By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
On our first visit to The Oven, the server working the short bar near the front door leaned across the counter and casually asked Laura and me where we lived.
It seemed a little creepy, and definitely forward. I mean, sure, we're an attractive couple (Laura's good-looking, anyway, and I clean up okay), and it's not like we're somehow morally opposed to a come-on by a member of the waitstaff. But this was just too Sex and the City for us.
So I smiled, told the waiter that we lived downtown and said thanks, but we were just looking for a pizza.
7167 W. Alaska Drive
Lakewood, CO 80226
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Margherite pizza: 9-inch $6.50/12-inch
Fresh tomato pizza: $6.50/ $11.95
White, with chicken: $7.45/ $13.90
Italian onion soup: $5.95
Bowl of mozzarella: $5.95
Apple pie: $5.95< br>Root beer float: $4
"Really?" he asked. "What brings you all the way out here?"
"Hungry," Laura said. Which was true, since we hadn't eaten all day and were famished.
The waiter pulled a couple of menus out of a rocks glass on the bar and handed them over. "I was just wondering if you guys were from the neighborhood," he explained. "We're trying to get to know the neighbors, you know? The people who work here or live here." And even though he now knew that we didn't live in Lakewood's sleek new Belmar development -- filled as it is with that new breed of moneyed suburban-loft pioneers that we, most decidedly, are not -- and we knew that he wasn't looking for a three-way, the waiter still introduced himself and asked us our names.
"Frankie," I said.
"Marianne," Laura said.
"All right," he said. "You guys just let me know when you're ready, okay? Can I get you something to drink while you're looking at the menu?"
One of the many cool things about the Oven is that it came right out of the gate with a beer-and-wine license, and it has been serving from the day it opened six months ago. And not from a kiddie list of house reds and whites and cheap bottles of yuppie-bait chardonnay, either, but from an adult board of two dozen mostly California labels running the gamut from $16 bottles of Stone Cellars pinot grigio and merlot (inexpensive, but drinkable) to Napa and Sonoma bottles cracking the $100 limit.
That lineup may sound uppity for a pizza place, but the Oven is no run-of-the-mill pie joint.
The brainchild of renowned chef/owner Mark Tarbell, the Oven is one of the best-planned restaurants I've ever seen. It may be surrounded by such winning enterprises as a Ben & Jerry's ice-cream stand (an overpriced and played-out cash magnet second only to a shopping-mall Häagen-Dazs franchise) and a Claire's boutique (because there's nothing hotter than a $2 belly-button ring on a chubby twelve-year-old), but the Oven, like its founder, is a class act all the way.
Tarbell was a nominee for the James Beard Award in the Best Chef Southwest category in 2001, getting the nod for Tarbell's, his joint in Phoenix. While the award that year went to Robert McGrath of the Roaring Fork (a restaurant just a few miles away from Tarbell's place), the fact that Tarbell had been nominated was proof that, at least once in a while, the folks at the Beard House actually look away from the coasts (or chefs from the coasts who flee to the American interior) long enough to spot a chef at a little place truly deserving of recognition.
Tarbell's is definitely a little place, a glorified pizza-and-pasta strip-mall joint done in the urban-modernism style of a Chipotle. I'd stopped there after a night of bowling and drinking maybe a year before the Beard nomination came down, but the food was so good that I still remember it. And since I stopped by, Tarbell's has probably had to build an addition just to hold all the awards it's won (like Best Restaurant from Food & Wine magazine in 2000, nine awards for excellence from Wine Spectator, a top-twenty nod from John Mariani at Esquire, and Mark Tarbell's own Grand Diplome d'Etudes Culinaires from L' Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, where he trained).
Spinning off the success of Tarbell's, Tarbell opened Barmouche, also in Phoenix. But he and general manager Brian Cauley closed that restaurant when Tarbell decided to open the Oven; he wanted to have enough time so that he could make sure everything here was up to his standards. At this point, he must be exhausted from jumping like a jackrabbit back and forth across the Colorado/Arizona border, since he also plans to open a second Belmar restaurant to be called, simply, Home.
Tarbell is one of those great chefs who understands that he's cooking dinner for friends every night. And when you're cooking for friends, you want to take care of them. You want to offer them something they actually want to eat, made with skill -- and only about one degree of pretension -- from the ground up, with the very best stuff available. This isn't comfort food so much as ordinary food done extraordinarily well, with all the chef's attention and talent given over to its preparation -- proof that there's no element of cuisine so small or unimportant that it doesn't deserve the best efforts of everyone involved.