A Rare Bird
Dealing with the press isn't part of the curriculum at the Culinary Institute of America, where leeks take precedence over leaks. So CIA grad Daniel Block had to learn his lesson the hard way.
Block, now the executive chef for The Swan at the Inverness Hotel, was nineteen when he went to work for Turnberry Isle, a hotel in North Miami Beach that runs a little boat off the coast for rich, important folks hosting parties. Kitchen employees were required to spend three weeks on that boat, handling whatever catering needs might arise. Block was taking his turn in early 1987 when the boat, named the Monkey Business, was booked one night by a large party that seemed to be drawing quite a bit of attention.
"There was so much going on in the kitchen, and we were so busy, that we weren't entirely sure of the deal," says Block, who today oversees not only the Swan, but the hotel's more casual spots, the Garden Terrace and the Pub, as well as room service, catering and banquet operations. "But we knew what we saw. And when I got off the boat the next day, 20/20 was sitting by my car, and they shoved a microphone in my face and wanted me to confirm what was going on. Which I did."
What was going on, of course, was some monkey business between Donna Rice and Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart, and while everyone knows what happened to Hart, no one's ever heard what happened to the guy who told 20/20 everything he'd seen.
"I got fired," Block says simply. "You sign something when you're hired by hotels like that saying that you won't talk to the press. And they used my name in the story."
Fortunately, Block's loose lips didn't hurt his chances with the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, which hired him soon after the incident. "I made it clear that I had learned some very serious lessons and that hotel work was what I wanted to concentrate my efforts on," Block says. "I think they saw that I was very, very serious and that I really was ready to make the commitment that's required for top-level hotel dining." He went on to enhance that experience at a few more well-known hotels, including the Registry in Naples, more Ritz establishments in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and La Mansion del Rio in San Antonio. Nearly three years ago, the seasoned chef was hired by Destination Hotel and Resorts, which owns the Inverness as well of dozens of other hotels throughout the States and one in London.
Destination hired him because of his extensive hotel background, Block says, which is completely different from what you learn at a regular restaurant. "In places like the Ritz and here, you're talking about what is usually a unique clientele," he explains. "They're mostly from out of town, and so they have a more sophisticated food background. They don't want to have to worry about where they're eating, and they're hoping that what's closest and most convenient -- namely, the hotel's own restaurants -- will at least have some good food. And here at the Swan, it's even more unusual than the typical hotel, because this has become such a special-occasion place for locals as well, and so we very much have to keep that in mind."
During my recent special-occasion visit -- an annual gathering of seven moms, sans kids and looking for trouble -- the Swan was also hosting a Denver couple celebrating the birth of their son two months earlier, a 25th-anniversary party for six, a one-year anniversary party of two, and four groups of what were obviously business folks staying in the hotel.
Our group didn't find trouble -- we couldn't even get the waiter to sit on our laps for a photo -- but we did find an excellent meal. In fact, the repast was perfect from beginning to end, flawlessly executed, accompanied by lovely but not-too-loud guitar serenades, and served by truly gifted professionals (coordinated by general manager John Wagner) in a dining room that's exquisitely tasteful. Conservatively accessorized with fresh flowers on the tables, funky, brassy doodads on the walls that looked sort of like hieroglyphics from the future, dark lighting, streamlined modern fixtures interspersed with rustic accents, and seats upholstered so tightly you could bounce a quarter off of them, the room's decor was calculated to meet many needs. As a result, the ambience was not so romantic that business guys would feel out of place, but not so sparse that a couple would feel awkward making goo-goo eyes at each other.
The food, too, was exquisitely tasteful, and clearly designed to please. You can credit Block with the 15,000-square-foot kitchen's incredible competence, although he also gets some help from his eleven sous chefs and 53 cooks. "Being an executive chef in a hotel is odd, because you get to the top through your cooking skills, and then you're not supposed to use them anymore," Block says. "I don't get to do as much hands-on stuff as I'd like, but I try to dabble as much as possible. This is one of the few hotels in this town that has a full garde-manger [a cold-food pantry], as well as an in-house butcher shop and a pastry shop, and each of those is run by someone who specializes in it. So my day consists of ordering, scheduling staff, creating menus, working with the catering side. But working with the staff on the menu at the Swan is sort of one of my guilty pleasures."
