It's dinner time on a Friday night, and the LoDo streets are packed with people in cars looking for places to park and people on foot looking for places to eat. At some restaurants, there's an hour wait for a table; at every restaurant within a six-block radius, the wait's at least twenty minutes long.
With one exception. At 1515 Market Grille, there are tables to spare in the quiet, tastefully decorated upstairs dining space once occupied by the European Cafe. "We haven't been able to fill it up yet on weekends," says owner Gene Tang, the former proprietor of Cafe Potpourri on Parker Road, which had a successful run from the time he opened it in 1985 until he sold it last year. (The location has since gone through several incarnations and is currently a Mexican joint.) "I think a big part of it is that you've got Rocky Mountain Seed across the street, which doesn't exactly make for boutique shopping, and you've got Cosmo's next door, which keeps changing its mind and doesn't know exactly what it's going to take to make it work. Then you've got the construction from P.F. Chang's next door, which is a big mess. It's not exactly the kind of area where people are just wandering around looking for a restaurant yet."
But you can bet that once P.F. Chang's opens, they will be. The super-successful chain will debut its second metro location just around the corner on 15th Street two weeks from now, and when it does, the LoDo P.F. Chang's will benefit from the reputation of its year-old sibling at Park Meadows, which is known for its hip-happening singles scene. Tang, however, says he welcomes rather than fears his new neighbor. "I think it will bring people down to this area," he says. "And if it's packed and people can't get in, well, then they'll come here."
The only problem with that theory is that Tang will want those people to keep coming back--but unless 1515 Market's kitchen shapes up, they won't. That would be a shame, because the space is inviting (it's nice to slip upstairs for dinner after having a few cocktails at the downstairs bar), the prices are a bargain (there are even $1.49 happy-hour specials), the restaurant is that rarity that serves dinner until midnight on weekends, and Tang is a fine host, having polished his impeccably friendly, gracious and charming matre d' talents while working for Leo Goto in the early Eighties. And when the food is done right, it's innovative and excellent. But getting your food done right is easier said than done. During my three visits, I experienced several screwups--and that was with an experienced chef in the kitchen.
After Tang opened 1515 Market last spring, he ran through a couple of inept kitchen staffers before hooking up in June with Shannon Hayashi, who came from the Warwick Hotel. (Before that, Hayashi graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, trained in Japan and honed his culinary skills at New York's Waldorf-Astoria as a pastry chef and sous chef.) Born and raised in Hawaii, Hayashi has more than a passing knowledge of Asian cooking. So one of his first acts at 1515 Market was to create a new menu, one that he and Tang call "Continental fare with a touch of the Pacific Rim."
Unfortunately, it's often more of an insulting slap than a touch. The appetizer pistachio-crusted calamari ($6.95), for example, arrived at the table looking as though it had been cooked an hour before. Almost all of the nut topping had fallen off the lukewarm squid and onto the plate; the crust had the texture of something that had been deep-fried and then left to sit in cool air until it crumbled and congealed. And while the accompanying Asian slaw, with its vinegary tang and slight chile punch, was fresh and appealing, the side of spicy aioli had started to form a skin from its exposure to air.
The combination spring rolls ($6.95) were a mixed lot. One supposedly contained house-smoked salmon, goat cheese and spinach but tasted of nothing but spinach. (Tang says he thinks the kitchen got lazy and failed to put in enough goat cheese.) The contents of the other two--a smoked chicken and a coconut shrimp--were right on target, though, and all three rolls had been well-wrapped and fried until the shells were crispy and golden and the insides were hot.
1515 Market's entrees, which are generously portioned, come with a substantial salad and a relatively small price tag: The average is $14.95, and items that run higher are such things as venison and prime rib. But the salads would be a better deal if they came with the right dressings: On two visits, I asked for the creamy ginger and received the sesame-soy vinaigrette; on a third stop, I thought the kitchen had goofed again, but it seemed someone had forgotten to put any ginger into my choice. Luckily, the sesame-soy vinaigrette was excellent, with a slight sugary sweetness balancing the salty soy; prepared correctly, the creamy ginger proved to be another wonder, rich and loaded with ginger flavor.
