By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
See more photos of Shazz at westword.com/slideshow.
I was at the diner. My cell phone rang. It was Laura.
"So where are you going to dinner?"
4262 Lowell Blvd.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
"I already told you."
"Yeah, but I can't remember."
"Shazz," I whispered.
"Jesus, don't make me say it out loud in public."
"Just tell me the name, Jay."
"Shazz," I said a little bit louder.
"I can't find it online."
"With two z's."
"Seriously?" she asked, laughing. "Oh, my God..."
Shazz. It's got to be one of the goofiest names out there — a name that's embarrassing to say out loud, and sounds even funnier when you say it in a breathy whisper and add some Bob Fosse jazz hands. Shazz opened last November, at a time when so many other oddly or unfortunately named restaurants opened around Denver that I can only assume all the good names were taken. Someone snapped up Root Down (bad enough). Someone else got the Fainting Goat (so bad it's funny). After that, all that was apparently left at the Office of Restaurant Name Availability and Registration were Shazz, Zymurgy, HullyGully's, Taste of Pacoima and The Cryptosporidiosis Cafe. Benny Kaplan went with Shazz for the place he opened in northwest Denver, right by Billy's Inn and Tocabe and Cafe Brazil.
But what does Shazz mean? "If you threw out all pre-conceived notions and societal pressures and became the person you always wanted to be, you would be Shazz," chirps the restaurant's website. "Shazz is that rare harmony between what is and what is desired, or that equally elusive state of finding ourselves exactly where we want to be. Shazz is a place or time where everything comes together just right — a ripeness of moment, a synchronicity of elements — and this is what we bring to every aspect of the dining experience at Shazz Cafe and Bar."
That's a direct quote: the philosophy of Shazz, as espoused by owner/executive chef Kaplan. Reading that, it's tough to take anything that comes after seriously. It's kind of like that time in college when your roommate became a Buddhist for a week, or that other time when your best friend went in to have his warts cured with crystals and herbs and Gaia water, or that time your ex had one wine spritzer too many and suddenly started spouting off about her belief in Xenu, Martians and the Illuminati. After something like that, it's hard to listen to anything a person says without filtering it through the knowledge that, at one point or another, they took the crazy train all the way down to the last stop at Cuckoo Junction. It's hard to watch them do anything without thinking, "Dude, you can do whatever you want, but I know for a fact that you once paid $400 to have some woman in Jesus robes and twigs in her hair tell you how certain colors in your life were keeping you from financial success — and frankly, every breath you've taken in my presence since then has been highly suspect."
That's Shazz: the culinary equivalent of the friend who still gets high and talks endless circles about how particle/wave duality means that nothing in the world is really real, the friend who still wears crystals and Birkenstocks and believes that she's the reincarnation of an Amazonian priestess, the Shirley MacLaine or Anne Heche of the restaurant world.
When a restaurant operates under such a crunchy ethos, the whole greenmarket/foodshed/organic-and-all-natural-and-locally-sourced paradigm inevitably follows. Thus does Kaplan, owner and executive chef, proudly list Shazz's sources and suppliers and the website: beef from the sustainable River Ranches in Steamboat, organic chicken from Eastern Plains Natural Foods in Bennett, seeds and microgreens (which get used here a lot) from Altan Alma in Boulder, hand-picked produce from Growers Organic right here in Denver.
And, of course, once a man starts down this path, there's no way he can come up with a normal menu, bound by the strictures of fascistic artificial borders and oppressive culinary classicism. No, he must be free to fly — to cook what he wants, when he wants, without concerning himself with petty political boundaries and thousands of years of tradition. If he wants to make a surf-and-turf, why can't it be French beef tartare, Japanese tuna tartare and Italian truffle oil together on one plate? If he likes lentils, then he should have a lentil soup alongside Italian gnocchi, Israeli couscous, pea tendrils, bread pudding and a vegetarian cassoulet that, by strict definition, can't even really exist inside any known canon, but does here because this is Shazz, and Shazz doesn't recognize things like definitions...
I thought I knew a lot about Shazz before I stepped through the door, with every expectation of terrible things being done to helpless ingredients, of vintage '80s plates of food stacked and doodled with squeeze-bottle sauces, of soft jazz on the radio and expressionist art on the walls and pamphlets about the Swami Vivekananda by the door. As it turns out, I was right about the jazz and the art, but that was about it. Because the food at Shazz is wonderful, and in the end, that's all that matters.