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Intelligent Design

The Coral Room is an exotic addition to Stapleton.

The Little Reef proves that Coral Room owners John Nadasdy (the chef, ex of Rapids Restaurant and Lodge in Grand Lake) and Nick Mystrom (the former pro football player-slash-contractor responsible for the buildout) knew what they were doing when they opened this second location. Everything about the place -- from the kids' room to the movie nights to the everything-by-the-glass wine list, fashionable cocktails and Metropolitan Home decor -- is calculated for a restaurant meant to thrive in a highly specific niche: the sheltered, insular world of the planned retail/residential community.

That's genius. That's playing to your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. That's knowing your ecosystem and being the best damn freak-ass flying monkey-lizard you can be.

Now if only the kitchen could get its act together, the place would be unstoppable.

The Coral Room looks like a perfect fit for a new-
urbanist community.
Mark Manger
The Coral Room looks like a perfect fit for a new- urbanist community.

Location Info

Map

Coral Room

3489 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Northwest Denver

Details

7352 East 29th Avenue, 303-321-9463. Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5- 10:30 p.m. Friday-Saturday (bar open until 2 a.m.); Sunday brunch 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.

Tempura prawns: $6
Spring rolls: $6
Tuna stack: $9
Lobster-and- shrimp cake: $10
Coconut curry: $13
Honey-soy chicken: $14.50
Pork chop: $16
Filet mignon: $24

While the Stapleton restaurant looks entirely new, its menu is the same one served at the original Coral room, a dated Asian-Southwestern-Californian fusion that jumbles steaks and curries, lemongrass, mussels and sambal. Yes, there was a time when the Coral Room's food would have been cutting-edge in any neighborhood. But that time was ten years ago, and today, corn soufflés, chile-apricot sauces, coconut tempuras and wasabi mashers are old tricks for any new restaurant to be trying, tired stunts that might still play in a city farther down the culinary food chain than Denver (Omaha or Indianapolis, perhaps), but no longer viable in a town where all the grubniks read Gourmet and Food Arts and know better. Even as a retro gimmick, these trite tricks don't work, because other kitchens out there are doing the same things better -- although none are within walking distance of Stapleton.

In failing to follow any straight-line culinary path (like French-Vietnamese or even Chinese-Peruvian), the Coral Room's menu reads like flailing, like an unbridled (and misguided) enthusiasm for world cuisines by a chef and a kitchen badly in need of having their access to the Food Network curtailed. I mean, if you're going to put a cheese plate on a heavily Japanese-American menu (the Coral Room offers brie wrapped in phyllo, served with lavosh crackers and pear chutney), why not do goulash, too? And blini. And cassoulet decorated with California rolls. The trout with mangoes, almonds and vanilla makes no sense at all. The house's tuna stack -- marinated ahi tuna layered with avocado, mango salsa, pepper purée and cilantro paste -- nails two of my pet peeves at the same time, touching on both my loathing of '90s-style vertical food and my terror in the face of too many gastronomic traditions jammed into a single dish. And the kitchen insists on using broccolini as a vegetable side, despite the fact that I have never, ever, ever met anyone who's eaten a piece of broccolini and enjoyed it.

Right at the top, the menu lists a coconut curry served over a timbale of jasmine rice. I was doing timbales almost a decade ago at a hotel restaurant -- which means it was old even then, proven palatable for even the least adventurous eaters. But there was nothing challenging about this curry; it was weak and soupy. And the "Asian vegetable medley" that made up its bulk wasn't, unless they've recently started growing fat carrots and red bells in the mysterious East. The honey-soy and brown-sugar-glazed chicken was soggy -- tasting more boiled than grilled -- but came with a nice (and fairly original) tray-cut portion of scalloped sweet potatoes. Wonderful mashed sweet potatoes accompanied the well-handled pork chop, which was dressed with a chile-apricot sauce that echoed the Kikkoman sweet-and-sour sauce that my parents kept on the second rack of their refrigerator for years when I was a kid. The sauce was tasty, but unless the kitchen was deliberately copycatting sticky, 1980s ersatz Asiana, it's working from a playbook decades out of date.

The lobster-and-shrimp cake tasted great, even though it was falling to pieces as it reached the table, mounted over limp, decorative greens on a plate doodled with Nagel smears of chive oil and squeeze-bottle lemongrass and chile sauces. A gigantic filet mignon had been marinated in ginger and soy, glazed with an excellent Indonesian sambal demi that would have been better if the kitchen had showed a little restraint and not spackled the stuff on so heavy, then set over a mushroom-risotto cake wrapped in sautéed spinach leaves -- a nice move.

The filet was the best dish I tried at the Coral Room. The spring rolls were the worst -- were, in fact, possibly the worst spring rolls in all of Christendom, all ugly and lopsided and huge. Under normal circumstances, that might be a good thing, but no one wants an appetizer that's both awful and generous. I would have needed six napkins just to hide all the parts I didn't want to eat: stiff rice-paper wrappers; crunchy rice noodles that had obviously been incompletely par-boiled, then left to languish in a cold table; tender, cold beef-filet end cuts that would've been a good textural counterpoint to the carrots and the cucumbers if the guy on the mandolin had checked to see that the blade was set right. Instead of thin, uniform sticks of vegetable, I got chunky, inconsistent slabs of them, mostly cut only halfway through. And the "Thai dipping sauce" was just plain nasty.

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