An Open Book

When the people behind Aji (see review) decided they wanted a second restaurant -- or, in the case of Sara and Lenny Martinelli, a fifth -- they didn't have to look any farther than right next door. Leaf -- an organic, seasonal, global vegan and vegetarian concept offering everything from Japanese kombu to Indian thali, eggplant rellenos to beet gnocchi with paneer, pizza with English peas -- opened a couple of months ago at 2010 16th Street in Boulder, with the two operations separated by one shared wall and a million miles of ideology. At 1601 Pearl Street (Aji), you'll find pork loin and fat steaks served rare and bleeding all over the plate, various sea creatures in various states of deconstruction, and chickens offered pulled, shredded, sliced, roasted and sautéed. Meanwhile, next door at Leaf, the gentle vegetarians must make do with scrambled tofu, seaweed salad and a daily vegan happy hour featuring (among other things) three-dollar pot stickers, four-dollar barbecued seitan and artichoke guacamole with white bean cake and soy cream.

In Denver, too, smart restaurateurs are pairing properties. Kevin Taylor's two hottest restaurants are positioned side by side in the Hotel Teatro (see last week's Cafe for details). Frank Bonanno has pulled the same trick twice, opening his straight Italian wonder, Luca d'Italia, at 711 Grant Street, just a few steps from Mizuna, his original Italo-Mediterranean fine dining restaurant at 225 East Seventh Avenue, then doing the same thing again by putting Milagro Taco Bar and Harry's Chop House (plus The Back Room jazz bar) in the same building on the corner of 17th and Vine. The Sullivan Restaurant Group has Ocean at 201 Columbine Street and the original location of its nascent chain of Emogene Patisserie right next door. And though Sullivan's plan for the expansion of Nine75 is taking a different route (with additional locations spun off from the original at 975 Lincoln Street onto opposing compass points), just down the street at 925 Lincoln, club and restaurant guy Jay Chadrom is sticking with the program and opening his second restaurant, Aqua, directly across from his first: Opal, at 100 East Ninth Avenue.

Of course, Chadrom has been "opening his second restaurant" for more than a year now, with repeated delays and reschedulings keeping the space dark for so long that some people (namely, me) were beginning to wonder if Aqua was ever going to serve its first plate. But now it looks as though the place may actually get its grand debut. Last weekend, Chadrom hosted a birthday party at Aqua for Craig Nassi, developer of the Beauvallon property where Aqua holds down a choice cornerstone location. And while a birthday party for your landlord isn't exactly an opening night, it's something, right?



I'd called Chadrom late in the afternoon of August 2nd; Nassi's party was scheduled for the 5th. If the final inspections were done on the 3rd, that would give Chadrom and his crew roughly 48 hours to get everything moved in, to test the equipment, to fire up the freezers and run through the million little details involved in bringing a restaurant to life. To prepare for even a single party, 48 hours is not a lot of time.

But then, Chadrom has had closer to sixteen months to get ready for opening night. He signed the original lease on the space back in April 2005, then blew through at least two projected opening dates. "Look," Chadrom told me. "It's crazy. All these permits and stuff? You know, I've never done anything from the ground up before." Which is true: When he opened Opal in the former home of Radex four years ago, he needed to do little more than slap some fresh paint on the walls, get the liquor license transferred and hang new curtains.

"But this was different," he continued. "This is what happened." And then he proceeded to tell me, well, everything. He explained how what began as a very simple concept (a raw bar to complement the grub being done at Opal) can go sideways before you know it, how a year and a half can go by like that. And how it can all begin with a bathroom.

"The way it started, you know, I was just going to do one segment of that space," Chadrom said. "Just the front part. About 3,000 square feet. But we needed to have bathrooms, right? And you want to have nice bathrooms in a nice restaurant. Big bathrooms. And you don't want them too close to where the people are, because that's... unseemly."

So what he wanted to do was move the bathrooms. But with the way the space was arranged -- a virtual mirror image, structurally, of Nine75's weird two-rooms-and-a-hallway barbell shape at the opposite corner of Beauvallon -- the only place for the bathrooms was off that hallway, essentially out the back door of Chadrom's original design. Still, Chadrom thought that might be workable. He was already looking at putting a second bar in the back near the kitchen, so he cut a deal with Nassi to take a space off the back hallway where he could build his bathrooms. By July 2005, when the liquor license came through, an addendum had been made to the lease for the bathrooms, and everything looked good to go.

Except that Nassi was after Chadrom to take on the back space as well -- the one that the hallway (complete with new bathrooms) led to. And eventually, Chadrom agreed. Another addendum was added to the lease in September 2005, but this one required an extension of the liquor license to cover the additional square footage. It also required that new plans be submitted to the city, that new inspections be scheduled, and that all the planning that had been done to cover a 3,000-square-foot raw bar now be redone for a double-sized restaurant and bar. And while he was at it, Chadrom decided to get a cabaret license for the back. And then he decided to do a full menu at dinner, plus lunch. And to make the bathrooms bigger. And to add a 600-gallon aquarium.

