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Kitchen magician: His sous chef disappeared, but chef Ian Kleinman keeps conjuring up great meals at Indigo.
Mark Manger

It was the end of my third meal at Indigo. The dinner plates had been cleared, the white tablecloth combed down. While Julie -- my cover for this night's clandestine activities -- and I were picking at the rag ends of the dessert we'd shared, I waited for the hammer to fall. Our server had just walked off with the check, and I'd done something I never do: handed over a credit card in my own name. I watched as he opened the little black folder, glanced at the card, looked at our table with a peculiar blend of excitement and dawning horror, then almost leapt for the kitchen.

I wasn't blowing my cover for kicks. Getting fawned over in public doesn't make my soufflé rise like it does for some people: I much prefer the juvenile thrill of getting in and out of a place commando-style, unrecognized and treated like any other Johnny Paycheck. But Indigo was different. Ben Alandt, the sous chef, was one of maybe three restaurant guys in town who could pick me out of a crowd if he had to -- and now that my business with Indigo was done, I wanted to congratulate him for two great meals, one of which easily slid into the strata of the truly exceptional.

Our waiter came back to the table, all whispers and conspiratorial smiles. "Is Ben here tonight?" I asked.

His smile wilted. "No," he said. "But Ian, the chef, is. He'd like to speak with you, if that's okay."

And the first thing that Ian Kleinman told me was that Ben was gone.

Kitchen work isn't like filing in an office or punching a cash register all day, and a great sous chef (like a good prep cook or even a trusted dishwasher) isn't someone who can be replaced with just any shmoe off the street. For a chef, your sous is a partner, a confidant, the only guy who really gets what's going on after fourteen tough hours deep in the weeds and down in the trenches. Your sous sees you more than you see your wife and kids, knows you better than a brother, stands by you through good times and bad. And when a chef loses a good sous, it's like losing his right hand, left nut and best friend all at the same time.

Hanging on the side of a refrigerator in Indigo's kitchen was a sheet of paper titled "Ian and Ben's Daily Bread," a list of rules and reminders that Ian, Ben and their crew lived by. Not the easy ones, like "Remember to wash your hands after taking a leak," but the hard stuff. Always give every table the absolute best you've got, remember that we're lucky, that we're doing what we love every night -- that kind of stuff. They used to read that list every day when they came in, but Ben ignored number three: "We've always got each other's backs." He walked. It wasn't the business that chased him off, but the only other thing that can drive a born kitchen pro out of his spot on the line: girl trouble. Last anyone heard, he was in Portland.

Ben's departure was sudden, and Ian was heartbroken and more than a little pissed about it. "When I got this place, Ben was the guy I called," he said. "I knew him, we'd been friends, and I knew we were the guys for this kitchen."

And he was right. They were.

After longtime restaurateur Larry Herz took over the Cherry Creek space that was home to the much-loved Cafe Papillon until chef/owner Radek Cerny closed it last summer, he faced a real challenge to transform the place successfully. The first step was to get an important chef, which he did by bringing Ian Kleinman over from the Hilltop Cafe in Golden. And Ian's first move was to bring in Ben Alandt from 1515 Restaurant, where he'd worked sous to Olav Peterson.

At Indigo's December opening, Ian and Ben came out swinging with a streetfighter's sensibility -- hitting first and hitting hard, while trying to distinguish Indigo in a restaurant scene that was getting jammed up with fussy, high-concept New American this and fusion that. While Herz would still get people coming in looking for the old-guard sweetbreads and eggs Benny, these guys were cooking up indigo popcorn with sesame butter and wasabi peas that would send customers home with their tongues stained blue. They served calamari fried in masa dough like squid tamales with fresh mozzarella and smoked-tomato aioli, and garnished plates with a seawater gelée. Every move announced in a clear, smirking, smart-ass voice that Papillon was dead.

Not every punch landed, but six months out, Indigo was still standing, and its accuracy was improving. They had good weeks and bad weeks, but as the kitchen found its groove, everything came together. And came together so well that through three meals at Indigo, I never realized that Ben had bailed. Ian hadn't had a night off since he'd lost his right hand, but he and the crew were still standing. Still fighting.  

Under the easy-handed care of a smooth and casual front-end staff, I ate like any other diner in the newly cool blue-on-blue-on-blue room, oblivious to the drama on the other side of the swinging doors. On my first visit, I ate fat chunks of perfectly cooked lobster and juicy shrimp with a rough green-onion brunoise and nutty candied garlic all wrapped in crisp, maple-glazed phyllo tubes the size and length of a good Macanudo, topped with a melting scoop of risotto gently flavored with citrus. I wolfed down a huge whack of tender pork loin rubbed with pulverized pure Kona coffee and coarse-grain Dijon mustard -- loving it for its oddity and sharp jabs of discordant flavors. The pork was seated on more risotto, this one candied apple. Both risottos were as strange as they sounded but twice as good as you'd think, the best mark of a smart kitchen at the top of its game.

