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Okay, so the James Beard House has had its share of troubles recently. But all scandals and criticism aside, it is a big name -- maybe the big name -- in the industry, and when you say "James Beard," people sit up and listen. Why is it that I found the pizza at The Oven so interesting? Sure, it's damn good pizza (see review, page 57). But then there's the fact that chef/owner Mark Tarbell, a James Beard Award finalist (which is akin to being an Academy Award nominee), is spinning 'za's in Lakewood -- which would be like Bill Murray, after getting his Oscar nod for Lost in Translation, jumping right into a sitcom role opposite a puppet. You know, like Alf. Or Jim Belushi.
1610 Little Raven St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
In the category of Best Chef Southwest, Tarbell was nominated alongside some real heavyweights -- Robert McGrath from the Roaring Fork (who won), Tim Keating, Bruce Auden and Todd Slossberg of Aspen's Hotel Jerome -- and he's now known as one of the up-and-comers in this time zone. Two years later, I won the Beard Award for restaurant criticism (lovingly called "The Uncle Fester," for its depiction of the bald-headed and somewhat shifty-looking James Beard stamped onto the medal), and I now spend my days showered with French champagne and Iranian caviar.
Okay, that's an exaggeration, but still. Doing anything that gets you associated with James Beard is no small potatoes, even in an industry that's totally jammed up with awards and trophies and "best" lists of everything from best escargot to damned-if-I-know. To be nominated for a Beard is to stand tall among the best in the business, and to be asked to cook at the Beard House is to tread on some of cooking's most hallowed ground -- knowing that you're working with the same pans, the same knives, the same dishes, that were used by Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Julia Child, you name it.
Last week, four of our best and brightest were doing just that in the Big Apple, as ambassadors of the (really stupidly named) Eat Denver committee. The plan was for these four -- Bryan Moscatello from Adega, Jennifer Jasinski from Rioja, Matt Selby from Vesta Dipping Grill, and Frank Bonanno from Mizuna and Luca d'Italia -- to cram into the very small kitchen at the Beard House and blow away everyone in attendance.
That's four chefs (plus some backup help) assembling a seven-course dinner, plus hors d'oeuvre, in a claustrophobic kitchen with unfamiliar tools, under severe time pressure, working with stock that had to be walked or flown in from Denver, and under orders to kick ass or else? No problem.
In attendance -- along with the usual Beard faithful -- were food and travel writers from Conde Nast, Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Wine & Spirits and a bunch of other big-money glossies that are apparently in too much of a hurry to spell out the word "and," all wrangled there by Rich Grant of the Metro Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau (ditto), in an attempt to put Denver "on the map" -- or at least in the hands of those folks who decide the fate of an entire city (or the fate of that city's tourism business, anyway) with what they write.
The evening was "magical," Grant reports, with the house packed, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, for a good three hours. And while former Westwordrestaurant critic Elise Cagancovered the event from inside (see City Limits), I stayed home, ate a lot of pizza and got my news from Phyllis Isaacson, director of information services at the Beard House, who attended the dinner and was more than happy to dish.
The corvina, the honey-glazed carrots and crème fraîche whipped potato canneloni, the grilled frisée and epoisses, the artichoke tortellini in artichoke truffle broth -- I tried to pin her down on the best single plate, but Isaacson didn't bite. "It started on a high note," she said, and never came down. "Every one was a winner, you know? There wasn't a weak spot at all."
That wasn't what most diners expected. "I mean, we always used to laugh at it, didn't we?" Isaacson asked. "Denver was the home of veal Oscar." And if you wanted anything approaching edible, the only options were "very fancy, white-glove service. Very Continental. But in the last, what, five or ten years? It's like Denver is really on the map, isn't it?" she asked.
Yes it is, I told her. We ain't just bull testicles and Coors Light, honey. And most of us even know to put on our best pair of overalls when dining out.
But I'm being too harsh, because Isaacson honestly gushed about every single plate that our four champs put up. And if she was a little surprised? Well, then, hooray for lowered expectations. Our team packed the house, turned the tables and sent everyone away with an image of Denver dining that's perhaps a bit more in line with the truth -- more oxtail Rossini with foie gras than beans and wienies, more crème fraîche than creamed corn. So congrats to all four chefs. With every chance to fuck it up, these flyover-staters came through with flying colors.
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