best New Restaurant prize in the Best of Denver 2003, went from hero to zero faster than any restaurant in history, after the loss of wunderkind chef Duy Pham just days after the award went up on the wall. But after a head-clearing stint in Meeker for a season of resort cooking, Pham is back at Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), overseeing a staff and writing menus for boss (and friend) Jay Chadrom. They're looking at wine dinners, at chef's tasting menus (for which Pham was rightly famous) and a possible leap across Lincoln Street to open a second spot -- this one a lounge and raw bar -- at the Beauvallon complex.

When I got Chadrom on the phone last week, he said he was thrilled to have Pham back in the house and excited about their plans for the future. He was also honest about Opal's unfortunate past. Chadrom counts himself lucky -- or at least luckier than operators who've seen their houses close over the past couple of years -- that Opal had a late-night lounge scene and happy-hour bar crowds that kept it going when the restaurant itself was suffering.

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