À La Minute
It's crazy," Alex Seidel says. "Every night. I tell you, man, it's Tetris all the time in here."
He's talking about his kitchen at Fruition , that tiny, one-man, Lord Jim foxhole that Sean Kelly once worked alone, like Kurtz at the end of the Nung River, and which Seidel now crams full of five guys on a normal night.
"Yeah, I got in there and streamlined it a bit," he explains. "Knocked out some wall -- that wall at the pass." He put in some new equipment, too, including additional cooktops. "I've got five cooking stations now," he says. "Everything is à la minute, you know? Nothing is held. There's no steam table in the place." And on the day we talk, Seidel is looking for space for a new walk-in cooler -- somewhere to put the mountains of supplies he needs in order to cook that way.
Seidel came from Mizuna, as did his sous, Drew Inman (who worked at Potager before that). "Mizuna, that was like the dream job, right? The dream team," Seidel says. "We had this great crew, guys who'd worked together for a long time, all these great cooks. Here we started with guys who've never cooked in a kitchen before, just come from Cook Street or wherever. But that's the way I wanted it."
A clean start -- that's what Seidel was after. Guys he could teach, mentor, bring up doing things his way. And that would have made sense had things gone the way he was assuming they would. "Before we opened," he tells me, "I was projecting, I don't know, 75 after six months? A year?"
That's 75 covers, 75 people served a night -- about a turn and a half of the 52-seat dining room -- which would be a nice, slow rise for six months out. But Fruition has been doing those kinds of numbers since the start, since the first night. The floor here averages 75 to 100 covers at every dinner, sometimes more. Under those conditions, rookies don't stay rookies very long. And Seidel isn't exactly making it easy on them, either. The night before our conversation, he switched up everyone in the kitchen, putting everyone on new stations. "Cross-training," he calls it.
And then there are the menu changes. The spring menu I sampled for my review went into effect on April 26 and would have been introduced sooner if not for the fact that, owing to the bad winter, late freezes and freaky weather in California, Seidel hadn't been able to get the kind of stock he needed to cook the menu he wanted to cook. "Things just weren't good," he says. "We'd get English peas that were starchy and rock-hard. Or halibut, you know? Everyone wants to cook with halibut. But you put halibut on your menu, and all you're going to be cooking is halibut, so I wanted to get the cheeks."
His menus will always be driven not just by the seasons, but by what supplies he's able to get consistently, Seidel explains. The menu he has going right now will probably change again next month, since it depends on the market, the garden, the weather. It also depends on what he can get his crew to do, how much he can move through a kitchen that can be completely crippled right at the starting bell, when ten tables are seated all at once.
"We're getting better every day," he says. "Right now we're in the limelight, and things are going great, everyone's having a good time. But I want to make sure this goes right -- keeps going right."
Roeder redux: Chef Eric Roeder has another new gig, this one just a half-block from his old home at Bistro VendÔme. Roeder, who'd worked most recently for the Lure, at 1434 Blake Street, is now executive chef at Le Rouge, the new restaurant and lounge that opened in March in the old Purple Martini space at 1448 Market Street.
In this case, "executive chef" really means "consulting chef," but that's hardly a surprise these days. And "restaurant and lounge" is another bit of very deliberate phrasing chosen by Olivia Johnson, Le Rouge's marketing director, who stuck to the company mantra laid down by general manager Eddie Ballouchy when I spoke to her last week. "We don't want to be known as a nightclub," she told me. "We are positioning ourselves as a restaurant and lounge. But it's definitely not a club."
According to some neighbors, LoDo and Larimer Square already have too many clubs, and when the Purple Martini closed, they weren't eager to get another one. "We have an agreement with the neighborhood," Johnson told me, an agreement that encompasses a certain percentage of food sales, limits on live music and DJs, and special considerations for nearby residents.
In addition to a full menu (a kind of half-French Continental bistro/tavern board) with a big-name local chef's name attached, Le Rouge features a happy hour from 4 to 8 p.m., a free buffet on Fridays from 5 to 7 p.m. with live jazz afterward, its own limo, and bottle service. There are ladies' nights and parties and free martinis and hair stylings on Wednesdays. But there are also duck burgers and cassoulet, and any place offering mussels in a Pernod broth and steak tartare sounds like my kind of joint.
I'll probably skip the Wednesday hair party, though.
Leftovers: Among a certain breed of Denver gastronauts, JJ Chinese Restaurant (1048 South Federal Boulevard) was a sort of gut check, a place you went for the true flavor of faraway latitudes and to prove that no place was too strange to be enjoyed. Sadly, JJ recently turned into a by-the-scoop Chinese joint -- a true sign that the vultures have moved in.
And things don't look good at Hookah Cafe (270 South Downing Street). Dialing the restaurant gets you a message saying the number has been "temporarily disconnected" at the subscriber's request. I'm hoping that the subscriber requests that it be connected again soon. Like JJ, Hookah won a Best of Denver award last year, and we can't afford to lose another winner.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.