By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
How the West was fun: This is an exciting time to be working in food in the West. Cooking, serving, writing about it, selling it -- doesn't matter how you're in the game, just as long as you're in it. And for those of you out there eating? These are the best of times.
Three years ago, Denver was on a tear, with hot-shit chefs doing amazing things and stellar joints opening (and closing) every week. It seemed that everywhere I looked, someone was doing something brilliant with a sturgeon or a dumpling, and every phone call that came in to the desk here at Bite Me World HQ was from some wild-eyed, 29-year-old former hash-slinger who'd just opened his first restaurant and was doing something even more brilliant with his dumplings and sturgeon than the guy who'd opened next door the week before.
And then, of course, it all fell apart. The money dried up, and the diners vanished.
1610 Little Raven St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
In the long view, the time Denver spent at the bottom of this restaurant oscillation was minimal -- two seasons, maybe three -- but let me tell you: It never seems fast when it's your restaurant that's hemorrhaging cash and your door that the collectors are pounding on. Still, the smart money persisted, talent survived, and now most of those old addresses are back in business.
Last Friday, for example, Nine75 opened in the former home of Moda, at 975 Lincoln Street. Test dinners earlier in the week had drawn in a bunch of Denver Nuggets as well as Lenny Kravitz, who stopped by for cocktails after dinner at Mao. According to chef Troy Guard, they put about one turn through the ninety-seat dining room each test night and didn't burn the place down.
"I do like how everything turned out," Guard says. "You know, everything's not perfect yet, but each night we'll get a little better."
Nine75 is running with a jumped-up comfort-food menu that borrows a trick or two from Guard's former post as chef de cuisine at Zengo. There's a raw bar, Kobe beef sliders, a small-plates menu, lobster tacos, cotton candy for dessert, and exhortations that all the food offered is meant for sharing and passing between friends.
And Guard tells me that he and owner-slash-father-in-law Jim Sullivan (who also owns Mao and the recently opened Emogene) are already talking about a new Asian restaurant sometime in the future.
Around the corner from Mao, the JW Marriott is rolling out a new and improved Mirepoix this week. Newly minted executive chef Thomas Baranoucky (who trained under former exec Brian Moscatello) is in command of the troops, and officially started showcasing his new menus and skills on May 18. (I'm reserving further judgment until the first convention passes through the place and I see whether or not I can get a table.)
And we've got more good eats and good times coming from Mark Tarbell and Brian Cauley, general manager at the Oven. They're looking at November 1 as the very tentative opening date for Home, which will be going in at the corner of Alaska Drive and Teller Street in Lakewood's Belmar complex. "But you know how it is with restaurants," cautions Cauley. "November 1 is a long way off."
The menu at Home will be "rooted in comfort food," he says, and upscale-casual -- meaning white linens, an extensive wine list and handcrafted food scarfed down by guys in flip-flops and T-shirts. Tarbell will essentially cram together the best of Tarbell's (his award-winning Phoenix home base) and Barmouche (a second Phoenix restaurant that he and Cauley closed before opening the Oven) in one space, offering mac-and-cheese, veal meatloaf, certified Angus pot roast, and spaghetti and meatballs, all executed with the kind of skill that's made the Oven a downscale sensation.
But still, why is a guy with a James Beard Award nomination, best-restaurant nods from the glossy-press commandos, and countless kudos, medals and accolades hanging out in Belmar, flipping pizzas? Because he wants to. Because he wants to cook food that people want to eat.
"Everybody who works at this company is very casual," Cauley explains. No matter what kind of place the company decides to open, the key is to "take the ideas and philosophies that back up fine dining -- any kind of fine dining -- and bring that into your business."
Which is good advice for anyone looking to get in at the bottom of this newest upswing in food and attitudes, and really the only rational advice to give anyrestaurateur: Do the best you can with every table, all the time.
Do that, and maybe you'll be around long enough to complain the next time the scene takes a nosedive.
Leftovers: Double props for Jennifer Jasinski this week. First, there was the Beard House thing; now her smilin' mug is in the "Top Tables" section of the June Bon Appétit. She's in the mix (obviously) for her work at Rioja, but the bar gets a bump, too, with its pomeginger cocktail named the best drink in Denver.
Tarbell and Cauley earn the next slot with the Oven, their "modern-day pizza parlor," and one of the desserts I didn't mention in my review, a homemade cinnamon doughnut with chocolate-espresso mousse. And Frascarounds out the section, getting nods for both Bobby Stuckey's grape juice and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's grub.