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Pearl Bucks

A little competition never hurt anyone.

Last week I got a note from Josh Wolkon -- the man who brought us Vesta Dipping Grill (see Second Helping) and will someday open Steuben's -- detailing the lineup at chef Matt Selby's most recent Steuben's tasting: Chicago-style hot dogs, egg-in-the-hole, egg creams, chile rellenos, classic fish and chips and a profusion of chocolate cakes. Wolkon said that staffers are planning to weigh themselves on opening day, just to see how many pounds each of them has packed on during the run-up.

There was a time when I thought (and prayed) that New American was going to be a passing fad -- a blip on the culinary radar, the kind of thing chefs would look back on in years to come and laugh about. Rather than watch that happen, I have instead seen a deepening and widening of the gulf between actual food and food-as-art, or food-as-comment, or food-as-starch-and-lasers. But am I worried? Not so much. Being a liberal-minded and progressive fellow, I am fully in favor of all revolution -- if for no other reason than that the ludicrous fallout will always leave me with something to make fun of. I've seen New American done well, choked on it done poorly, and although I whole-heartedly believe that someday soon these young alchemists of cuisine will pack up their ray guns and maltodextrin and find renewed pleasure in charcuterie or baking or flipping eggs at a Denny's, I am anxious to see what gets left behind. After all, the fork was new once, too. So was the sauté pan, the pressure cooker, the Robot Coupe. So who knows? Maybe someday we'll all be eating our pork off a swing.

I just hope that someone thinks up a new name for all this stuff before that day comes, because I am sick to death of the words "New American."

Not quite Paris: For whatever reason, bakers and pâtissières have been exempted from my distrust of culinary innovation. Maybe it's because they're a different breed from chefs: chemists rather than grunts, scientists rather than rock stars. Or maybe it's that I'm fascinated by their skills because I don't possess them myself. Frankly, I've always been a little jealous, too. I mean, the prep work for a chocolatier is chopping chocolate, while the prep work for a station chef is often something far less attractive -- like pulling the membrane off the thalamus glands of a calf's brain for the sweetbreads special, or gutting and scaling a quarter-ton of fish.

Robert McCarthy is one of my favorite local pastry guys, so I was happy to hear that he'd snuck into the old Paris Bakery space at 1268 South Sheridan out in Lakewood and set up shop with his Red Elk Bakery (a business he'd been running out of a commissary kitchen -- meaning no retail -- for the past two years). "I've been kinda working under the radar for the last couple years," he explains, supplying desserts and pastry to dozens of restaurants around town, but doing it on the down-low because so many of those houses prefer that everyone think the desserts were made in their own kitchens.

In October, McCarthy finally decided the time had come to do a little front-door business, so he quietly took over the Paris space, keeping the bakery's name through the holidays and offering the same roster of cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, croissants and scones that had been Paris's stock in trade for years, hoping that regular customers would be reassured. "They still freaked out," he tells me. "People would come in and say, ŒWhat happened? Who are you?'"

Now he's officially renaming the space Red Elk Bakery, and while he'll still bake the Paris favorites, he'll soon add his own cheesecakes, specialty tarts, two-layer cakes and breads -- maybe four or five different loaves a day. As for all the fancy-shmancy stuff he used to do when he was in the kitchen at places like Mel's, "I don't really have the clientele for that," he explains. "I've gone really rustic, you know? But that's been really cool."

This rustic streak has always been in him, he insists, even back in his time at San Francisco's Lulu in the mid-'90s, where he sat out the salad days of the whole New American thing, cooking simple, classic desserts while the industry boomed all around him. "Winter of '94, it was a great time to be there," he says. "But I really didn't get into any of that fancier stuff until I came to Denver, when that was what people wanted."

McCarthy estimates that he's doing about 85 percent of his business out the back door these days, supplying restaurants, cafes, coffeehouses and hotels; he's also working on a line of frozen products with a statewide distributor. And, of course, he's still got the cinnamon rolls, the scones and all that rustic stuff that makes him happy -- and keeps the regulars coming back.

Leftovers: The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has put together another "Denver Restaurant Week," scheduled to begin on February 25 and run through March 3. And though technically it's now the "Beringer Denver Restaurant Week," I'm going to ignore that, since Beringer is a Napa Valley wine producer and it just sounds silly.

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