It's odd that 1515 Market screws up the simple stuff, because Hayashi really shines on complicated dishes, combinations that seem too freaky to be true, much less good. The pecan-cornbread-crusted venison rib chops with blueberry coulis ($16.95) we ordered on our first visit sounded like a nouvelle-fusion nightmare, but the dish was a dream. The mildly gamey meat on the thick, tender chops took right to the blueberry sauce, which had not a hint of sweetness--the very thing that would have brought the whole combination crashing down. The venison was accompanied by a heavy pile of textbook garlic mashed potatoes and an assemblage of carved, steamed vegetables that must have required architectural engineering to accomplish.
The two jumbo lump crabcakes ($17.95) came with a less-messed-with array of veggies but plenty of flavor. The two medium-sized (the "jumbo" refers to the lump crab, not the cakes) patties had been sparked with a sweet chile beurre blanc. The side of black-bean risotto had looked intriguing on the menu but turned out to be essentially risotto cakes enhanced with just a pinch of black-bean sauce and browned on the sides. The taste was bland and the texture a little too close to that of the crabcakes.
When we returned for a second visit, the restaurant was still close to empty, but the food came closer to fulfilling its promise. We started with venison potstickers ($6.25), heavy but richly flavored pan-fried dumplings that had been filled with ground deer meat, posole and shiitakes for an overall pungent earthiness that was bolstered by a demi-glace. And although the stuffed roasted eggplant ($5.95) sounded like another preparation the kitchen couldn't pull off, it worked. Even though the slices of eggplant were bitter--they hadn't been salted or pressed to rid them of excess water--they were saved by a savvy combination of parmesan, smoked provolone, cream and blue cheeses, all of which had been melted into an intensely tomatoey marinara sauce.
Evidently the kitchen had lavished most of its saucy expertise on the eggplant, because the French curry dressing on one of our salads was nothing but mayonnaise and curry powder. And the passion fruit vinaigrette on the pistachio-crusted salmon ($13.95) tasted of vanilla and nothing else; I'm not even sure what made it qualify as a vinaigrette. Although the fish itself was fine, the kitchen had forgotten the promised prickly-pear puree; instead, we got more black-bean risotto and steamed vegetables. But the grilled lamb rack ($16.95), a dish I'd loved so much I'd given it a 1998 Best of Denver award, was as smartly prepared as it had been the first time I tried it, swathed in a swooningly rich soy demi-glace and accessorized with those superb garlic mashed potatoes.
By my third meal there, I figured the food at 1515 Market had a 50-50 chance of turning out. The mussels in black-bean sauce ($6.95) were dry and chewy, as though they'd been cooked in advance, and the sauce was heavy on the black bean but light on the ginger. The baked brie ($7.95), though, evened the score: The perfect puff pastry was oozing cheese and was augmented by fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes. The wok-seared, sesame-crusted--all right, already, with the crusted stuff--yellowfin tuna ($16.95) was not the medium-rare the menu had promised but done nearly all the way through, so we sent it back. When the plate came back with a properly cooked piece of fish, we were able to enjoy the sauce of mangoes, ginger and soy that proved to be a high point of all three meals. The braised half-duck ($14.95) in a ginger duck fumet was another winner, its succulent flesh covered with a sweet, slightly crisped skin. But couldn't Hayashi cook up something other than steamed vegetables and black-bean risotto cakes as sides?
He certainly has no problem coming up with exquisite desserts. Hayashi was a pastry chef, after all, and his creations never failed to delight: the surprising combination of mandarin oranges and chocolate in a tart; a fluffy, lemon-packed cheesecake; a sponge cake layered with raspberries and blackberries; and a luxurious chocolate torte (all desserts are $4.95). But while the desserts provided a sweet end to our meals, they also served to remind us of the kitchen's earlier, missed opportunities.
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"I think we need to sit down and look at what we're doing," Tang says. "I know things aren't always the way they should be, and I'm not making excuses, but we did just come up with this new menu, and I think we need some time to adjust to it."
I'd say they have about a month to get it together. Otherwise, P.F. Chang's is going to have the Grille next door for lunch.
1515 Market Grille, 1515 Market Street, 303-571-0011. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday.