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So Far, So Good

Hookah Cafe will hook you.

When Jeremiah Tower (Mr. California Cuisine, chef at Stars and Chez Panisse, and author of the foodie confessional California Dish) was a young man, he ate everywhere. He traveled around the world -- usually in style -- and consumed. James Villas, food editor at Town and Country for something like 26 years, grew up in the States but left for France in his twenties on a Fulbright scholarship and, before his first day of classes, became an accidental friend of the house at La Côte d'Or. After that, he spent much of his life in the dining rooms of the Queen Elizabeth feasting on caviar and flutes of French champagne. In her teen years, Gina Mallet knocked around the grand hotels of France. During his boyhood summers, Anthony Bourdain haunted the dunes at Cap Ferrat and ate in the restaurants there. Calvin Trillin never met a travel agent he didn't like.

Me? I've never been anywhere. And I'm jealous as hell.

One of my nightmares goes something like this: In the not-too-distant future, my wife and I are sitting at a good restaurant in New York City -- Restaurant Daniel, say, or Ducasse or Babbo -- having a great time. Then who should wander in but Bourdain, who pulls up a chair, and now it's a great time squared. Ruth Reichl arrives next, then Villas, then Trillin and Jeffrey Steingarten. Soon it's a big, rollicking party of food writers, and while this would be a dreadful collision of ego and neediness in the real world, since this is a dream, we're all getting along swimmingly.

Pipe dream: Hookah Cafe offers a taste of the real 
Lebanon.
Mark Manger
Pipe dream: Hookah Cafe offers a taste of the real Lebanon.

Details

270 South Downing Street, 303-722- 4100. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5-11 p.m. daily

Lamb kebab plate: $10.95
Kibbi: $8.95
Shish tawouk: $8.95
Meat combo: $13.95
Fruit salad: $3.95< br>Lemonade: $2.50

Closed Location

The talk turns to best meals, and everyone is remembering some little place in Lyon, in Paris, in Genoa. Villas won't shut up about Bernard Loiseau and La Côte d'Or, and Bourdain is talking about eating ribs on the beach in St. Martin. Even Laura gets in on it, telling her story about living on frites and rosti while motoring in the Alps with her family, because all the damn Swiss ever ate were farmer's cheeses that she couldn't stand.

Then it's my turn -- and I've got nothing. I don't know the name of the maître'd at La Tour D'Argent, what street in Rome has the best pizzerias, or the going price of chutoro in the sushi bars outside Tsukiji. I've been to Canada -- but that's about as interesting as spending the weekend at your Mormon neighbor's house. And while I've spent some time in Mexico, to the food-obsessed, Mexico is only interesting as a foil for some other, greater adventure: "Now, after coming home from Gstaad, we immediately flew down to Ensenada to get some sun, and there was this little taqueria there..."

In this nightmare, I'm left desperately touting American restaurants because American restaurants are what I know (probably as well as anyone assembled) and, in particular, restaurants in the American Southwest (which I certainly know better), but every argument sounds hollow, even to me. My dining experience -- especially in regard to ethnic cuisines -- has always been at one remove or more, has always been like listening to a first-generation recording of "The White Album," never the original master. When it comes right down to it, I don't know shit -- a fact made excruciatingly clear every time I have this dream.

It's usually at this point that I wake up in a cold sweat, irrationally pissed off at my food-world contemporaries for being such a bunch of jerks and at myself for never having taken the time (and never having had the scratch) to travel appropriately. While these schmoos (Bourdain excepted) were kicking it on the continent, I was head-down over a ten-top stove with some drunk, furious, first-generation Alsatian chef with no neck and a butcher's saber in his hand telling me how I was never going to amount to anything because I couldn't make a proper quenelle. Or I was drunk myself at some hole-in-the-wall Middle Eastern cafe in New York, eating hummus and shawarma carved fresh off the rotating meat stick by a dark-skinned ESL line cook with hairy wrists, surrounded by locals and sitting with my crew, all of us bitching about how -- if only we had the time and money -- we'd hop the first jumbo headed east and eat our way through Paris.

Most of us never did. The furthest we got was the next job, the next station. But now, looking back, I can't say that we didn't go anywhere. We might not have crossed many borders physically, but all of us traveled by eating.

And I'm still doing that today -- searching out, almost by reflex, those places that most fully transport me from wherever I am to wherever the owners and cooks have come from. In this way, I've been everywhere; I've become a frequent flyer. And while eating at the Hookah Cafe on Downing Street in Denver might not be the same as crawling the streets of Beirut looking for a fast hit of falafel, it's not that far off, either.

At a small table outside the front door, a youngish man in a dark suit and sunglasses is hitting the hookah beside him. Two small bricks of tobacco sit smoldering in the top of the thing, the smell both sweetly fragrant -- like cedar and cherry and hot tar -- and undeniably alien. He nods as I walk past, and as I step inside, the hookah smell mixes with the scent of garlic and roasting lamb, goes tripping across the senses to mingle with the sound of Middle Eastern pop music coming from a little tape player/radio on one of the tables, with men speaking in a broken mishmash of Arabic and English about their jobs, their cars, their laptop computers -- brand names and curses poking out like barbs from the background hum of foreign conversation.

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