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8 Rivers Cafe

Scott Durrah brought the islands to landlocked Denver with 8 Rivers.
Mark Manger

I have this dream of going to France. Paris, sure, but also (and mostly) Lyon. In my dream, I have a small, upper-story room in one of those old hotels, and every morning, invisible elves deliver café au lait, piping hot, the Times international edition and magical crepes that cure hangovers. I eat on my small balcony overlooking a charming square and greenmarket, go downstairs at my leisure and then spend the rest of the day wandering the cobbled streets, eating anything that strikes my fancy and smoking those awful French cigarettes that taste like burning hair. At night I'll eat at anonymous family bistros and neighborhood joints where the chefs catch their own pike for quenelles and all the chickens are true, blue-footed Bresse. And on my birthday, I'll go to Latour and buy a bottle from the year I was born (a '73 — pretty fucking pricey), then drink it and start picking fights with the fat American tourists dining at McDonald's.

I've never actually been to France and am resigned to the fact that I may never go — or at least, I won't be able to go and live it up the way the dream-me imagines. For starters, there's the money, and I don't have any. Also, it's a long way from DIA to Charles de Gaulle — something like ten hours, not counting layovers, and that's a long time to go without a cigarette. Even heavily sedated, I'd be up before we were halfway across the ocean, trying to light and smoke a flight attendant. Further, my French is abysmal. Also, I'm not exactly sure where Lyon is.

I have another dream, of traveling back in time to the age of the dinosaurs to eat pterodactyl eggs and brontosaurus steaks. I know this one's never going to happen, either, because not only has no one invented a working time machine yet, but if I ever did get my hands on one, I'd just go back to sixth grade and talk myself out of getting a truly unfortunate haircut that made my head look exactly like a 60-watt Sylvania lightbulb, then use it to spy on all my ex-girlfriends in the shower.

And then there's the dream in which I chuck it all, sell the cars and the cats and turn that dough into two one-way tickets for the wife and me so that we can escape to some blue-water island in the Caribbean where we will lie on the beach, eat barbecued chicken, drink Red Stripes all day and otherwise do absolutely nothing. We will become beach trash, all leathery and loose, living from one languid happy hour to the next until the money runs out and the two of us are forced to come up with some fast-money scheme for bilking rich, vacationing heiresses out of their inheritance. Something involving high-minimum blackjack and speedboats, no doubt. Something destined to end very badly.

Oddly, this last dream is the one most likely to come true — probably because its primary motivators are barbecue and a deep, profound laziness. But also because Laura plays a good game of blackjack and I know a thing or two about boats (if not heiresses, necessarily). Still, these are all just dreams, fantasies in which I indulge knowing full well that Paris, the Pleistocene and Montego Bay are probably not in the cards. And that saddens me, but I get past it the best way I know how: by eating. By pulling the common hearts out of all my strangest flights of fancy — this love of food as food and love of food as connection to place — and living them out close to home. When I regret the last-minute ticket I never bought for Paris, I wait until dark, then park just down the hill from Z Cuisine, walk up through the darkness and into the warm yellow light, sit by the window, order cassoulet and am gone. The time-machine glitch I haven't figured out yet, but when I start aching for white sand and islands named after French saints, I now know where to go. To Highland, to bustling 32nd Avenue, to Scott Durrah's anachronistic piece of Jamaica-in-the-mountains: 8 Rivers Cafe.

"Just outside of Port Antonio, Jamaica, high in the hills, overlooking the most beautiful water in the world, you will discover Boston Bay," Durrah writes on his menu, on his restaurant's website. "It is in a small house [where], each morning, the Pit is prepared for the day's feast. Jerk chicken, jerk pork and smoked fish. Fourteen different spices and pimento wood are used for flavor and Scotch Bonnet peppers add the fire...Before 11am the line of locals and tourists alike exceeds thirty minutes."

Unlike me, Durrah isn't talking daydreams. A working chef from Boston's North End, he's actually been to that place — to the little house with the long line, the view over the water, the secret jerk recipe. He fell in love there. He opened his first and best-known restaurant, the Jamaica Cafe in Santa Monica, based on the experiences he had there and the things he learned in that kitchen. And though in every snap I've seen of the guy, he looks pissed off — like he's about to reach out and strangle the photographer taking his picture — Durrah has a lot of love in him, a lot of cool, a lot of dirty lust for the particular spice architecture of the Caribbean Sea, and all of it comes through at 8 Rivers.

