An Explosion of Flavors
It's just before 5 p.m., but already cars have been sitting out front for nearly half an hour. In the storefront window, the chefs are clearly visible, rolling and kneading, peeling and chopping, stirring and frying. But those who've been watching the cooking show while they've waited have also been watching their watches, and they're ready to eat. So at 5 p.m., car doors open and shut almost in unison, and people pour into the narrow space between the restaurant and the next building -- so like San Francisco, so unlike Denver -- and then pack the small courtyard in back, jostling each other as they anxiously wait some more to learn if they're going to make the first seating. The hostess smiles at everyone, seats the lucky 46, and smiles harder at the people who will have to wait even longer. She takes cell-phone numbers, encourages everyone to go next door for a cup of coffee. "We'll find you or call you as soon as there's an opening," she says, still smiling, oh-so-optimistic even in the face of much grumbling.
The good news is that this is Bang's bigger, better location. The bad news is that it's still almost impossible to get into the place.
Cissy Yin, who opened Bang! with partners Jeff and Chris Oakley in 1996, says their decision to start small and not invest their entire life savings in the notoriously risky restaurant business paid off -- big time. But even after they decided to make the move across the street and down a block from their original home -- a tiny spot with counter service only, sixteen fewer seats and no liquor license -- to a larger space, they didn't want a huge restaurant. "There are people who just refuse to get it, and we've actually had people who started yelling at us because they couldn't get in," says Yin, who runs the kitchen with Jeff. "Even my mom came in last weekend and said, 'Honey, why is it still so small?' I said, 'Mom, we don't want to lose what we've worked so hard to have.'"
What they have is a quintessential Highland neighborhood joint that's nonetheless become a destination restaurant for the entire city. The new space (longtime locals will recall it as Stan's Deli, then briefly Mona's Deli and, most recently, A Spot of Tea) retains the whimsical charm of the original, starting with a cheerful, street-side welcome: a colorful paint job featuring an enormous fork and spoon by Katie McPhee, an artist who displays at the nearby Zip 37. Inside, Yin says, "We did what we wanted, just sort of throwing ideas around and trying different colors." The resulting decor features industrial-cool gray metal chairs, aqua walls and tables painted cobalt blue that are topped with tiny vases holding little sprigs of spring. The complete restaurant consists of that oddly placed kitchen -- "Sometimes we feel like monkeys in a cage," Yin says, "but we get to see the daylight and the sunset, and that inspires us" -- and back courtyard, (which the owners hope to enclose and turn into year-round seating), and two dining rooms, one of which seats nine at four tables, the other 21 at six tables.
The effect is funky, cozy, and sometimes more intimate than you anticipated, since other diners may be seated just a half-foot away. Try as we might, on one visit, we couldn't keep our heated debate over who's hotter, Aerosmith's Steven Tyler or Joe Perry (obviously, it's Perry), from becoming conversational fodder for the table next to us; I'm hoping that the couple seated nearby on another night has worked out their issues over his inability to deal with her on a spiritual level.
Certainly none of our fellow diners had any problem dealing with the food. The Bang! gang sticks to a basic philosophy of starting with quality ingredients and cooking them right, in deceptively simple-sounding combinations. For example, an appetizer of pan-seared sea scallops with salsa verde and a cucumber salad sounded straightforward but tasted sublime. The five scallops arrived piping hot but still translucent inside, and lightly coated with just enough pepper to produce a gentle, grill-induced bite; they were paired with a fresh, sweet-vinegar-kissed pile of crunchy cucumbers and slivers of red onion, and a slightly sweet, basil-flecked purée that balanced the scallops' nip while making them seem richer. It was a knockout, as was every dish we tried.
Another starter, grilled andouille sausage, matched the spicy links with the sweetness of pineapple, the sourness of lime and an extra spicy shot from jalapeños; the bold flavors played off each other like firecrackers exploding in our mouths. And a brash salad of arugula, peppered goat cheese and toasted walnuts boasted a lemon-lime vinaigrette so sharp and oily it was impossible to stop forking up bites; each mouthful started with the lemon, leveled off with the peppery greens and the black pepper on the goat cheese, and finished with the richness of the oil, the cheese and the nuts. The mix was almost too heady, and a less intense salad of iceberg lettuce with a creamy, creamy blue-cheese dressing provided some welcome relief for our tastebuds.
Despite the upscale components that blow Bang!'s dishes to the next level, those dishes still have a homey, comfort-food feel. An order of grilled salmon with lemon couscous brought a beautiful fillet, with crispy, grill-caramelized edges and a soft, moist center, set atop large-grain couscous that had a pasta-like texture and rice-like flavor; the grain was further enhanced by lemon juice, its tartness countered by a yogurt sauce made almost sugary with tomatoes and mint. An entree of spicy peppered shrimp took the scallop preparation a step further by adding a lot more pepper to very good effect, since each shrimp had been cooked until just done and retained its sweetness; a habanero-spiked mango salsa kept the heat on, while jasmine rice cooked to an ideal softness offered some respite.
The kitchen proved it could handle richer fare, too, with a plate of triangular-shaped ravioli stuffed with minced mushrooms and a touch of ricotta cheese, then smothered in a tomato cream sauce studded with tiny pieces of oven-roasted tomatoes (whose inherent sweetness was coaxed out even more by the oven) and strewn with small pieces of steamed asparagus and strands of fresh basil. The asparagus had retained its crunch, which added texture, and the basil's anise flavor was just the right touch for a tomato-based sauce.
Bang's desserts end a meal with a bang. I revisited one of my favorites, the gingerbread and whipped cream; this specialty remains deliciously comforting, with the flavors of cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon spread throughout the bread's moist, spongy softness. A newer creation turned out to be almost as good: The Kentucky bourbon cake, shaped like a giant muffin and served steaming hot, had the gingerbread's ethereal texture but was more subtle, with a liquor-enhanced sweetness.
All told, Bang! does such a bang-up job that dinner here is worth the wait. "I keep telling people they should come at five on the weekdays to get in," Yin says. "Or later, like nine. Between that, the wait is going to average about 45 minutes. But we promise we're working hard to make sure there's something good waiting for them, too."
Hey, pal, the line starts right here.
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