Midway through my first meal at Vega -- somewhere between cleaning up every scrap of delicious oxtail tamal and toppling a pretty but ill-conceived Napoleon of salmon ceviche, thin-sliced cucumber and jicama, and moving it around the plate to make it look like I'd enjoyed it -- I had one of those moments. A pause, mid-sentence, when I suddenly went dumb and blind. It must have been brief, because my dinner companion either didn't notice or was polite enough not to mention that I'd left a part of my standard cautionary discourse on the future of Denver dining dangling in the air, right alongside my salmon-laden fork.
I recovered quickly and continued on with my blabbing about produce suppliers and celebrity chefs, but had this been the movie of my life rather than the real thing, that moment -- that pause -- would have been where the studio's foley man inserted a wooshing sound: Hollywood's way of announcing a flashback.
Sean Yontz, executive chef and owner (along with hands-off partner Michael Payne) of the five-month-old Vega, is young and truly on his own for the first time. For ten years, he cast his shadow by the reflected light of Kevin Taylor at his most luminescent, then spent another year and a half under the halo of Richard Sandoval at Tamayo. In Denver, that's some heavy-duty street cred to bring to the table, so it was big news last year when Yontz and top-notch frontman Marco Colantonio left Tamayo to move into the space that once held Sacre Bleu, whose closure was in itself big news. Yontz was finally getting a kitchen of his own, an exec position unfettered by anyone's apron strings, and if Colantonio's involvement drew attention, Yontz drew even more, because this was finally his big shot.
410 East Seventh
Hou rs: 5:30-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
5:30-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Salmon ceviche: $9
Oxtail tamal: $10
Albondigas ravioli: $9
Duck confit: $24
Angus ribeye: $26
Poached salmon: $22
And then Colantonio left Vega. More press.
Six weeks later, a friend and I were sitting at Vega's bar having a drink before dinner, when Yontz stopped by. He knew my friend, but he didn't know me, and we joked a minute about the parking situation (rough if you spurn the valet) and how he'd redone the space (beautifully, with streamlined yet intimate seating, starched white linens and dark wood chairs). And then she asked the big question: How were things with Marco gone?
Translation: It's your show now, kid. All yours. And how does that make you feel?
Yontz smiled, folded his arms, and said...something. I don't remember his words exactly, but they were polite, politic, confident. It was a stock answer to a question he'd already been asked by everyone in town. He was happy, sure, but there was something in his look, his stance, the way his eyes jumped around to take in the entirety of his kingdom as he answered, that struck me as strange. And it took me until that point midway through dinner to figure out what it was.
He was scared. Not a childish, monsters-under-the-bed scared, because the guy's a good cook, maybe a great cook, and if there are any monsters lurking anywhere in his house, he's got the chops to whoop 'em. It was fear-of-the-unknown scared. What-the-fuck-happens-next scared. A very real, grown-up, visceral kind of fear that came with the realization that no matter what happens, good or bad, it's coming on his watch and landing squarely on his shoulders.
Which is why he was in the kitchen on a Monday night, rather than being sacked out on the couch with a cold beer on the chef's traditional night off. Which is why he's been in the kitchen every night for the last five months except for one: his son's birthday. Which is why he was working the front of the house in his starched jacket and clean white apron, checking the floor, watching the bar and casting backward glances toward the kitchen, where -- I'll bet you anything -- there hung a dirty, stained apron that he'd been wearing since noon and would wear until well past midnight after returning to his element.
I know because I've been there...or close enough. At 26, I was given my first house, free and clear, and absolute despotic control over everything save the bar. Front of the house, back of the house, kitchen, floor staff, menu, ordering and sourcing, food cost, labor cost, redesign and installation cost -- all me. If the toilets exploded on a Saturday night, it was me who called the plumber and threatened to burn his trailer down if he didn't get there five minutes ago to fix them. If my crew revolted, it was me who had to step in to soothe egos and calm nerves. I worked six days a week, fourteen hours a day, and had a short day on Sunday when I only did ten hours. I saw my fiancée maybe an hour a day, and she eventually went for a friend of mine (not entirely because of the hours: I was also a drunken prick when I wasn't behind the stoves). I somehow managed to catch pneumonia, cracked two ribs from coughing, worked while my brain boiled with a 105-degree fever and refused to leave until I finally passed out in a hallway and one of my prep cooks carried me out of the kitchen.
My place failed. Even after all that -- after pouring every ounce of strength, every moment of my life and every watt of my flaming culinary arrogance into this restaurant -- I couldn't stop it from hemorrhaging cash. It didn't even fail spectacularly (which, toward the inevitable end, was my one last hope), but just bled out. I turned in my whites to the money people behind the place, apologized and fled Florida in shame.
