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Like Thomas Roberts of Frisco's Deli and Market (see review), another fine-dining veteran is about to retreat into bistro cuisine. Manhattan Grill (231 Milwaukee Street), a venerable meat palace and Creeker watering hole, has been tottering lately -- not helped at all by Elway's opening and the overwhelming profusion of steakhouses in every quarter of the Mile High City -- and last week I got the news that owner Bruce Garretthas drawn up the paperwork to sell the place. Who's signing on the bottom line? Garrett's wife, Jean, who'll be a silent partner of the significantly more voluble Marco Colantonio.
When I got him on the blower last Thursday, Colantonio and I started out talking about the movement away from white tablecloths and such. "People want a menu they can recognize," he said. "They don't want to have to have concepts explained to them or be told how to eat." He was apparently thinking of Zengo, the rather complicated Latino-Asian fusion restaurant owned by Richard Sandoval -- the man who brought Colantonio to Denver in the first place to work through the opening of Tamayo, back when it was the newest and hottest thing around. "And don't get me wrong," Colantonio continued. "Richard is a wonderful guy, and I love his restaurants. But I think people these days are looking for a place they understand, with food that they know. People will always love coq au vin. Or, you know, simple escargot. Or mussels with white wine and shallots. And I think a neighborhood French bistro is one of the things that's always been missing from this scene."
I would've disagreed -- seeing as Le Central is just three blocks from my office and we still have The Savoy and La Chaumiere not too far away, and French cuisine isn't exactly underrepresented in this area code -- but Colantonio was on a roll. And hell, while not everyone out there in Hotcakesland craves shellfish and snails as comfort food, I certainly do, so I wasn't going to argue against the need for more Frog bistros.
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In time, Colantonio and I finally made it around to the point of our chat, which was what he had in mind for the Manhattan Grill space once he got his hands on it. No surprise here: He's thinking French bistro. More precisely, he's taking the general notion of the restaurateur's withdrawal from fine dining a step further by actually trying to resurrect a name and concept from his own past.
Way back when -- before Colantonio was a consultant and a floorman, before he'd ever heard of Mel's or Vega, before he'd met Sandoval, and back when he was just trying to make it in the greatest restaurant city in the world (along with everyone else in the world) -- he had a little place called Steak au Poivre. It began as a cash-only neighborhood French spot, serving the butcher's-cut steaks, the escargot and the wine-poached chickens that belong in such a joint, and he did so to crowds who (if I've got my history right) went nuts for the stuff. We're talking lines out the door, hours-long waits at the bar, review after review after review of nothing but raves. It was simple and it was perfect, and when Colantonio gets talking about the place, his voice turns wistful, like a man speaking about his first car, his first love, whatever ideal thing he let slip through his fingers.
And Steak au Poivre did slip away. Never content with leaving a good thing alone, Colantonio started thinking about expanding his bistro, and then he did. He started looking for a name chef to bring into the kitchen and found one in David Ruggerio. He started messing with something that wasn't broken and, in due course, broke it himself. He understands that, he told me. But he also thinks he's learned his lesson.
So now he's getting a second chance to do things right in Cherry Creek, where, come next month, we'll be getting Steak au Poivre all over again. Only this time, he swears there'll be no overreaching. No untimely expansion. No David Ruggerio or any other big-ego, headlining chef. This time he's keeping it simple. He has menus and a template to work from, one that he's sure will work.
"Neighborhood French comfort food," he explained. "Lots of candles. Some live jazz. Hanger steaks. An Escoffier menu. It's a done deal."
Of course, just as we were wrapping up, he threw in how he thinks the idea would make a great franchise. "You know, when this one succeeds, it will be like a prototype," he told me. "Something that can be opened anywhere."
Not if it succeeds, but when. A month away from the first customer's being served, he was already talking about expanding -- exactly what he'd sworn he wouldn't do five minutes before. Sometimes I think that Colantonio can't help himself and is physically incapable of seeing himself in the present, only in the past and future tense.
Still, things are looking good, for now. The paperwork is being signed this week, and after that, the old Manhattan Grill (which before that was Vartan Jazz, and before that the Bay Wolf and the Kiva) will go dark for about three weeks for a thorough facelift and remodel before reopening to the street trade. When I asked if he had an opening date picked out yet, Colantonio promised "June, early June. Maybe sooner, I don't know."