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When in Rome

Mike Long has come a long way in Littleton

When I parked outside John Holly's Asian Bistro (see review), I counted thirteen restaurants within my line of sight on Park Meadows Drive. Remarkably, most of these were local, not national chains: Brewery Bar III, Anthony's Pizza, a sushi bar, a Japanese restaurant. Even more remarkable, a P.F. Chang's China Bistro is within walking distance, yet hundreds of people shun it every day in favor of John Ye's food.

"Solitudinem fecerunt, pacem appelunt": The legions created a desert and called it peace. Roman historian Gaius Tacitus said that, and though he was speaking of the tendency of the Roman legions to slaughter, then burn and salt the earth behind them, he might just as well have been describing the tactics of big chain-restaurant operators. Theirs is a strategy of total dominance, to move into a new location -- a strip mall, a retail development, a community -- and become the only Italian, the only pizza, the only Chinese. They win when they have created a desert of taste, a wasteland of unlimited breadsticks where all cuisine comes in a bag and all flavors are decided in a boardroom.

It doesn't happen often, but damn if I don't love to see the legions lose.

Long time coming: After last week's column about Ferran Adria, molecular gastronomy and why anyone in the world would pay several hundred dollars for a cookbook, Mike Long, the chef at Opus(2575 West Main Street, Littleton) got in touch. We talked about the differences between Adria and his small-plates doppelgänger, Jose Andres; about politics; about the new minimum-wage law; about fallout from the two holiday storms. "We lost the best Wednesday and Thursday of the year," Long said. "On Friday, we usually do 115, 120. I had thirty people in the dining room."

We talked about a lot of things, but food was at the center of everything. A couple of years back, Long was just another brilliant freak getting his rocks off doing smartypants food the likes of which no one in the area had seen. He was a true student of all those wild culinary scientists working today, a distaff son of Adria and an excellent cook in his own right. In the Opus kitchen, he was always deconstructing things, fusing things, liquefying and freezing and extruding anything he could. Long did geometric gelées for an appreciative (though sometimes flummoxed) audience and made wildly New American/French Laundry-style tuna PB&Js with pepper jam and peanut sauce. In the words of General Corman from Apocalypse Now, he was "out there operating without any decent restraint, totally beyond the pale of any acceptable human conduct -- and [was] still in the field commanding troops."

But that was back when he was a minority partner, before he bought out everyone except one silent partner and took all of Opus on his shoulders. Before he stepped back somewhat from kitchen ops and became an exec. "I have chefs de cuisine now," he told me. "Because of our location and business model, I've had to mainstream the menu somewhat. You know, I remember when I was just cooking and someone would come up and tell me to change something on a plate. I'd be like, ŒNo! No way! That's going to fuck up the whole integrity of the dish.' But now? I mean, someone has come here to eat. They've driven in maybe through the snow, it's their money, and if they want to change something that'll take thirty seconds to do, I'll do it. They should get what they want."

Frankly, it was a little weird to hear him talking like that, to mention accountants and leases. The lease is almost up on the space next door; as the Main Street Tavern, it helped support Opus's operations, then Long turned it into the Opus Lounge and started doing a whole "Rat Pack/blues thing." Long's currently in negotiations with the landlord over what happens with the space next. "It might go away," he said. "I just don't know. If they wanna charge Cherry Creek money, I'm not gonna do it."

But it's not like Long has gone completely suit on me. He talked about how he's struggling with ways to parse the Opus menu, maybe split off a classics section full of chops and roasted chicken, freeing up some room for his more creative impulses. He'd love to do something like Adria's crème brûlée balls, but his pastry chef already puts in seventy hours a week, expediting brunch and working the line during lunch, so he has no time for blowing sugar, desiccating custards.

Still, Long has an outlet for his wild side: the event menus he and his crew offer every now and then. They've done movie theme nights ("Timpano for Louis Prima" was just brilliant), an Italian regional tasting dinner that actually focused on the Italian-American regions of Manhattan and the outer boroughs (that one didn't go over so well). And he has a killer coming up on February 5: a family meal/SIN motif. It promises to be a highly intellectualized, totally bizarre and inspired take on a night in The Life with courses like "In the Weeds" (a liquid Caprese salad, probably drunk through a straw, with mozzarella nectar and basil juice) and "Coffee and a Cigarette" (similar to a course once cooked by Thomas Kellerfor Anthony Bourdain -- detailed in Kitchen Confidential, but here including chocolate foam, an espresso torte and a chocolate cigarette), along with wine pairings, beers, shooters of Jäger and Red Bull (the energy drink of line cooks everywhere), a deconstructed glass of red wine (an homage to the classic deconstructed glass of white wine served by Andres's staff at minibarinside Cafe Atlantico) and bottles of Flying Dog Brewery's Hunter S. Thompson porter -- just to keep everyone in the right spirit.

Though this dinner will run $100 a head (not counting tax and tip), it'll be worth it. Call Opus at 303-795-9122 for details.

 
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