I've never gotten over it, and I'll never forget the fear that goaded me every hour of every day -- the fear that when this restaurant tanked, there was going to be no one to blame but me. That was what I'd seen when Yontz said he was happy to have his shot: the fanatic, obsessive fear behind the eyes of a man who knows that, for the first time, it's all about him.
Does that mean I think Vega will go the way of my ill-fated tropical hot-spot? No way. When I talked with Yontz later about that conversation at the bar -- about the look I saw -- he said that until a short while ago, he was scared. The fact that it was now all his show "didn't sink in until about a week after Marco left," he said. "Before, when I was with Kevin and Richard -- when I was working for great chefs -- you just sort of come in. It's all there for you. Now I have to worry about who's paying the bills. Who's answering the phones at 10 a.m. That's why I had to be here every night. I was at the door; walking people to their tables. I had to show people that this is a new restaurant and I will show you that it'll be run the right way. But now, everything is starting to click."
It's clicking with cuisine that draws from Yontz's roots, from the classical skills he learned as Taylor's right-hand man to the high-end Mexi-Latino thing he did at Tamayo and now uses to his own ends. The menu has misses -- like the salmon ceviche napoleon, which would have been good with either the cucumber or the jicama, but was overworked with both -- but it has more hits. The oxtail tamal, for example. It had an intricacy, a sensuality of texture and tastes, in the wedding of sweet-hot, adobo-marinated beef, spicy sauce studded with white hominy, and silky masa. And it also had a beautiful, sharply defined simplicity with no blurring of flavors.
The veal albondigas -- open raviolis of strongly spiced veal meatballs set swimming in a thick, sweet corn purée with glazed carrots, pearl onions and shaved manchego cheese -- were good, but would have been better had Yontz chosen either white truffle or cilantro pesto as the high-note flavor: Together, they made for exactly one too many voices in the choir. But the butter-poached Atlantic salmon was perfect, flaky and infused with richness, and it came balanced on a mellow crab cake subtle enough not to rob the fish of its center-plate status. The sautéed red chard hiding underneath the crab offered a firm, textural base, the Hatch green chile chutney topping the fish added bittersweet tartness -- and everything was dripping with butter. There's simply no better tool in the chef's bag of tricks for bringing a plate together than to drench it in fresh-drawn, high-fat butter.
The menu does veer from its jumped-up Mexi-Latino theme. The excellent seared duck breast and confit of leg with braised cabbage and a flawless, fat, lavish slab of Sonoma foie gras were decidedly French, with only a tarn of turkey-fig mole giving the plate a south-of-the-border accent. But while the mole on its own was only pretty -- gentle and silky, the color of liquid chocolate --- it worked magic on the confit, bringing forward the dark, gamey essence of the duck, then taming it by coating the tongue and smoothing over any offended tastebuds. The Black Angus ribeye was all-American -- of superior cut and flavor, butchered on the generous side and paired with surprisingly flavorless Jerusalem artichokes and green beans -- until the epazote bearnaise, which seemed almost like an afterthought. Tasting strongly of the pungent herb, it took on a mustardy, citrus flavor that matched with the meat in a strange, beautiful way.
But none of the diners objected to Yontz's geographical hanky-panky. I didn't see anyone standing up, throwing down his napkin and stalking out because Yontz's Mexican wasn't Mexican enough.
Instead, when I returned for dinner on Saturday, I saw a good crowd -- an eclectic mix of old money and new taste -- filling the comfortable dining room. I saw Josh Niernberg (the front-of-the house guy who stepped in to fill Colantonio's polished shoes) moving graciously and quietly across the carpet, unobtrusively checking in (as Yontz had at my earlier meal) on the door, the bar and every table in the house. He remembered that I'd been there before -- no big trick, because I'd used the same fake name twice -- but also remembered what I'd had and what I'd liked. Those items soon arrived at the table in miniature as an amuse bouche, a nice touch.
I saw the kitchen -- a box of bright steel and white light -- in bits and flashes. The doors would open for a busboy, and there was Yontz, arms folded, imperious, watching his crew. The doors would open for a waiter, and there was Yontz, sauté pan in each hand, pointing to one with the other. I saw beautiful plates passing by my table, and I was helped through the menu and well-balanced wine list by a service staff that was efficient and enthusiastic -- especially in their balletic swooping in to replace every piece of silver I touched.
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But even with everything else working so well, Yontz's food is what will carry Vega through.
When I asked Yontz how he's handling the stress and the pressure of it all, he graciously thanked the guys who'd gone before him into the weird, brutish, awesome world of being The Man. "I'm just doing what all these guys taught me," he said. "What I learned from them. It's a tough time right now in Denver, and these last four months have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I was with Kevin for ten years, so believe me -- I know how to get through tough times."
And then he laughed. "Really, I just want it to be a year. I want to be open a year, get through all the bullshit and get on with the routine."