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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.

Closed Location

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.

"To be honest," he told me, "because I wasn't a chef, I had to get whoever I could to run the kitchen while I concentrated on running the business." He never had the best people in there, didn't have a crew that could possibly keep up with the kind of food Pham had been serving. "After the reviews, you know, we had so much business that we couldn't compete, couldn't keep up," Chadrom continued. "People would come in, and one of them would have the best meal of their lives; the others would feel ignored and just walk out."

Now, with Pham back on board and the bar and lounge crowd paying the bills, Chadrom plans to resurrect the restaurant's reputation. "I have the luxury of not having to worry about whether or not my dining room is full," he explained. "So we just want to build things slowly. Actually, it's kind of fun now, you know? It's kind of running on autopilot, and I'm getting bored."

Everything old is new again: Late last year, in a crushing blow to GoodFellas and Frank Sinatra fans everywhere, Gaetano's, at 3760 Tejon Street, was sold to Wynkoop Holdings Inc. , the company that's running Mayor Hick's chain of restaurants while he's running City Hall.

Gaetano's has been one of Denver's most notorious joints for close to seventy years, owned right up to last December by the Smaldone family. Back in the day, the three Smaldone brothers -- Eugene ("Checkers"), Clyde ("Flip Flop") and Clarence ("Chauncey") -- operated the restaurant while making a mint in the gambling, bootlegging and bookmaking trades. History has it that their rise to mob prominence began in the early 1930s, when another, unnamed Colorado bootlegger was shot fourteen times -- "riddled with bullets," according to headlines of the day -- and left for dead in north Denver. The brothers were questioned in connection with the crime but never charged.

After that, the Smaldone saga reads like any other American story, full of boosted cars and booze, contract murders, gambling debts, tax evasion and linguine with clams. As recently as 1983, the brothers were still working the system, with Eugene, Clarence and a nephew, "Fat Paulie" Villano, all reeled in by John Law for running a loan-sharking operation out of Gaetano's.

According to Wynkoop's Jamie Nicholson, the new owners -- who kept the place open through a long couple of months of renovations -- are keeping the Gaetano's name and playing off the joint's well-known history with framed newspaper clippings on the walls and this advertising tagline: "Italian food to die for." Making that food will be chef Tony Lombardi, a vet with twenty years in the galley, a few of them back in Italy. He's taking over the kitchen of a restaurant that he grew up not two blocks from, making a menu that represents the best of the north Denver Italian heritage.

Look for a new and improved Gaetano's grand reopening sometime in April.

Leftovers: In the restaurant industry, you never need to stretch as far as six degrees of separation to find your Kevin Bacon. Before Marlo Hix became chef at Tante Louise, for example, young Duy Pham was behind the grills, working his first exec's gig at the ripe old age of, like, twelve. (Okay, he was actually in his early twenties, but still very young for the job, proving that owner Corky Douglass has one spooky nose for talent.) Before that, Pham was sous chef to top Tante toque Michael Degenhart, back when Degenhart was just the cat's pajamas when it came to Denver celebrity chefs. During Degenhart's time at Tante, the restaurant was unrivaled in the white-tablecloth arena, and Degenhart had a rep for running an excellent training kitchen that turned out some of the city's most powerful young chefs-to-be.

In addition to Pham, who later picked Hix for his sous, Goose Sorenson, now chef-owner at Solera, was a Tante trainee. Also doing a long turn in the Tante Louise kitchen (in the pastry department) was Gerald Shorey, now the owner of the great Devil's Food Bakery, at 1024 South Gaylord Street ("A Hell of a Place," November 18, 2004). And who's in the Devil's Food kitchen, helping Shorey keep things together now that the house is doing a killer three-a-day service, plus wine, just like a real restaurant? Degenhart, that's who, leaving Shorey more time to concentrate on what he's best at: pastries.

Cafe Cero reopened on March 1 at 1446 South Broadway -- as its answering machine promised last month -- but under new owners and with a new, Mexican menu that lacks some of the original's quirky charm. Also up and running is the revamped Josephina's, which gave up some of its space in Larimer Square for Rioja, then went through a couple months of housecleaning and updating. Look for a mid-April reopening at 975 Lincoln Street, the address formerly belonging to Moda, which developer Jim Sullivan recently added to his portfolio (think Mao). Son-in-law/chef Troy Guard (former top dog at Zengo) will rule over the restaurant whose name will be Nine75 (maybe).

Closed for good is Seoul Food, the little Korean joint at 701 East Sixth Avenue that pioneered that part of town before it became restaurant central. The space will now be a combo Japanese/Korean eatery called Yoki Japanese. Closed for who-knows-how-long is Santino's, at 2390 South Downing Street. Owner Sonny Rando's temper was legendary (just ask any of his former staff) when the original Santino's was located in LoDo, and he was recently charged with sexual assault, which could be the family emergency cited as the reason for the temporary closure. (He's pleaded not guilty.)

Finally, Charlie Master and his partners at Brix are proud to announce the imminent arrival of a second Brix, slated to be called Brix LoDo.

"As soon as I got some managers trained and had some time off, we just got busy," reports Master from the heart of Cherry Creek, in his year-old original Brix. "And, yeah, now it looks like there's gonna be another Brix."

The new joint will be located in a cherry corner spot on the ground floor of the new Premier Lofts building at 22nd and Market streets, a complex being developed by a company out of Chicago. Technically, it's the Ballpark neighborhood, not LoDo, but that doesn't faze Master. "It's pretty much untouched, unless you're a sports bar or a steakhouse," he says. "So, yeah, we're psyched."

They haven't set an opening date -- the space is much larger than the first Brix, and the build-out will take a couple of months -- but the plan is to duplicate the concept, the food and the great bar, and also add a built-in DJ booth.

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