By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Steakhouses, burger joints, places serving safe, recognizably Betty Crocker, ham-and-pineapple-slices American grub close all the time and for all sorts of reasons, so just imagine how tough it must be for a place like Los Cabos II (see review) to stay open while serving monster-shrimp soup and laurel bouillabaisse and gigantic plates of squid tentacles. Because I'm so wrapped up in my own bizarre culinary cosmos, it strikes me as unbelievable (and often annoyingly prosaic) when someone tells me he's never tried ceviche or eaten squid or seen a shrimp still in its full deep-sea samurai armor. But when I step back from my own world a pace or two and see how many people are lined up outside the local Chevys or Fuddruckers, I realize that Francesca Reese has had a run at Los Cabos (in all its incarnations, from Peruvian-Chinese karaoke bar to salsa club to downhome Andean community center) that's nothing short of miraculous. She may have locked up Denver's Peruvian ex-pats, but the odds of getting your average condo-dwelling yuppie or SUV-driving suburbanite down to Champa Street to dine on saffron-threaded paella, Peruvian stir-fry and sopa a la criolla (milky Andean-Creole soup) are not so good. Los Cabos II may be friendly and welcoming, but it's still serious gastronaut territory. Even without serving guinea pig.
But at least the lights are still on there. A space at 2257 West 32nd Avenue that once held another noble Peruvian effort was most recently home to Rincón Tropical, the Salvadoran restaurant that had a good, long run when it was located on 8615 East Colfax Avenue. But it didn't last a year after it relocated to Highland, and now Real de Oro is celebrating its grand opening at that address.
Even when the supporting ethnic community is large, that doesn't guarantee a restaurant's survival. Witness the demise of Festival, a Russian joint at 9250 East Hampden Avenue that featured plenty of borscht and babushkas, had a solid Eastern European menu and was the kind of nightclub people used to think of before the word "nightclub" came to be synonymous with nudity, Jäger shots and ketamine. Men wore jackets. Women wore dresses. And everyone (or almost everyone) danced. But when I was driving by a few weeks ago, I noticed the place had become something called Teens or Teenz or Tens (the new sign is almost indecipherable), which advertises itself as "the ultimate club experience" and offers live music, big-screen TVs, a ladies' night and drink specials, and has the word "bar" written in big yellow letters across the dusty front window.
1525 Champa St.
Denver, CO 80202
Region: Downtown Denver
Also gone is Back Home, the Cajuny, soul-food, Southern-fried eatery that moved into a big space at 1780 South Buckley Road in Aurora last year.
But there's good news over at Caribbean Cuisine + More. Owner Vivienne Donaldson reports that in a few months, her wonderful little Jamaican-Caribbean-soul-food restaurant at 15445 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora will move to (slightly) bigger and (much) better digs at the corner of Iliff and Buckley. The lease on her current space is up at the end of the year, and the owners were unwilling to renew because they want to lease it to another strip-mall church or something like that.
"That's fine, though," says Donaldson. At this point, she understands that what's holding her place back isn't the food (which is excellent, thanks to a great crew in the kitchen, a menu full of good grub and a cooler stocked with Jamaican ginger beer), or the service (which is almost shockingly fast: three bags of takeout in under ten minutes the last time I was there), or a lack of regular customers (she has plenty of those).
No, the problem is that the current Caribbean Cuisine is all but invisible unless you happen to be wandering into the plaza at Iliff and Idalia to get your hair cut or your teeth cleaned, or to purchase something from Sam's Meats on the corner (which is how I found it). At the new location -- where she'll be near a King Soopers, an Anthony's pizza joint and an Old Chicago, among other things -- she'll have much better visibility, about 200 square feet more space, and a whole bunch of new neighbors to cook for.
All about the drama: Even the French aren't immune in this Olive Garden kind of world. Witness the recent closure of The Savoyup in Berthoud. Jean and Chantal Martini opened this classic French brasserie and bistro back in 1992, and it's long been a fave of both civilians and day-tripping chefs looking to get a little Frog in 'em. My buddy Sean -- former chef, patissière, used-car salesman and one of my most dependable mercenary eaters until the day he packed up his gear and ran off to Costa Rica with his knife kit in hand and a Dutch model on his arm -- counted the Savoy as his favorite restaurant in the state. I, too, am mourning its passing, but take heart in the news that the Martinis may open a new place in Fort Collins.
