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Art of the Kill

Kevin Taylor rebuilds his empire.

One thing about restaurant people: They never sit still for long.

Just last month, Kevin Taylor -- who clearly didn't learn his lesson about the difficulties of multi-unit ownership during his last round of closures in '03 and '04 -- announced that he would be opening Rouge at the Teller House in Central City, just in time for opera season (Bite Me, April 13). Then last week, he revealed that Prima Ristorante Boulder is scheduled for a mid-summer opening at 1801 13th Street, with "more avant-garde items than the Denver location" at Hotel Teatro, according to his nicely spun press release. I'm seeing bacon on swings. I'm seeing tiny ducks sculpted out of Cheez Whiz. I'm seeing cornstarch pastas cooked with lasers.

Not so fast. Judging from a sample menu, Taylor interprets "avant-garde" as fiercely traditional -- which is actually rather cutting-edge these days. We're talking mussels with fennel and capers in a saffron tomato broth, gnocchi with walnuts, sage and gorgonzola, polenta with a truffle fondue: hearty, honest stuff that's revolutionary if only because so much of haute Italian cookery seems intent on removing the farm from "farmhouse cuisine" and throwing Italian tradition out the window.

Prima Boulder will definitely have an edge over Prima Denver with its location. Prima seconda will sit right next to the Boulder Farmers' Market, which means Taylor (or, more accurately, Taylor's crew) will have access to the best local produce and purveyors, and -- if the wind is right -- can probably just shout out the window for anything they need.

With the two Primas and the reintroduction of Palettes at the Denver Art Museum this fall, as well as Restaurant Kevin Taylor, Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House and Rouge, the Kevin Taylor Restaurant Group will be back to six operations (seven, if you count the catering done out of several of these outposts). That's more than he had going the last time his empire shrank, with the closures of Dandelion and Nicois, the switch of jou jou to Prima and the temporary closure of Palettes because of museum construction. Still, let's give credit where it's due: Taylor has always shown the business sense of a born operator. He doesn't hang on to a concept beyond its allotted life span. He doesn't let a place linger out of misplaced sentimental attachment. When a restaurant underperforms, he kills it -- quickly, definitively and without mercy. Say what you will (and I've said plenty) about the cruel, butcher's-block mentality of working that way, but that's what separates successful owners from rookies -- the quick from the dead, as it were.

Of course, there are less sensational, more sensible ways to expand. And tactical smarts coupled with money just sealed a deal in Larimer Square that has Rioja's Jennifer Jasinski and partner Beth Gruitch taking over the kitchen at Bistro Vendome this week.

That's right: Chef/owner Eric Roeder and partner/manager Scott Tallman have vacated the premises to make way for the Rioja partners, who, in the giant Monopoly game that is Denver's restaurant scene, now have the equivalent of Boardwalk and Park Place, two of the best addresses in the city, right across the street from each other in the hottest food neighborhood in town.

"Essentially, what could be better?" asks consultant John Imbergamo, who babysat this deal through to completion with his clients, Jasinski and Gruitch. "Every restaurateur dreams about doing a deal where they know it's going to be successful. That's exactly what this is."

Though nothing in the restaurant world is ever a sure thing, this deal is about as close as it gets. Bistro Vendome has been up and running for three years. It has a loyal clientele, excellent name recognition and a beautiful location, and did (more or less) consistent business under Roeder and Tallman. "It's successful," says Imbergamo. "It works."

And it's a proven space with a proven concept, which has to be a comfort when it comes time to sign the checks. "As opposed to the crapshoot of opening a new restaurant?" Imbergamo asks. "Yeah."

Jasinski and Gruitch will keep the Bistro Vendome name and a contemporary French menu, although obviously that menu will change a little as the new chef puts her stamp on things. "It'll still be French bistro food," Imbergamo says. "But I think it's only appropriate that Jen will be doing things her way." And not just Jen, but newly appointed chef de cuisine Shawn Cubberley, who left Luca d'Italia, went to Rioja to learn pastry, ended up as Jasinski's sous chef, and now will oversee day-to-day ops in the Bistro Vendome kitchen.

With this move (and believe me, it's not the only play that Jasinski et al. have on the table), Rioja will effectively cement its position in Larimer Square by owning the restaurant that was its major culinary competition.

As for Tallman's future plans, he's going to take a long vacation somewhere with a beach. "You know how it goes," he says. "Everything's for sale for the right amount of money."

Leftovers: Last month, Larimer Square gained Cru, a wine bar at 1442 Larimer. Last week, it added Slim 7, a très-Euro lounge/nightclub that occupies a downstairs space with a back-alley door. Slim 7 is not to be confused with Seven Eurobar, scheduled to open May 20 at 1035 Pearl Street in Boulder. Seven is chef Michel Wahaltere's newest baby, a restaurant focusing on the small-plate traditions of France, Italy and Spain. And Wahaltere himself will be in the kitchen, cooking and overseeing service, with Argentina-born chef de cuisine Diego Coconati(ex of Allen Susser's place, Chef Allen's, in Miami) backing him up. Seven will also have a "beautiful wine list," Wahaltere promises. "We love wine here. Wine has always been a big part of what we do."

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