The action began in the walled courtyard of the James Beard House, a bastion of good taste and stuff that tastes good in the tony West Village. Young waiters darted among black-clad diners who sucked down tray after tray of hors d'oeuvre like a school of barracuda -- hors d'oeuvre made by four chefs from Denver.
A New Yorker by birth, I spent a number of years in Denver, gainfully employed as a commentator on the peculiar habits of that city's denizens. I even reviewed Denver's restaurants for this very newspaper. So I had to wonder why, exactly, chefs Frank Bonanno (of Mizuna and Luca D'Italia), Jennifer Jasinski (Rioja), Bryan Moscatello (Adega) and Matt Selby (Vesta Dipping Grill) felt the need to ply their wares so far from home? Why were they driven to prove themselves to be more than, say, deep-fry cooks from Boise in the eyes of these here Big City Folk?
Here's how Big City Folk see this country's gustatory geography. New York City has the chefs and resources for all great culinary feats. To the north, everything is boiled. To the south, everything is fried. You go west, cross the Hudson River, and it's the land of meat, meat, meat, all the way to California, where they cook with vegetables that are too small and fish from the Devonian Period in the Paleozoic Era. End of story.
As it is my wont to wonder aloud, my question about why Denver chefs would head to New York was answered by John Imbergamo, a former restaurateur (he co-founded Cafe Giovanni, which was the height of Denver haute cuisine when I lived there), current industry consultant and one of the evening's choreographers. Last year, he told me, Denver came in 23rd out of 25 in a Travel + Leisure readers' survey of the country's top cities for dining out. From that sorry statistic grew the concept of Eat Denver, a promotional campaign launched by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau and volunteers from the local restaurant scene. Three Denver critics (including Jason Sheehan, who has my old job at Westword), sat down and drew up a list of the city's top chefs, and then Eat Denver -- which also set up February's successful Restaurant Week, to remind Denverites how good Denver's cooks could be -- arranged this dinner at the Beard House to show New Yorkers the same thing.
The hungry diners being circled by trays of lemon-herb blini with Dungeness crab salad and candied lemon cream; chanterelle, Camembert and brasaola Monte Cristos; oxtail Rossini with foie gras tourchon and truffled potato chip; and truffled rabbit and parmesan with asparagus amuse-bouches consisted of "about 20 percent travel writers," explained the bureau's Rich Grant, "and then there are the Denver media and PR people, friends and family of chef Moscatello, who is from New Jersey, and people who just like to come to the dinners at the James Beard House." At $115 a pop -- and no tipping -- a seven-course dinner with wine is a deal in any American city, especially New York.
After a gentleman asked us to be seated, I was directed to Table 11, which was all the way at the back of the upstairs dining room, up a couple of steps: hellish for egress to the bathrooms, but a fabulous perch for running commentary. Seated in the round were Nancy Rebek, who was in radio when I knew her in the early '80s but now heads her own eponymous public-relations firm and was on the job for Eat Denver; the gracious aunt and uncle of Joe Hodas of Frontier Airlines, one of the evening's sponsors, who couldn't make the dinner; Rebecca Ciletti, a senior assistant editor for Condé Nast Traveler; Eugenia Bone, a former New Yorker who now lives on the Western Slope and wrote At Mesa's Edge; and me. If the wine didn't flow, it at least came at a steady pace, and the dishes were inspired, creating a convivial atmosphere in which Denver -- rather than the food itself -- became the topic of conversation. Between bites of honey-glazed carrots and crme fraîche whipped potato cannelloni with textures of broccoli by Moscatello, we all introduced ourselves and talked about our ties to Colorado. Was it fair to call Rebek a Denverite, since she's now lived in the city more than half of her life? Would Ciletti, a travel writer whose aspirations are more toward the comedic, be wooed back to her native Colorado with the promise of a lifestyle that was more sumptuous than a shared one-bedroom the size of a matchbox in the East Village? And would anyone be interested in trading her artichoke tortellini in an artichoke truffle broth by Jasinski for my glasses of Sancerre and pinot grigio Collio?
If there's anything that can grind dinnertime conversation to a dead halt, it's a self-proclaimed foodie who takes her tightly wrapped self a tad too seriously. And Bone -- bless her earnest yet misguided soul -- showed what can happen when a person spends too much time celebrating the earth and its regional bounty and not enough time reading people's facial expressions. Given the expansive bibliography of gourmet magazines and publishing houses that have printed her oeuvre ("Just Google me, you'll see!" she urged), you'd think she'd have learned not to admonish a table filled with grownups to pace their wine intake with the food courses, lest the chefs take it personally. As if.
Thankfully, marital duty called Bone elsewhere, and her seat was soon filled by Grant, who helped step up the conversation to a more sprightly level. As the pan-braised covina with fresh oregano, Colorado sweet onion, English pea beurre fondue and Barbados cherry syrup (Selby's dish) was cleared and the herb-crusted Colorado lamb ribeye, confit potato, roasted morels, black-pepper sabayon and Haystack Mountain goat cheese consommé was put before us, we all debated the need of Denver chefs to prove themselves in, and to, New York.
In an earlier interview, Grant had said that "back East, they think of Denver the way they think of Boise," which is patently untrue: New Yorkers don't think of Denverites as white supremacists at all. But do they think of anyplace -- and I mean anyplace, including Paris, Rome or Vienna -- holding a candle to the Big Apple in terms of cuisine? Not a chance.
After the epoisses, grilled frisée, one-eyed Susan and candied bacon vinaigrette (a creation of Moscatello and Bonanno's that came across as a petite and fabulous BLT with a poached quail egg, which worked as a palate cleanser for me) and a dessert of almond brittle phyllo Napoleon with handmade lavender ice cream and crme fraîche caramel (a co-production by Jasinski and Selby), the stars of the night made their appearance, a little shell-shocked but none the worse for wear. They deserved all the accolades that they received. The food was masterful. Honest. And attention should be paid.
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But listen, Denver boosters, there's a reason these chefs are working in your city, and don't believe for a moment that it's because they think they can't make it in New York. Maybe they enjoy living in a city where the sun shines 300 days a year. Maybe it's good to live in a place where one isn't defined by one's income. Or maybe they just see through the NYC hype, which has people falling all over themselves to be among the first fifty to eat at Masa, the new restaurant in the Time Warner building where lunch can set a couple back $1,000, just so they can treat it in a blasé manner. New Yorkers revel in feeling jaded.
You want Manhattanites and others of their ilk (think: Bone) to flock to Denver? Just let them know that Denver chefs have tapped into a limited supply of whale sputum, which will be served flecked over warmed potato blinis, and, oh dear, the only seatings still available are before 5:30 p.m or after 11, and sit back and watch the lemmings come.
You guys have got to relax and enjoy what your town is; stop worrying about what it isn't. As for me, like anyone else who's ever had the privilege of living in Denver, I'd return in a New York minute.