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Leigh Jones, owner of the Dish Bistro, is a bit nervous. Not seriously nervous, but a bit.
"I think we're ready," she told me. "We've got a great menu, a great staff... I'm a real restaurateur now." And frankly, she can hardly understand how it happened.
Jones is late of Brasserie Rouge, B-52 Billiardsand the Atomic Cowboy-- all of which she owned with then-husband Robert Thompson. A couple of years back, she and Thompson seemed poised to be Denver's next restaurant power brokers, capable of opening whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted, but that all fell apart quickly. After getting three rave reviews in a week, including mine, Rouge crashed and burned like a kamikaze mission; B-52 was shuttered and the building turned into the Real World: Denver house, which means it will forever smell vaguely of spilled Coors and skank; and the Atomic Cowboy changed owners but not orientation (Southwestern spaceman chic on East Colfax, which you'd think I'd love, but I don't). In the midst of all this, Leigh ran off to Southeast Asia, got lost, got found, came back to Denver and wound up talking to Steve Rohs, who was looking to unload the Painted Bench at 400 East 20th Avenue. Leigh bought the place, turned it into the Dish, took over the former Sweet Rockin' Coffee/Perk and Pub space next door, and reopened it as the Horseshoe Lounge. And then she started wondering what, exactly, she'd been thinking.
400 E. 20th Ave.
Denver, CO 80205
Region: Downtown Denver
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"You know, there was an offer to buy the Dish," she told me. "This out-of-the-woodwork guy, coming from San Francisco -- Mario Big-Long-Italian-Name or something. And this was right after the snowstorm, so I'm thinking, 'Why am I doing this? Maybe I should sell to this guy.' But he hemmed and he hawed, and then we just had one of those light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel weeks, right? A week where just everything went right -- the staff, Chris, the menu came together, everything. And all of a sudden, things got a lot easier."
"Chris" is chef Chris Dougherty, ex of just about everywhere (Brasserie Rouge, where he first met Leigh; Swimclub32; Duo, where he cooked with John Broening, the former chef at Brasserie Rouge; Parisi; and even Picasso, at the Bellagio in Vegas) and now Leigh's number-one guy. His menu is brilliant: fried goat cheese with a balsamic reduction, simple PEI mussels in a bittersweet white-wine-and-caper broth with garlic bread pudding, hanger steak with potato gratin, Parisian duck l'orange, lamb shank with root veggies and goat cheese-spiked grits. One section is devoted to light dinners: a burger, tuna nicoise sandwiches, shredded lamb with blue cheese and bacon on sourdough.
The menu calls its offerings "comfort food with a passport"; Leigh said it's "just a whole bunch of my favorite things." The one weird, seemingly anachronistic dish on the roster is an appetizer of vegetable tempura, but even that comes with a story. Sous chef Sylvia Victoriano was a line cook at the Painted Bench before it was sold to Leigh; she learned the preparation from Matt Brown -- who, like so many chefs, has an obsession with Asian cuisines -- when he was the sous at the Bench under Rohs. After the sale, Brown went off to take an instructor's position at Cook Street culinary school on Market Street; Victoriano stayed on through the changeover from Bench to Dish and was soon promoted to sous by Dougherty. Which is about the time the tempura went on the menu.
"Everybody loves fried food, you know? That's why it's there," Leigh said. "Is that easier?"
Now that she's got things the way she wants them at the Dish, on March 28 the Horseshoe will roll out a new menu. "Tater tots and corn dogs" is how Leigh described its current fare; the new board will add pizzas, maybe some sandwiches, some meatballs. "There's no pizza right in that hood," she explained, "so that's what we're going to do -- simple ten or eleven-inch pizzas, a couple subs."
And tater tots.
Good neighbors: I got a call last week from Jesse Morreale, who told me that El Toro Palomo, the long-suffering Mexican joint next door to his restaurant/wine bar, Sketch, had finally packed it in. "We saw it coming," Morreale said. "We're their neighbor. We know when they have business and when they don't."
El Toro had opened a few months before Sketch in that same subterranean trench on Steele Street that's always been a tough spot for restaurants -- in a neighborhood that's gotten downright murderous in terms of closures, redevelopment, big-money real-estate buys and failing concepts. But Sketch has managed to hang on, mainly by exploiting its edge-of-the-Creek, half-outsider status and the long hours that give the dining room a double hit: an early dinner rush from the Cherry Creek swells and then another late-night pop from those looking for something to eat and maybe a cocktail or seven after nine o'clock.
When I asked Morreale if he was thinking about picking up the Toro spot, he waffled. "I dunno," he said, then reconsidered. "We look at everything. Tell everyone we're so busy we might be thinking of expanding next door."