By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
And Douglas will kill himself to get there. He works a hundred-hour-plus week, obsessively tests and retests every preparation. He sees, touches, expos 99 out of every 100 plates that cross the rail at dinner, knows every square inch of the menu like he knows his own skin. One carrot out of place in the crown that tops his chorizo-wrapped scallops in blood-orange-habanero sauce will keep him up nights. He fights for every table, every cover, every plate as though his life were on the line.
And it is. After stepping inside, sitting down and ordering drinks, I look around the simple, comfortable leather-and-hardwood dining room and can still see the ghosts of Indigo and Papillon in its bones.
Our dinner is fantastic. This is my fourth time at Tula, and every meal has been fantastic. Matt and I run through two baskets of housemade chips as we try three different ceviches served in glasses set in antique wooden piloncillo molds. The salmon tartare with poblanos, cilantro, diced red onion and pink papaya is my favorite -- acidic and biting and sharp, like a glass full of excellent sushi. Matt devours the chopped shrimp with avocado, shredded cucumber and white onion in a simple tomato broth barbed with jalapeño. The scallop-in-coconut-milk version is less successful: the sweet milk jagged with serranos, the scallops curled into parentheses, their delicate flavor masked by onion and chile until they end up tasting like good squid -- which is to say like not much at all, like texture without a center. But the duck-confit tamale with fruity poblanos, squiggled with a stiff Mexican crema, is excellent. The masa is almost sweet, like the jacket on a corn dog, and the mole is possibly the best I've ever had: heavy, nutty and floored with a dark, chocolatey base that seems to go down forever.
250 Josephine St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
Ceviche, three ways: $11
Tuna nachos: $9
Tuna: $20< br>Duck: $22
Pork chops: $18
Achiote lamb: $25
Douglas is 33 years old, but as a chef he's so green he still smells like cut grass. He was a helicopter pilot, thought about being an artist, then came to cooking just six years ago. He cooked at the French Laundry, staged at Per Se, rolled a little sushi because he loves it and worked for (worked with) Laurent Gras at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. Locally, he did time with Kevin Taylor and Sean Yontz (coming in just as Vega was grinding to a close) before venturing off on his own. Tula is his first restaurant, and Gras provided much of the inspiration. Gras, who plays with oils and colors and plate design maybe better than anyone. Gras, who shows up in his kitchen at eight every morning and stays until two the next morning, who sees every single dish that's destined for his dining room, who regards a drip of sauce on one of his cook's cutting boards as a personal affront.
Douglas's whole past is stacked up behind him like a weight pushing him forward, like an engine driving him. He came late to the galley so he had to run twice as fast and work twice as hard to catch up. And now, when I talk to him, he speaks of his plans for the future as if they all must happen tomorrow -- even as he speaks of other chefs like he's not yet worthy to stand in their company. "When I worked with Laurent -- well, next to Laurent..." and "I'm talking to Yontz and Kevin about maybe doing a tasting dinner -- not that I'm at their level yet..."
But this humility ends with Tula's plates, which are full of flowering arrogance and a wicked, driven sort of talent that speaks of natural skill, great masters and clear vision. Douglas's duck is a seared breast and confit leg glazed in pomegranate and dressed with a blood-orange salsa served warm because cold, the flavor would be too sharp; hot, too broad. But warm blood orange turns sweetly smooth and becomes a blanket around the pomegranate, neither astringent nor smothering.
The pork chops are napped in a cinnamon-cider reduction, served with a chipotle-shot potato gratin and glazed baby carrots. It's a subtly smart dish, pure Keller in the way it jumbles the components of an American classic -- pork chops, scalloped potatoes and applesauce -- takes them south of the border and brings them back home again. Of everything on that plate, Douglas is most proud of the carrots. "Pork chop, whatever," he says. "I want to send a person home saying,'That was the best carrot I ever tasted. It tasted like a carrot.'"
At lunch, the butter-poached tilapia tacos are as simple as can be. At dinner, the tilapia is crusted in rich, dried pumpkin flesh, served with Japanese Okinawa potatoes, a huitlacoche foam and chips made of chorizo. At $19, Tula is giving it away. The tuna nachos are new, served at both lunch and dinner, topping crisp, curled wonton skins with flash-seared ahi, smooth guacamole and a smoky-spicy chipotle crema that takes things one step too far. Douglas says he's still tinkering with it. But at dinner, the tuna entree is a proven winner: rare ahi, seared with ancho chile, sliced and served over coconut chipotle sauce ringed with a tonsure of black beans, then a stripe of bright-green cactus oil. Two warm slices of plantain cross the top of the plate. It's so good that Matt is reluctant to give me a bite.