Ace scores with action, drinks and decor; food is a tie game
Chef Brandon Biederman scores with some of the dishes at Ace. See also: Behind the Scenes at Ace
Cheers erupt from the back table. A thirty-something, slightly sweaty in dark jeans and collared shirt, pumps his fist, Tiger-style, celebrating a zinger that caught the corner and kept on going. High-fives are given, drinks are spilled — but in the rush of victory, no one cares, just as no one minds the small white balls flying across the room like popcorn. What people do notice is how much fun they're having, all while playing a game that, until recently, was only snickered at in the Olympics ("You call that a sport?") or used by college students as an excuse to drink.
Ping-pong has arrived. And if what's happening at Ace, the latest restaurant by the team behind Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's, is any indication, the game has the power to transform a night on the town.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Ace
Not that owners Josh and Jen Wolkon can take credit for making the squat paddles cool. That honor goes to Susan Sarandon, who brought the game back from the verge of extinction with Spin, a popular ping-pong club in New York City. But the Wolkons lobbed the craze into Denver's prime time, repurposing a cavernous, 9,000-square-foot garage next to Steuben's into a hangout extraordinaire. Even without the eleven ping-pong tables (including some on the patio), the space would feel like a party: lights low, music pumping, fun touches like shipping containers, airplane parts and a curvy bar with scorpion bowls, alcoholic shaved ices and fab barman Randy Layman.
Waits for a ping-pong table approach two hours on weekends; fortunately, there's plenty to do in the interim. Eat, for example. Because as much as Ace is a ping-pong hall and bar, it also has a kitchen intent on keeping up with the spot's flashier components.
Food skews Asian because "that's what we eat the most of," explains executive chef Brandon Biederman, formerly of Steuben's, who spent time in Bangkok last spring. So Thai tom kha appears on the menu, along with dim sum from China, kalbi from Korea and banh mi from Vietnam. Don't look for Japanese fare such as sashimi, though. This also isn't the place for authentic recipes — one bite of the mild kimchi will tell you that — or even dishes we've all come to know (if not love) at Americanized Asian joints. At Ace, the food is best described as reinterpreted Asian. It can also be described as hit-or-miss.
Skip the kale salad, for example; the wishy-washy tangle of partially cooked greens isn't sure if it wants to be a salad or a side when it grows up. Pass on the papaya salad and green beans, too; let someone else slurp up the slightly fishy mix of fruit noodles and tomato chunks or the cold, surprisingly bland beans. Life is too short — and tummy space too small — to waste on these when there are far better, even irresistible, starters.
Crackly from a stint in the fryer, Brussels sprouts (a popular special) are tossed with slender shishito peppers in a combo sure to please the town's green-chile lovers. A quartet of pork shumai make great sponges for the trio of sauces — crisp chile oil, fermented black bean sauce and tamari — that your server should teach you how to mix. The portion of coconut-milk-based tom kha might seem laughably large — it's practically a cauldron — but after one taste of the rich soup, packed with ginger, lemongrass, chiles and kaffir lime leaves, you'll be glad the serving is as big as it is. Then there are the steamed bao, with goodies like chicken thighs with mango spilling out of their puffy white buns. Biederman, who crafts some 500 a day, says he reached out to experts for advice on how to make the dough tender yet sturdy enough to hold up to the fillings — and the advice paid off. No matter what else you order, choose several for the table. Your server will steer you to the braised short ribs with kimchi, but don't overlook the seasonal vegetables in scallion sauce.
Other than the bao buns, which come individually, portions run large, so it's wise to order family-style. Noodle dishes are usually popular with a crowd, but they're two of the weaker options here. Chow fun should be re-labeled "sautéed mushrooms," so scant are the wide rice noodles and protein. Soba are more promising, with a better mix of vegetables and buckwheat noodles, but don't serve yourself last: The thin, tamari-based sauce puddles at the bottom of the bowl, overpowering the last third of the dish. And unless you really like the black-bean condiment, avoid the mapo tofu, with a one-note sauce that sings of the same fermented paste and little else.
Crispy beef in honey-ginger sauce is terrific, however, with thin slices of flank steak fried into addictively crispy wisps. Red-curry beef is another standout; the coconut-milk-based sauce, heady with aromatics, holds strips of beef, tomatoes and eggplant, plus a sizzle that dances across your tongue. The steamed bass also scores, marinated in soy and ginger and served on fried rice so good, you'd order it as a side if only it were available à la carte.
Desserts, like everything else, bounce back and forth. Steamed chocolate cake, a molten chocolate confection, is tasty but odd for an Asian menu, even if it is dusted with Chinese five-spice powder, and the portion seems small after so many large plates. Better is the chai cheesecake sourced from City Bakery (a common special), or a refreshing shaved ice.
When Ace opened in August, diners didn't fully embrace the reinterpreted Asian concept. So this month, Biederman and Wolkon plan to respond with a revised menu, increasing the number of familiar dishes — the Brussels sprouts and chai cheesecake will move from special to regular status — and adding individual-sized entrees at lunch. In this age, when Yelpers are quick to jump in with a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, it's useful to remember that new restaurants are works in progress. With time to tweak, cheers might be coming more consistently from the dining room, and not just the ping-pong hall.
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