While overall that menu would seem to appeal primarily to the business traveler -- the Swan heavily touts its status as the only place in Denver that's been awarded AAA's highly coveted four-diamond designation -- it also includes quite a few items that could qualify as crossovers for celebratory meals. And although nothing we tried contained anything so unusual that it could be called "exotic," each dish offered enough of a twist that we didn't feel we'd already eaten the same thing somewhere else. Which was good, because prices in the dinner-only dining room range from $19 for a pasta dish to $46 for a jumbo lobster tail with saffron risotto. Add a couple of appetizers and some wine from the Swan's varied and not-too-badly priced list, and your meal isn't going to be cheap. But for the once-a-year -- twice, if you're lucky -- occasion when you feel like going all-out, it's well worth it.
Our group definitely wanted to splurge, and we ran through the entire roster of appetizers. Most of the moms had never tried foie gras ($10), but this was a good way to start: The liver had been sort of flame-broiled, which seared a thin crust on the outside while the interior remained soft and wet; it had then been placed on a not-too-crispy polenta cake and draped with a sweet-and-sour onion marmalade that played off the sweet organ meat. One taste and we were swooning. Although the other starters weren't quite as dramatic, they weren't exactly shabby. Escargot in phyllo ($9) brought tender snails snuggled against a mildly garlicky chutney enhanced with anise oil. The chilled sampler of American oysters ($10) came with three complementary dipping sauces -- a pungent but not overwhelming horseradish, a housemade cocktail and a tarragon-flecked mayo -- that weren't quite tempting enough to entice the more squeamish members of our group to eat it raw. But the rosemary-grilled shrimp ($10) were so good (and so cooked) that only half of the women managed to snag one before the plate was empty. The jumbo lump crabcake ($10) was another marvel, with almost unadorned, succulent, very sweet crabmeat packed into a cake shape and garnished with fried fennel strips and a tart papaya concoction.
The rest of our meal boasted more accomplished yin-yang flavor balances -- even in the lowly potatoes that came with several entrees. Each version of the spuds contained a different ingredient that played off a particular piece of meat. For example, shallot-enhanced whipped potatoes came with the thick-cut porterhouse ($38), a beautifully marbled piece of beef flawlessly cooked to our requested medium. While the cut wasn't as thick as you might expect from its moniker, it was nonetheless a hefty portion of beef and sat on a perfect pool of roasted-garlic-infused red-wine sauce. While that deep, red-wine taste goes so well with red meat, it also went just fine with those mildly oniony, light-as-a-feather potatoes. The ProvenÇal-style garlic-studded rack of lamb ($39) -- four drop-dead delicious chops dripping in their own juices, which had been primed with rosemary -- was matched with heavier spuds laced with goat cheese. And the horseradish-crusted salmon, whose own richness was cut with a savory ragout of leeks, was paired with more mashed spuds, these pumped up with black truffle oil into a heavenly cloud of opulence.
The rest of our entrees lacked potatoes, but they all came with sides that made sense. A chive polenta accompanied the duet of ahi and peppered beef filet ($36); a foie gras-enriched woodland-mushroom mélange arrived with the pork tenderloin ($26). Even the simple fresh vegetables with the sirloin of beef au poivre ($35) were right on; anything more would have been overkill. The beef was so potently peppery that the austere side actually came as a relief.
Given our surroundings, it was no surprise that the Swan's desserts were designed to dazzle. But although all of the confections we tried were delicious and artfully presented, most were only modestly impressive. The faintly Grand Marnier-flavored crème brûlée ($8) was no more than very good, the mousse-filled chocolate terrine ($8) above average. The amaretto cheesecake ($7), however, may have been the best dessert ever: The barest hint of liqueur had been added to a decadent but still light cheesecake molded into a phyllo shell. One bite of this was about as sinful as our gaggle of gals got that night -- but it was more than enough to satisfy.
At the Swan, every woman gets a rose at the end of dinner, which meant our group collected almost a full bouquet. But after this meal, I felt like handing the entire bunch of flowers to Block. He'd earned them.
"Listen, we do 425,000 covers a year," he says. "The way I look at it, I'm running an $11 million business, and I can't afford to have anything fall through the cracks. We need to pay attention to the little things that could set us apart."
It works. This Swan is a beauty.
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