By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
I ate my first two official meals at The 9th Door (see review) while the kitchen was still technically under the command of Michel Wahaltere, and was ready to file my review when I got the news that he was leaving the kitchen he'd set up. "For the record," Wahaltere said, "I had a six-month contract at the 9th Door, so this departure comes as no surprise to any of us. My job was to get the restaurant up and running. I've done that, and I'm off to my next endeavor."
Well, his departure came as a surprise to me. I put the review on hold and made plans to revisit the 9th Door on what, by all rights, should have been the worst possible night for a critic to show up: the first Monday after the departure of the chef. Cruel, I know, but had my meal been lousy, I would have simply given the crew another three (or six, or seven) months to get things straightened out before rendering my judgment, because that's the way things work in this industry. Big changes usually take time to work through, and every kitchen deserves a fair shake.
But as it turns out, the 9th Door was up to the challenge. With chef Ryan Kennedy (who's been Wahaltere's sous for more than two years, since they worked together at Moda) in place as exec, the changeover -- from the floor, anyway -- seemed flawless. On the worst of all possible days, the crew performed like troupers and served me a fantastic, multi-course meal with only one stumble: a daily special of bonito tuna sashimi, salmon tartare and some sort of fish jerky that -- in addition to being rather out of place on a tapas menu -- were not the most well-considered preparations. The plate disappeared from the specials board before seven o'clock, though, so others in the house must've really been enjoying it.
So congratulations are due the kitchen staff, and congratulations to Wahaltere also, who just got himself hitched to the former Sidra Smith in April. The wedding was held in Vegas at the Venetian so that -- in Wahaltere's words -- "Mister Thomas Keller could cook for me on my wedding night." (Keller has a restaurant, Bouchon, inside the Venetian, and was apparently behind the stoves that night.) In addition to the recent connubial fusion, Wahaltere has been busy consulting on the new club/restaurant Stallions at 9070 Maximus Drive near Park Meadows, helping the owners of Vegas's Club Seven expand into the Denver market by putting together a menu geared toward American international cuisine (Kobe burgers and wood-fired pizzas) and training the front-of-house staff for the past few weeks.
And soon he'll be opening a more permanent place of his own at 1035 Pearl Street in Boulder, right next door to The Kitchen. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant will be a riff on the success Wahaltere enjoyed at the 9th Door, with a menu structured around French, Spanish and Italian small plates -- amuses, tapas and cicchetti, in their respective tongues -- linked through a common base of ingredients. "You know, they all have the language, the same Latin roots. And they have the same ingredients -- the olive oil, the tomatoes, the meats," Wahaltere explains. "And because of this similarity, we will be able to play with it."
Each menu item will be an expression of the region in which it originated, and the kitchen will also offer one plat du jour every night -- an entrée that showcases the cuisines of areas as diverse as Morocco, Lebanon and France, but is tied to the theme by language and culinary influence.
The biggest influences on Wahaltere's personal development as a chef have come from Thomas Keller and Jean George Vongerichten -- Keller on the West Coast, Jean George on the East; Keller a deliberative master of the New American style, Jean George a wildly unconventional border-crosser with solid French roots. Neither chef ever really repeats himself, Wahaltere points out, but instead takes what's good from one of his restaurants and expands on it at a new address. And that's what he's planning for Boulder: a place inspired by the 9th Door, but not a carbon copy of it. "I know you keep the idea," Wahaltere says, his accent getting thicker as he grows more excited. "But why keep it exactly the same? There's only room for one 9th Door in Denver, and in Boulder, too. So why don't you have a place where you can bring even more? This will be more elaborate than just copycatting."
Wahaltere is still tossing around names, as well as starting dates. The restaurant will open no earlier than mid-September, October at the latest. But one thing is certain: He wants a place that is his, a place where he can do all the things he wants to do and serve the foods he knows best.
Tapas the town:Spain's second-best cultural export -- coming in right behind Penelope Cruz -- is the tapas menu. For those of you who've been in a coma for the past five years, or perhaps just extricated yourselves from the cult of Atkins, let me explain the origins of what is now referred to in the trade simply as "the Tapas Thing," as in, "Have you heard about so-and-so? Yeah, his last restaurant failed and now he's doing the Tapas Thing."