Rumors were flying last week that Denver was about to add another French name to the list of honored dead. But as it turns out, news of Steak au Poivre's demise was greatly exaggerated. "We were closed on Monday to clean out the grease traps in the kitchen," says partner Marco Colantonio, "and the next thing I know, I'm hearing rumors that we were closed for good."
Fueling the rumors was the fact that two days before the trap-cleaning, word got out that chef Tobias Burkhalter -- a veteran of Le Central who'd taken over the kitchen after former exec Yoann Lardeux was let go last month -- had gone AWOL, leaving Poivre short one chief and full of confused Indians. True, Burkhalter was gone -- but he'd spoken to Colantonio early that Saturday, letting him know that he had to fly back to Switzerland immediately for a family emergency. He then informed his crew, apologized and left. Burkhalter's guys cooked through weekend service without him, and by Monday morning, Colantonio was talking with Michel Wahaltere(late of the Ninth Door and currently putting together a new Spanish/ French/Italian tapas restaurant in Boulder). On Tuesday, Wahaltere agreed to come on board as a consulting chef to see Poivre through what Colantonio is expecting to be a very busy holiday season.
And by last Wednesday, things at Poivre were pretty much back to business as usual, according to Colantonio -- although "usual" is a relative judgment in this industry. New chefs are being interviewed for Burkhalter's spot, and in the meantime, Wahaltere is a seasoned pro who's accustomed to working through such complications. He's also French, and Poivre's decidedly Froggish menu will give the man a chance to cook like a native for a while after several years of slogging through Spanish and Italian menus.
Leftovers: Two blocks from the old home of Rincón Tropical, at 2413 West 32nd Avenue, work is moving forward on Duo, the new joint being brought to us by Stephanie and Keith Bonin, who already own Cafe Colore, at 1512 Larimer Street. The space is still crawling with contractors, and the Bonins aren't yet ready to announce a concrete opening date, but mid-October is the target. John Broening(late of Brasserie Rouge) is on the books as executive chef, with Chris Dougherty (from Swimclub32, on the chichi side of 32nd) on board as his sous and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom (Broening's girlfriend, who worked with him at Udi's after Rouge closed) doing pastries and some consulting. The menu will be "seasonal contemporary American," says Stephanie Bonin. "Familiar food, because when you say 'comfort food,' everyone thinks Southern."
Frankly, I don't know what to make of "seasonal contemporary American," either, so I ask for specifics. Stephanie gives me a quick rundown: grilled pork chops with buttermilk mashed potatoes and mustard greens, simple grilled fish with lemon and capers, grilled cheese sandwiches with tomato-apricot chutney in place of Campbell's soup. "I don't have a culinary background," she explains, "but I have a passion and a background in my family's kitchen, where either my mom or my dad were cooking every night."
That apron-string education will be put to the test in the coming months, because Stephanie will be spending time in the galley right alongside Broening and Dougherty. "Keith will still be in the kitchen at the Cafe," she says of the spot they bought four years ago from the Momo family. "But we felt that someone should always be in this kitchen as well."
Meanwhile, last month the Momos opened Via in the former home of Brasserie Rouge (at 1801 Wynkoop Street). And now comes news that another Italian place will be moving into what had been the home of Adega, just down the street, at 1700 Wynkoop. Alessandro and Sara Carollo, who own the sister restaurants Venice (5946 South Holly Street) and Chianti (5121 South Yosemite Street), are bringing their successful suburban act downtown. Much of the charm of the Carollos' strip-mall restaurants lies in their unexpected excellence, how the crowds spill out onto the sidewalks on busy nights, how there's nothing quite like them in those neighborhoods. To me, these places seem like what would have happened had the brothers' little restaurant in Big Night made it in a big way after the credits rolled -- but somehow I find it difficult to imagine Primo working the burners in a kitchen down in LoDo. Secondo, maybe, but never Primo.
Still, stranger things have happened on this particular corner, which has swallowed restaurants both lame and luminous. Now the Carollos are looking at a late-October opening for their Venice.
Carmine's on Penn (92 South Pennsylvania Street) has finally reopened after a major renovation, which means yet another Italian spot competing for stomachs. While Club 404(404 Broadway) never closed for even a day, they somehow managed to renovate the larger dining room, adding big windows that make the place a lot brighter. The printed menus are new, too, but the chalkboards still list dozens of each day's specials, and the smaller dining area with the bar still has its classic dive feel. Club 404 celebrated its new look last week, but Jerry Feld's place always looks good to us.