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Head for the hills -- the hill country of Sapa.

On return visits -- always with the wife in tow, acting as a governor to my more extreme impulses -- I attacked the menu with slightly more discretion, always ordering too much because so much of everything looked so new and good, but easing back on the coffee and promising not to fill my pockets with appetizers.

We avoided the oddly anachronistic sushi bar, but not the seafood altogether. There was sea bass steamed with ginger and flavored with kaffir lime, drenched in red curry; mi xao with shrimp, chicken and black mushrooms over stir-fried noodles. Jeff later told me that they'd put in the sushi bar because of Sapa's location close to the Denver Tech Center, with its diverse lunch and early-dinner crowd who might want something like baked eel and yellowtail nigiri along with their tom yum or Vung Tao lobster tails sautéed with seafood paste.

We also skipped the pad thai, because it looked so pedestrian on a menu alongside pad prio wan, a Thai stir-fry rather like Chinese sweet-and-sour chicken if that sweet-and-sour chicken were done in a handcrafted, combative sauce of pineapple sweetness slugging it out with sour lime juice and bell peppers -- a sauce with the distinctive flavor of something finished just thirty seconds before it was put before us. We also went for the Thai cashew chicken, the tender white meat marinating in a thin, blood-warm, salty-sweet soy, and pieces of mandarin orange that melted on my tongue.

Soothe operator: Sapa brings the taste of Vietnam's hill country to metro Denver.
Mark Manger
Soothe operator: Sapa brings the taste of Vietnam's hill country to metro Denver.
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When we dropped by for a lazy Saturday lunch (only two rounds of coffee this time), the dining room was nearly empty -- just us, two other tables and Yume walking the floor with a rolled kitchen apron around her waist. We ordered fire crackers -- shrimp wrapped in pastry, tied with a rice noodle, deep-fried and served with a danger-orange sauce that tasted like jellied fire -- and a dish called Hanoi Delights. Among other things (such as lemongrass-marinated beef and pork, beef la lot, lettuce, noodles and rice paper for making my own patented Clumsy White Guy spring rolls), the plate contained shrimp paste wrapped in pastry sheets, fried whole like a chimichanga and sliced. I was so busy trying to shove all the pieces into my mouth before Laura could get any that I almost forgot to eavesdrop on the conversation Yume was having with the couple seated across from us. And that would've been a shame, seeing as how they were talking about me.

Not just me, actually, but all of Denver's restaurant critics. Yume was concerned. She knew that Sapa had just passed its three-month mark, and she knew that made the place fair game for restaurant critics.

The conversation carried through our appetizer course, continued as our waiter (the same one I'd freaked out my first time through, but not holding any grudges) brought on a round of hot Panang curry with chicken, made with curry paste hand-mixed by Yume herself; prawns with garlic noodles; and a sweet, tender Massaman curry, stock-thinned and delicious.

We ate, Laura and I, trying not to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, our gluttony evidence that Yume had nothing to worry about. But she was concentrating on the other couple, and as the man stood, he tried to reassure her. "There's nothing you can do," he said. "A critic is just another person. Jason could come in and sit right there" -- and he pointed at the booth directly behind us, at the empty space six inches from the back of my head -- "and have a terrible meal. What could you do?"

They walked to the register after that, all three of them, and we lost track of the conversation. But before long, Yume was back. She stopped by our table to chat, to make sure everything was okay, to see if there was anything at all she could do to make things better.

She didn't know it, but she'd already done everything she could. Never have I wanted to blow my cover so badly, to shake a restaurateur's hand and tell her that everything would be all right. But I didn't. I held my tongue, made pleasant small talk, paid with the card with our fake name on it. And all the while, I was wanting to tell her this:

That man was wrong, Yume. You want to know what you can do to make a critic happy? You can write a menu as smart and balanced as the one you have here at Sapa. You can make a space as lovely as this, offer service as friendly and caring as this, make sure your kitchen cooks this well with every single plate it touches. You can be in your restaurant every day, every night, making sure everything goes right. You can do exactly what you've been doing, just the way you're doing it now. And that's it. Do that, and you'll never have anything to fear from critics or customers or even cranked-up weirdos like me.

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