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Magic Time

Nine75 plays the numbers game.

We have reservations for dinner -- just the two of us, prime time on a Saturday night -- but we don't need them. Three months to the day after the opening of Nine75 -- the high-gloss, high-concept, locationally challenged and oh-so-eager-to-please cafe/bistro that took over the former home of the disastrous Moda -- there's a hole in the middle of its dining room that's as big as its expectations.

The restaurant isn't empty, by any means. Four-tops fill the black-on-black banquette stretching the length of the far wall; deuces and ungainly triples are bunched at the weird, combination community table/chef's table/picnic table set just a few feet back from the glaringly bright, antiseptic box of a show kitchen where chef-owner Troy Guard, sous chef Ian Kleinman and a shifting, bouncing, ever-changing mix of brigadiers in spotless white jackets and ChefWear checks do a clumsy sort of box waltz, struggling to find a rhythm in this half-committed night. But the heart of the place -- all set for service, with the silver rolled and the Isaac-Mizrahi-for-Target plates with their big, colorful flowers arranged just so -- is hollow.

Nine75 has had it rough from the start, since before the doors opened, since before it was even conceived. The space that would someday be its home was built into the Tenth Avenue side of the double-barreled Beauvallon complex, with picture windows in the back bar/lounge space looking down on the grubby overflow parking lot for Gart Sports, Westword's roof and a gas station. The dining room is up front, with a narrow hallway linking it to the lounge; the kitchen is suspended in the middle, with storerooms and a pantry through a door off the bar, requiring cooks and busboys to walk out of the galley and through the service area to fetch bags, boxes and tubs of shredded cheese. When this was Moda, the floor plan was crippling, seemingly designed to make every dining experience as uncomfortable as possible -- an abortive concept in a space that wanted to be a tanning salon, a barbershop, a wine bar at best.

Kitchen magician: Troy Guard works wonders at 
Nine75.
Mark Manger
Kitchen magician: Troy Guard works wonders at Nine75.

Location Info

Map

Nine 75

975 Lincoln St. Ste. k
Denver, CO 80203

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Central Denver

Details

975 Lincoln Street, 303-975- 0975. Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Ceviche shooters: $2 each
Oysters: $2 each
Empanada: $8
Won ton tacos: $9
Ribs: $10
Meatloaf: $15
Sliders: $14
Fries: $5
Veggies: $5
Lobster tacos: $12
Seafood ravioli: $9
Roasted chicken: $16

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But then real-estate developer Jim Sullivan (who'd already opened Mao in Cherry Creek) stepped in, changing the place to Nine75 and installing Guard as chef and partner. Recently married to Sullivan's daughter Leigh (who handles PR and promotion for the family's restaurant business), Guard came with a resumé that put him in the stratosphere of Denver chefs. He'd done time in New York under Roy Yamaguchi, been airlifted out of the Hotel Raffles in Singapore by Richard Sandoval to work the burners at Tamayo and open Zengo here in the Mile High, and he had a proven skill for making the absolutely ridiculous (like Zengo's Latino-Asian fusion menu) work like natural magic.

There was nothing that Sullivan or Guard, or anyone short of God, could do about the physical backwardness of 975 Lincoln Street, but they did try to warm it up and give it some downtown funk. Hence the music -- all shattered and jumbled-up hits from the '80s, and way more Frank Sinatra than I would expect at a place without a single pasta on the menu. Hence the black paint and soft, buttery woods, the gauzy copper curtains that soften the view out back, and the cool leather couches meant for chilling with a Cosmo or one of the crew's custom cocktails: Ovaltine martinis (a goddamn crime against nature) and drinks made with Tang. Hence the small army of servers skilled at deciphering the all-things-for-all-people menu that includes much more than the "simple food" Guard initially promised: raw-bar delicacies, small plates, large plates, specials, a couple of sandwiches, two soups, three salads, separate sides, desserts, entrees and an entreaty from the chef that everything there is meant for sharing, passing and trading.

A cute, beaming hostess wearing low-cut black house livery and a green trefoil tattoo in the center of her chest greets us. Despite all the empty space in the center of the dining room, she leads us to the worst table in the house -- a two-top in the hallway directly opposite the kitchen's side door. We're offered water -- bottled, fizzy or "Chef Troy's Fusion Water," a sweating glass pitcher with sliced strawberries and cucumbers floating in the water. We go with the fusion, which is refreshing despite its idiotic name. We joke about the music, singing along with Journey, with Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" until it fades away into something instrumental and awful we don't recognize.

A waitress materializes the moment we've settled in behind our menus, and we order a first round of food: barbecued baby-back ribs that come slathered in sweet sauce, a half-dozen of them stacked up on a plain white plate like Lincoln Logs, and the house-special ceviche shooters, made with yellowtail and mango in a spicy broth, served in shot glasses set in a bowl of ice lit from below with tiny lightbulbs. Laura and I attack the ribs -- the fat crackly, the meat tender -- with our bare hands, trying to ignore the constant passage of servers back and forth between the bar and the dining room, the constant opening and closing of the frosted-glass kitchen door.

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