By Chris Utterback
By Mark Antonation
By Kevin Galaba
By Mark Antonation
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Cafe Society
By Mark Antonation
By Mark Antonation
"The way I look at it," he says, "you do the same amount of work doing twenty dinners a night as you do doing 250 dinners a night. So why not do the place that does 250 a night? Provided you can put out 250 good plates, of course."
Ah, spoken like a true executive chef. Spoken like a guy who has restaurants -- Nine75 and Ocean (see review) -- that actually do those kinds of numbers, and who isn't touching every single one of those plates himself.
In signing on with Jim Sullivan and his eponymous restaurant group after years spent honing his craft at points west (California, Hawaii and Singapore), Guard has made the jump from plain working chef to Exec-with-a-capital-E. The fact that his deal was sealed with a wedding ring (he's married to Leigh Sullivan, Jim's daughter and the company flack) makes his position that much more solid -- but it's not like Guard runs his places from an ivory tower. He's not taking calls while sitting on some beach in the South of France. More often than not, he's at one of his restaurants. He knows all of the guys on his crew not just by name, but by resumé. He knows what each of them can do and what they can't. He can tell you which prep on which menu came from which guy.
And that's going to be a big help as Guard sets and staffs two more Sullivan Group restaurants scheduled for October openings.
The first, the much-talked-about Nine75 North -- sister to Nine75 at 975 Lincoln Street -- is going into a choice space in Country Club Village, at 120th Avenue and Federal in Westminster. Not surprisingly, it will be a close copy of the original, offering the same jumped-up comfort food in the same hip, ironic and post-modern style that Guard imposed on the first Nine75, polished in its kitchen, used at Ocean (and at Jet Hotel's lounge and private club, Twenty, where Guard is on the hook for consulting and providing menus) and now pimps at every opportunity because it's both attractively goofy -- with loaded potato skins on the dinner menu and many dishes named after himself or members of his staff -- and so good it's earned the right to be taken seriously.
Details of the second opening have been kept much more hush-hush. Jim Sullivan hasn't wanted to discuss what he has planned for the steakhouse half of Diamond Cabaret & Steakhouse at 1222 Glenarm Place, and in the absence of solid information, people spread rumors. I heard everything from a Denver version of Tony Soprano's Bada Bing, with strippers in fuck-me heels bringing fat steaks and double Scotches to the city's tasteless elite (which is basically what the steakhouse was already doing), to a full-on American geisha sushi bar with tatami rooms and shoes left outside the door.
When I finally got Leigh on the phone after my visits to Ocean and asked about the new place, she was recalcitrant. She was coy. She flat-out told me that her father wasn't going to talk and wasn't going to allow her to talk, because it was his baby and he wanted to protect it as long as possible.
Finally, after several calls and more behind-the-scenes negotiating than went on during the Nuremberg Trials, I got some scoop. The restaurant will be known as Oscar's Steaks and Cigars, and while the Diamond isn't your run-of-the-mill, blue-collar, doing-it-for-the-rent-money-and-trying-to-hide-the-track-marks titty bar (in fact, it's a member of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau website and listed as a place where you can get a good steak and a bottle of champagne and meet with politicians and businessmen without getting skank all over you), Sullivan and company are doing everything they can to set the place apart from the Diamond while legally still falling under the club's existing liquor and cabaret licenses as a concessionaire.
"It's a legitimate restaurant," Leigh insisted, in a way that I thought was perhaps protesting too much.
"Are you calling it a restaurant?" I asked.
"Are there going to be servers on the floor?"
"Am I going to be able to get dinner there and, at the end, be presented with a bill?"
"Well then, yeah, it's a legitimate restaurant. Why wouldn't it be?"
Leigh explained that they've been worried people would just think it was a strip club, with nekkid ladies serving steaks as well as lap dances. But that's not the case.
"It's a fight-themed steakhouse," she said, "with a separate entrance from the Diamond. But you know Jim. This one is his baby. He's picking out his own chairs, choosing his own plates. He designed his own logo. And you know what the funny thing is? Every time we ask him about it, he says, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about that right now.' I don't even know if Troy is going to be the chef there."
When I heard that, I knew it was time to call Jim Sullivan again.
"Look, Jason," he said when I got him on the blower, "we've operated the steakhouse since the end of January, but I really don't want to talk about this too much." And a half hour later, he actually did stop talking. But in the meantime, I found out that yes, Guard will be on as the executive chef (as he is at all of the Sullivan restaurants); that he will be doing a steakhouse menu with a few seafood items; that there will indeed be a separate entrance with a separate valet; that the glass wall between the steakhouse and the strip club will be sealed off and the big glass cage in the restaurant removed; that there will be wine lockers and humidors for the customers; and that you'll be able to smoke wherever you damn well please.
