A Proper Setting
As anyone who's seen Demolition Man knows, the only eatery with the ability to survive the Apocalypse -- a kind of culinary cockroach, you might say -- is Taco Bell. And the way things are headed right now, it's quite possible that, even though we've survived Y2K (so far), at some point in the future all restaurants will be the same: one big international chain whose outlets offer every kind of food imaginable, adhere to a Geneva Convention-like list of health codes and look and act exactly like every other link in the chain.
Our best hope to fend off such a takeover? The neighborhood joint.
But before homegrown eateries can be the saviors of the local dining scene, they must ensure that they can survive in good times as well as bad. And so any would-be owner of a neighborhood joint has to determine just what the neighborhood is -- and just what its residents want. Take the top off any successful spot and you'll find a cross-section of that area: the harried working types, the families, the singles with their books propped up against their water glasses. And the food before them reflects what they want to eat at a home-away-from-home -- not what they've been force-fed by a restaurateur who caters more to trends than to his clientele.
When Dave Diamond, a commercial real estate developer, and his wife, Ann, first decided to transform a former Pizza Hut into a neighborhood joint over two years ago, they thought the neighborhood needed more breakfast options. But it turned out that this hospital-dominated portion of Colorado Boulevard was already brimming with early-morning choices. In fact, their Diamond Grill initially started to shine at the other end of the spectrum: with desserts created by pastry chef Michael Bortz, a well-known wizard who once owned the Palmetto Grill and has since moved on from the Diamond, leaving many of his dessert recipes behind. With the success of Bortz's creations as evidence, the Diamonds realized that what the neighborhood needed was not another very casual spot, but a slightly more upscale hangout that reflected the increasingly gentrified neighborhood of Congress Park.
Guiding the transformation was Ron Bryant, a corporate consultant for Metro Media who had once been general manager for The Spot in La Jolla. Bryant recommended that Diamond drop breakfast altogether and reduce its bakery offerings, although the restaurant continues to do a brisk box-lunch business. It also kept its magazine rack, a nice, neighborly touch, but added an exposition kitchen to the funky, friendly decor of creamy-complexioned tile-covered tables and multicolored diamonds painted on the walls. Bryant also convinced Diamond to switch from a cafeteria-style setup to full-service, sit-down dining, with bistro-style fare complemented by an affordable wine list that includes 45 wines available for sampling by the glass. All in all, the setting is a much better space for appreciating the work of lunch chef Chris Crego, also from the Palmetto Grill, and dinner chef Parke Townes, who previously cooked for the Washington Park Grille.
The Diamond Grill is not without flaws, however. The devil here is in the details, which often are overlooked. During each of my recent visits, as night fell, the lights were adjusted several times during dinner, which became rather annoying. (Simple solution: Put some marks on those switch plates.) And not once in three visits was there toilet paper in either of the bathrooms. (Simple solution: Stick a few extra rolls in that cupboard under the sink.) Service was sometimes sketchy, too, with silverware taken away and never replaced, and dirty dishes being left on the table when new courses arrived. (Simple solution: Give those super-friendly employees a little more training.)
Many of the dishes coming out of the kitchen displayed this same lack of attention to detail. Sometimes it translated into a missing ingredient. For example, the "classic salsa" promised on the menu was nowhere in sight when our three-cheese quesadilla appetizer ($4.95) arrived. Instead, we got a smattering of diced red bell pepper and diced tomatoes over two grilled tortillas that had been stuffed with a superb blend of nebulous cheeses and topped with a freshly mashed guacamole. (The menu had also said "avocado," but who'd quibble over good guac?)
Sometimes the problem was too many ingredients. The grilled portabello appetizer ($6.95) started with a large mushroom that had been sliced and seared until all of those good caramelizing things began happening, then paired the mushroom with a huge -- huge! -- mound of mashed potatoes, an herb remoulade and a pile of fried leeks. Although each component was fine on its own, none of the textures worked together.
And occasionally, the problem was that all of the right ingredients were there, but in the wrong proportions. A prime example: the Tuscan sausage lasagne ($12.95), which layered noodles with an excellent, slightly spicy sausage, mozzarella and ricotta, all of which were supposed to be covered with a roasted-garlic cream sauce and a marinara. What showed up on our plate, though, was a dry, curdy wedge with so little liquid that it was difficult to eat -- and that was a shame, since the little blobs of sauce we could find tasted fabulous. Both the crispy seared chicken ($10.95) and the grilled pork loins ($11.95) had been overcooked, and the sauces on the meats couldn't disguise the damage. The whole point of searing chicken until crispy was lost when the kitchen drenched the bird in an oddly chunky sun-dried tomato-basil cream sauce; the mildly flavored caramelized apple-pear chutney that came with the very chewy pork was more like a compote than a chutney. And although I'm a big fan of perceived value when it comes to food, even I got tired of the big mounds of garlic mashed potatoes. Nearly every entree, including these two, includes them, and the generous heaping of spuds looked like a life-sized snowman's head rising out of the center of each plate. This was too much of a good thing.
On the other hand, we would have loved more of the blackened sea scallops ($6.95): expertly seared, fiery on the outside and tender on the inside, coated with a lemon-kissed beurre blanc and beautifully presented. And several other entrees were just what a neighbor might be looking for during a casual, cozy night on the town: a dense, hearty meatloaf ($9.95) smothered in oniony brown gravy; a maple-sweetened, Dijon-sharpened grilled salmon ($13.95) with wild-rice pilaf; a tender, juicy roasted chicken half ($10.95) scented with rosemary and glazed with balsamic. The house salad ($2.95) is a well-assembled mélange of greens and good blue cheese, with a nice inclusion of red cabbage and carrots. And the Caesar ($2.95) carries a welcome tangy bite.
While the Diamond Grill has been polishing its evening offerings, lunch has always worked pretty well. The Diamond Deluxe burger ($7.45) may be total overkill (it won our Over-the-Top Hamburger award in the Best of Denver 1999), but it's just right for folks seriously challenging their bodily capacity for processing food: an impeccably grilled-to-your-specs eight-ounce disk of ground chuck topped with a split hot dog, American cheese and a potent red chile and sided with thin, crispy fries. The regular Diamond burger ($5.45) is a more sensible but equally drippy/delicious choice. Still, our favorite lunch find was the grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($7.45), which slathers fresh, succulent fish in a tastebud-whacking Szechuan sauce.
And then there are those desserts, available both at lunch and dinner. True to Bortz's legacy, they always come with little spider webs and other Pastry Arts 101 designs made out of such sauces as raspberry coulis and crème anglaise. (Hey, I should know, since I once worked for the guy and had to paint the plates his way.) At the Diamond Grill, these sauces sometimes made sense -- for instance, the aptly named triple-layer silk mousse cake ($5) was paired with a fine raspberry version -- and sometimes they didn't: While the vanilla-bean cheesecake ($5) was delicious in its own right, it came stuck to the plate with a glue of caramel sauce that also was delicious but detracted from the cheesecake. It would have worked much better under a slab of bread pudding.
All in all, though, the Diamond Grill seems to be smoothing out its rough edges. With a little more polishing of the recipes and service, this diamond could really sparkle. In the meantime, it sure blows Taco Bell away.
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