After Santa Monica, he fixed his gaze on landlocked Colorado, and in August 2005 opened his first 8 Rivers in Superior, in the space once occupied by Vita Bella — a restaurant I liked, occasionally loved. This spot didn't work as well for Durrah's vision: wrong space, wrong people, a distracting coldness that threw a chill over everything. Durrah soon shut it down, and by the summer of 2006, he'd found a much better place for his vision: the heart of Highland. And he'll still frequently leave his own beach and star-studded reservation book back in California to visit this 8 Rivers, where he's gotten just about everything right.

The new restaurant is small — a shotgun storefront in the middle of the Highland Square action, surrounded by boutiques, bookstores, galleries and other restaurants, with seating for thirty, maybe, a small patio and a loud sound system that plays non-stop reggae that drifts out into the street and down the block. It's an unassuming place. You could pass it a dozen times without even thinking of stopping in until the one afternoon when you're feeling a little Bob Marley, a little oxtail-with-butter-beans, and then suddenly you'll hear "One Love" scratching at your ear, catch a fortunate breeze carrying the scent of charred pimento, the smoky-sweet and peppery odor of jerk blackening on a grill and, next thing you know, you're three pints of rum punch to the wind, your pockets stuffed with fried shrimp jacketed in a stinging Scotch Bonnet batter, demanding Jamaican beef patties for dessert from the tattooed waitress working the floor.

Or maybe that's just me. But from the first bite of 8 Rivers' Escovitch shrimp — the big U-10s skewered, dipped in gray-brown batter flecked with spice, fried on the stick and curled, too hot to touch, like a half-dozen mittened hands over a bed of greens — I fell hard. The shrimp had a seemingly bottomless depth of flavor, with grace notes added by dipping into the citrus and Scotch Bonnet sauce on the side, which tasted like limes and onions lit on fire.

That one dish, discovered on a lazy, escapist afternoon, was enough to get me addicted to Durrah's modern Jamaican interpretations. So far, I've hit on only one miss: the plantain wonton wraps — chunks of plantain, folded into wonton-skin envelopes and deep-fried like a half-bright special on some chain restaurant's "Jamaican Me Crazy!" summer appetizer promotional menu. But to be honest, I've regretfully skipped the callaloo — a kind of stew made with amaranth, sometimes taro or okra or spinach, that comes only with the jerk tofu (because while I'll make many sacrifices for this job, eating jerk tofu is not one of them) — as well as the hideous-sounding vegetarian "Rasta Pasta" and the fettuccine and meatballs, evidence of Durrah's Boston Italian background and proof that childhood culinary tradition can be tough to shake no matter how far you run.

Sticking to the island inspirations, I've worked my way through smoked salmon, singed on a hot grill and napped with a dilled cream sauce; stewed oxtail; a chicken roulade wrapped around baked plantain, sliced and coated in fruit chutney; a jerk chicken unlike any jerk chicken I've ever tasted — so much more rough-edged and personal, so complex in its juxtaposition of savory and sweet and bitter and hot and even hotter — and a jerk pork loin that was exactly like the jerk chicken, only exponentially better for having been slow-smoked, sliced and smeared with even more of the charry-sweet rub. On the side, the kitchen serves whole plantains, lightly breaded, touched with cinnamon, gently fried and perfect; sculpted piles of dirty rice and red beans; a scratch mango-cranberry dressing that's so good I ate mine with a spoon. And for dessert, there's key lime pie — homemade, a pure three-ingredient high — and bread pudding. And maybe an order of meat patties to go.

The service at 8 Rivers is sometimes personable to a fault, sometimes strangely standoffish. And the preponderance of reggae music and reggae decor and the all-over colorful Caribbean brightness can be somewhat daunting to someone (like me) who never went for the whole dreads-and-ganja, hippie-peasant universal-love vibe.

But still, sitting in a straight-backed chair under the windows in Durrah's rustic dining room, there are moments of pure escapist joy; certain bites, certain instants where I recognize that Durrah has perfectly translated his very real experience of Jamaica here to Colorado, where there might not be sand underfoot or a view of blue, blue ocean, but there is the Caribbean kitchen trinity: jerk, smoke and fire.

And for me, sometimes that's enough to make at least the small dreams come true.

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8 Rivers Cafe - Closed

1550 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202

303-623-3422

www.8riverslodo.com