What's more, that fight theme is being taken to admirable extremes, with twelve flatscreens showing the hundred greatest fights of all times and personal flatscreens available to customers at their tables so they can watch whatever they like. "I love boxing," Sullivan told me. "I've been watching it since I was a kid. I thought about boxing professionally once."
You and me both, Jim. When I was a kid, I would watch all the great fights with my dad. My dad had thought about going pro himself for a while, and he even had dreams of me being the great Irish hope, until it became abundantly clear that I wasn't going to get any taller and was going to use my big neck and good chin and hard knuckles in places other than the ring.
"Look," Sullivan concluded. "This is a brand that I've been thinking about for a very long time. It's a very Rat Pack-feeling room, and it'll still have a kind of gentleman's-club feel."
"But no strippers," Leigh asserted when I wound up back on the phone with her. "None. Not even girls in stripper shoes."
I told Leigh that her father had told me that Guard would indeed be the executive chef at the new restaurant. She seemed unsurprised. "Well, it's a good thing he wrote a menu for the place, then, isn't it?" she said. "Just in case."
Cherry Creek shuffle: Word is out that the Hillstone Restaurant Group (which owns the Cherry Creek Grill, the Houston's brand, Gulfstream, Bandera and others) has purchased the Cherry Creek Dental Arts Building and plans to raze the place, replacing it with something that will include a brand-new restaurant. And that means that Greg Goldfogel will have to find a new home for Ristorante Amore, which has been in its current space at 2355 East Third Avenue since November 2003. But in the meantime, Goldfogel is adamant about one thing: "Let people know we're still in business. We're open, we're running, we're getting ready to launch the fall menu."
Although he says he's "actively looking for a new space," Goldfogel has a lease on the Third Avenue spot through June -- which means nine more months of business, three more seasonal changes.
"I've been looking around, obviously," he adds. "It's funny -- I looked at a space up in Highland, and immediately word got out that I'd taken it. Really, I'd looked at it for fifteen minutes."
Goldfogel has also made some staff changes recently. Anthony Sartorio was brought up from the ranks to wear the big hat, taking the place of former chef John Smilanic-Beneventi, who bailed for the coast. Sartorio brought Rufus Burdett up with him, and the two chefs are now working through the fall menu change and themselves wondering what will happen next summer.
"The way I look at it, I've either got to go bigger and take the food up a notch or get out of the business," Goldfogel explains. "I mean, twenty tables or fifty tables? How am I going to make the most money?"
Sound familiar? Everyone's got numbers on their minds this month. It's go-big-or-go-home time.
Leftovers:With all of the steakhouses in town, it must be hard to find a name for a new one. We already have too many Chop Houses and Steakhouses and Steak & Chop Houses, so when the folks taking on the former Bob's Steak and Chop House started searching for a new moniker, they wisely discarded the Clayton Lane Chop House option and instead took a page from the Sullivan Group's naming protocol. So when the new restaurant opens at the end of the month, it will be known as Prime 121. Why? Because it's located at 121 Clayton Street and will (presumably) be serving USDA prime meat.
I don't write about upcoming charity events often -- if I did, I wouldn't have space to write about anything else -- but every now and then, a truly worthy cause comes along. Like this one: On Thursday, October 5, Frank and Jacqueline Bonanno will host a benefit dinner at Luca d'Italia (711 Grant Street) for the Children's Hospital neurology department.
The Bonannos spent most of May at Children's with their son Luca (for whom the restaurant was named). The kid was in for brain surgery to correct a cortical dysplasia that was causing him to have multiple epileptic seizures. For the most part, the Bonannos had stayed quiet about this, and Frank kept his restaurants up and running through the troubles. Now that it looks like Luca is doing better, though, the family has decided to give a little something back the only way they know how -- through food.
Frank is bringing in his buddy Tony Montuano, from Spiaggia in Chicago, and the two will put together a six-course Italian feast that is sure to be one of the best meals you'll have all year. Maybe ever. Seats at the event are $250 or $500 a chair. Luca only holds about fifty people, so if you're interested (and you should be -- if not for the cause, then for the lobster, the Crescenza-stuffed pasta, the roast guinea hen with black truffle sauce and whatever else Frank and Tony come up with for the night, not to mention the post-dinner auction where you can bid on "intimate dinners from top local chefs"), call now and reserve a place. I have no doubt that it will be worth every penny.