Last October, Chadrom got a temporary certificate of occupancy that covered his original 3,000 square feet (plus bathrooms). But he decided to wait until the entire place was done before he opened any part of it. "I found that when you're doing HVAC and plumbing, it's best to do it all at once," Chadrom explained. "It's time-saving and money-saving."

Right. It's the difference between paying a fuckload of money up front or paying a triple fuckload of money over time and also putting up with the hassle of serving while a bunch of tile-layers, electricians and union lathe-and-plaster guys bang around in the back room.

So a projected opening date for October passed, as did another one around the first of the year. The terms of Chadrom's much-amended lease with Nassi are protected by a confidentiality agreement, but he did tell me he had a few free months worked into the agreement. "All I can tell you is that I have been paying some rent," he said. "For the last three months or so. We were disputing when was the possession date, when was pre-rent. But Craig is a good friend of mine. Business is business, you know, but we came to an agreement."

And now he's seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. "Everything is done now," Chadrom said last week. "It's just, you know, the final touches. Finishes on the paint. Nothing architectural or electrical. Nothing functional. Theoretically, I could be serving drinks today. Or food. You've really got to see this place for yourself."

The menu -- originally written over a year ago by Chadrom and his chef, Jose Guerrero, who'll be standing post nightly in Aqua's kitchen -- is "fish only," Chadrom promised. Aqua will be doing cold apps and seasonal oysters, flights of soup, sashimi both old-style and new. There will be ceviches, a do-it-yourself salad menu, plates made of ice, shrimp cocktail by the pound, whole crabs, whole lobsters, mussels by the bucket and plateaus de fruits de mer large enough to serve parties of eight. It's a huge menu, and hugely ambitious -- without a single fried item, without a single dish coming sautéed.

"There's not a pan in the entire restaurant," Chadrom barked at me, very proud of the tricky strictures under which his kitchen will operate.

But now, all he has to do is finally get open. The 10th is the date he's looking at.

"The tenth of August?" I asked, to make sure.

"I hope," Chadrom said.

And I want to ask, "Of this year?" But I don't. It's all on him now, and God knows he's got a lot riding on hitting this date. I'll certainly be there this weekend to find out if he makes it.

And I can't wait to see those bathrooms.

The true story of Mr. Ed: Horsemeat was on everyone's minds July 25, when a House Trade and Consumer Protection subcommittee got to debate H.R. 503, better known as the "American Horse Slaughter Prevention Act."

There are currently three foreign-owned processing facilities in the United States -- two in Texas and one in Illinois -- that slaughter, process and ship horsemeat overseas for human consumption, working their way through about 90,000 horses a year. But the horse that really brought this to everyone's attention was 1986 Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, who in 2002 ended up on a killing floor in Japan -- where, I assume, he got turned into tasty, tasty horse burgers.

At the hearing, spokespeople for the $60 million-a-year horsemeat industry argued that they provide a necessary (and yummy) service in the disposal of all these horses. On the other side of the debate, though, is everyone else in the entire country, who -- for reasons totally beyond me -- thinks that horses deserve some kind of special protection from the slaughterhouse and shouldn't be eaten, no matter how delicious they might be.

To anyone who's read this column before, it should be fairly obvious on which side of this issue I come down. I'm not guilt-stricken over being at the top of the food chain (or near the top, anyway -- with sharks, zombies and wolfmen having just the slightest environmental advantage), and if you're slower, dumber or more delicious than me? Sorry. You're lunch. And I'm even slightly pissed off that I can't get horsemeat here in the States. Oh, sure, I can get horse in the form of glue. I can get it to feed to my dog, my piranha, my pet hyena, whatever. But I can't get it at a restaurant, and -- as far as I was able to determine in one afternoon's research -- I can't even get it shipped to me to cook myself.

This bugs me. Not just because I'm curious to try something that's considered a staple in France, a delicacy in Japan and a treat among Italian, Dutch and Belgian connoisseurs, but because our government (which really should be spending its time worrying about other things) is once again getting involved in moral legislation. If you don't cotton to the idea of eating some nice, juicy horse tartare, that's fine; don't eat it. And feel confident knowing that you are in the company of probably 99.9 percent of your countrymen (and women), who would also never think of chowing down on cheval. But to make it a crime to process, pack or ship horsemeat for human consumption? Just another example of prohibiting something because a group of people finds it personally offensive.

Fortunately, most bills never make it out of committee, and a bill similar to this one (H.R. 857, introduced in 2003) died without a vote. Which is as it should be, since legislating a cultural taboo is a tricky thing (once you start, where do you stop?) and, in this case, totally unnecessary, since no one in this country -- except me, I guess -- was ever looking to take a bite out of Mr. Ed in the first place.


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