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Green Light

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

Walking into Sapa, the first thing you see are the green, green hills of home. Before that, it's just a box -- a nice box, fronted with a curving path leading to the door, lots of French windows and a nice patio wrapping around one corner, but a box, nonetheless -- grafted onto the far end of just another strip-mall retail enclave in Centennial full of hair salons, delis, insurance agents.

But inside, it's green. Soft, gentle green accented with green the color of new peas or sea foam, green like a peppermint spring morning, with air that tastes of the metallic chill of high-grade air conditioning and bittersweet vinegar. In the dining room, the tables are clothed in virginal white, set with bright silver and linen napkins folded into the starburst shape of flowers. The chairs are handmade, imported from Thailand. The chopsticks -- neither the generic, splintery wooden utensils found in most Asian restaurants nor the polished aluminum surgical instruments thrown around by the trend-suckers -- are heavy and carved into swirls, functional works of art. They fit with the art on the walls, the art on the handmade plates (painted with tiny clusters of flowers, the name Sapa worked into the twining stems), and the large aerial photograph of the hilly, tiered rice paddies of Vietnam extended along the curving, freestanding wall that separates the dining room from the service area in the back: The green, green hills of home, of Sapa, the mountain region in Vietnam's northern highlands for which the restaurant was named.

Green on green on green, and so peaceful, so soothing, that I can imagine other customers dropping into a Zen state of quiet, cool happiness the moment they fall under its spell.

But not me. High-strung, glandular freak that I am, it takes more than some front-of-the-house magic to crank down my nervous system, and I have a tendency to lash out against such attempts at tranquility being foisted upon me -- my body's natural reaction against calm, my brain's revolt against stillness. I would make an incredibly ineffectual Buddhist, would be the one monk in the temple shotgunning styros of coffee during meditation time, making up naughty koans in my off-hours, actively avoiding that sense of mental serenity that seems to be the prize at the last exit on the transcendental highway.

To that end, the first thing I ordered after I sat down was a cup of Vietnamese coffee over ice. Asian rocket fuel, that's what this stuff is. Strong black coffee, pure as death, drip-filtered into a small ocean of sweetened, condensed milk, stirred, then poured over ice. A perfect cup -- and this was -- is the color of rich caramel when it's done. The effect of drinking it is not dissimilar to the rising tide of a Benzedrine high, and with such a thing in their culturo-culinary arsenal, I'm frankly astounded that the Vietnamese don't rule the world. One cup is more than enough for the casual abuser, offering in its chilly depths enough jittery energy to keep you up for 24 hours straight, repainting your house or composing a symphony of breathless complexity on the back of a pack of matches. Two cups and you're the King of Spain, with your hair on fire and your eyelids pinned back to your forehead, unable even to blink.

I had three. But then, I am a hopeless junkie for the stuff, and Sapa's was so good -- so cold and sweet and powerful -- that I couldn't help myself.

I tried (unsuccessfully) to control my intake, to space it out over the course of an early dinner. I started with stuffed chicken wings, a modernist American take on the classic, French-influenced stuffed quail that's a staple of so many high-end Vietnamese menus. The wings were boned out into little meat envelopes stuffed with a rough-chopped filling of shrimp, black mushrooms, glass noodles and carrots, with more carrots (pickled and briny), more noodles (rice, and thicker than the standard Viet-Thai vermicelli, almost like cold spaghetti) and lettuce wraps served on the side.

And that was just an appetizer. I followed it with hu tieu, which I mispronounced so badly that it stunned my waiter for a moment, left him standing there, pen in hand, politely silent while I chattered away like a monkey who'd lost his crack pipe.

Hu tieu is a southern Vietnamese soup, less well known than pho, but a close cousin often found in restaurants run by those who grew up in the urban southern areas of the country and retain a fondness for it that's like the American obsession with chicken noodle. People like Yume Tran and Jeff Nghiem, the husband-and-wife team of Vietnamese immigrants who came to the Bay Area from Saigon, then to Denver from California, and opened restaurants -- first Indochine in Parker, then Sapa -- serving the kind of nouveau- traditional Vietnamese and Thai cuisine they couldn't find here, in an upscale environment they also thought the local Asian scene lacked.

Their hu tieu was amazing -- a powerful, slow-cooked, savory-sweet broth cloudy with complicated strata of flavor, made with pig, pig and more pig (an aspic-y pork gelatin, sautéed ground pork and pink, poached, sliced pork), then crowned with poached shrimp and served over glass noodles in a bowl the size of a modest vat. On the side were quartered limes, chiles, sprouts -- a whole tangle of vegetables, all of which I ignored in favor of the delicate little bowl of red vinegar that you add to the soup to counteract its slick sweetness. I dug in two-handed -- spoon in one, beautiful chopsticks in the other -- and would have sunk my whole face in the bowl if I didn't think it would have strained my waiter's patience past its limit. He was obsequious, soft-footed, quietly enthusiastic in his heavily accented English about everything on the menu, and he worked hard to maintain the dining room's sense of cool, green quietude. But three coffees had me bouncing in my seat like an electron in a highly unstable valence, and it would've taken elephant tranquilizers to bring me down. By the time I was done, I was pretty sure I could see into the future.

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 xaowith 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.

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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