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Denver's restaurants are on the ropes, but still fighting

You know why I love this town? Because Denver is like a good boxer, a solid bet to go the distance. There was this guy, a Mick, who was a monster just the same way. He would stand in the center of the ring, toe-to-toe with some of the most serious punchers in the game, and take everything they had. He wasn't a tactician, wasn't a stylist — just a brawler. But he had a strong chin and a neck like a tree trunk, and no one could knock him out. He was one of my dad's favorites and, by extension, one of mine. I can't remember his name to save my life now, but I remember seeing him fight — gloves up, shoulders down, head like a giant ham on top of a bucket. He never retreated. Guys would wear themselves out against him. They'd dance. They'd jab. They'd unleash massive hooks. And he'd be there, grinding forward, waiting until they'd gone to rubber, and then just level them.

Denver is like that. No matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, the scene just takes it and waits for its moment. I'm a betting man, and I would never lay money against this city. There's something inexorable, indomitable about it.

And now, as every other sector of the economy goes to hell, restaurants are opening in Denver. Lots of them. Curt Sims opened his third Lime in the Landmark development on November 13 — shaving a day off the estimate he'd given me at the end of October.

Mojitos Cuban Bistro opened on November 18 in what had most recently been Mel's Bistro, at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, bringing a fresh hit of Cuban cuisine to a stretch of road badly in need of something not New American. There was a time not too long ago when three of the city's more notable restaurants — Mel's, Table 6 and Fruition — were all operating within sight of one another, producing excellent menus similar enough in style that, after a busy night, it was easy to forget where you'd had the carpaccio and which kitchen was serving the diver scallops. And while there still may be a little confusion (depending on how much wine was consumed) between the Fruition and Table 6 floors, no one is going to have to wonder where they picked up the croquetas de jamón, ropa vieja or vaca frita. That's all Mojitos, baby. There are also plantain fritters and fried yucca — something I haven't found in town since MG's, that weird, one-off Argentine barbecue place in Englewood, closed — and masitas de puerco, fried pork bits marinated in Cuban mojo.

Leftovers: For years, Strings (1700 Humboldt Street) has been running ads (mostly on the radio) in which it claims to be Denver's hippest restaurant, among other things. I didn't really see it, until I heard about chef Aaron Whitcomb taking those messages to heart and starting to make some shifts in the kitchen. "We call it 'turning the Titanic,'" he told me when I got him on the phone last week. "A little bit every day." Whitcomb has even been injecting some molecular gastronomy — a little science, a little fresh thought — into the ever-changing board at Strings. "We're trying to integrate it a little bit without alienating the clientele that's there," he explained, adding that while he's not doing as much as Ian Kleinman is at O's Steak and Seafood, "we're trying to add it where it's feasible."

He did a massive molecular-gastronomy blowout at Strings last New Year's Eve and plans to do another this year. Between those two high-water marks, though, he's more cautious. On the December menu, he'll limit the experiments to a presentation of hot-and-cold foie gras — a seared slab on one hand and a cold-set emulsification on the other, served inside a brioche roll. But he's also been toying with soy lecithin foams, with agar and tapioca maltodextrine, caviar sphericalization and powders and reconstitutions. He plans to put them up as specials to see how they'll move, and he's been sneaking them onto his main menu, a little at a time, over the past year.

"I think it takes a little convincing," he said, when I asked about customers' response to his tinkering. They have to be convinced — gently — that the new tricks in Whitcomb's bag are not just tricks, not just for show. "The misconception is that it's all about gimmick," he continued. "But it's not. It's food."

After doing time at both Adega and Table 6, Whitcomb had a yen to travel. That yen took him to Chicago — American ground zero for molecular weirdness, where James Beard Award-winning best chef Grant Achatz runs Alinea. Because slots at Alinea are so hard to come by (every up-and-comer wants Achatz's name on his resumé, a little rubbed-off glamour on his knife kit), Whitcomb first took a front-of-the-house position as assistant sommelier. This, though, put him in direct contact with Achatz, the mad genius himself, and he eventually scored a coveted spot in the kitchen.

Two years later, he returned to Denver with visions of sugarplums (and faux-fruit caviar sphericalization techniques) dancing in his head, and brought them with him when he took the job at Strings last year. I can't wait to see what the guy can do.

Once the holidays are over, that is.

 
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