Beautiful purple cubes of smooth ahi tartare, velvety with fat, came mounted like abstract sculpture on three fried, lightly salted lotus chips. Each was dabbed with green tobiko jam -- tiny, almost microscopic pearls of flying-fish roe, sweetened in a way that I can't even imagine -- that added a second layer of Pop Rocks crunch to every bite. Fried wontons with a Jackson Pollock drizzle of salty-sweet and sticky soy reduction arrived stuffed with sour goat cheese and sun-dried cherries. It was paired with half a plum tomato, so ripe and fresh it looked like it was bleeding, napped with a thin yellow tomato purée.

We're in the last good month for mussels now, and last week, when I returned for a third meal there, Indigo had a haul from Prince Edward Island that were huge, smooth and meaty. You could order them in a saffron broth -- a sweet yellow curry that our server rightly warned against pairing with Julie's sweeter-still pinot off Indigo's short but muscular wine list -- or a garlic-intensive Italian wine broth with baby Roma tomatoes that sent me swooning every time I grabbed a mussel out of her bowl. She was monopolizing the little fork that had been delivered to the table like a tease five minutes before the mussels made their arrival, and was daintily plucking each one from its shell like a well-mannered adult. Had she excused herself from the table, even briefly, I would've dug in with both hands until every mussel was gone, then sunk my face into the broth. (Not surprisingly, a lot of people won't go out to eat with me twice.)

Smart chefs always have a New York strip or tenderloin on their menus for diners who might be intimidated by the grilled escolar over polenta, or roasted whole-kernel corn and rock-shrimp ravioli swimming around in the kitchen's mellow, ginger-spiced lemongrass broth. Smarter chefs -- those with a little time on the butcher's station behind them -- know to back up that requisite plate of strip steak and garlic mashers with an onglet or hanger, a better cut in every way imaginable that's tender as the loin and as dense in flavor as the blood-rich strip or rib. Indigo's kitchen handled the hanger delicately, splitting it into two striated blocks soft as pillows, glazing it with a whisper of sweet soy, and if -- like me -- you order it rare, the grillardin will barely introduce it to the killing heat of the grill. The steak came mounted over starchy halves of oven-roasted purple Peruvian potatoes and capped with charred tomato maitre'd butter, and my first cut mixed that butter with the steak's juices (that's blood to you and me), creating a kind of beurre mont au sang sauce. It was biochemical magic, high-end kitchen voodoo, and once that plate sauce soaked into the potatoes (a weird breed that otherwise would have been too sawdust-dry to eat), it turned the entire plate -- meat, starch and garnish -- into one wedded, interdependent whole. The only sour note was the roasted baby bok choy, added like an afterthought of green to this otherwise pure harmony. A fairly bitter veggie to start with, it was only made more so by the kitchen blackening its edges in the oven.

While the bok choy was a minor flaw, the cracker-crust pizzas I tried at lunch were a real problem. Right off, they felt like jumped-up bar food, different merely for the sake of being different -- like the focaccia pizzas that were the rage a decade ago. But innovation without a commensurate improvement in the original thing is just style, all flash and no pan, and these pizzas were no better than what I could get around the corner at Anthony's. Besides, while I'm an admitted thin-crust New York-style purist, getting a pizza on the back of an oversized Saltine seemed plain wrong, as though I was at the neighborhood pizza shop at midnight and the cook was trying to stretch the last of the dough to make it through the night.  

The kitchen even burned the crust. Twice. And not just a little, but really burned it.

The toppings on the rock shrimp, asparagus and feta pie didn't help matters. The olive tapenade that had worked so well with the giant sprays of complimentary breadsticks didn't with the 'za. Chilled, it was sweet and sour, with the biting vinegar zing of well-preserved black olives, but under heat it turned smoky, bitter and harsh, then passed that flavor along to everything it touched. Some people say that bad pizza is better than no pizza at all, but that wasn't the case here.

In fact, there were only two ways to atone for a pie this bad. One was to drink enough cheap beer to make you forget you'd ordered the pizza in the first place, and the other was a good dessert.

No, not good, but great -- and Indigo had that one covered. I chased away any lingering pizza memory with the red, white and blue sorbet -- little scoops of raspberry, cherry and lemon ices plunked down into homemade sweet-dough cones and served in a rack so that you don't have to juggle all three at once. Just as good was the white-chocolate brownie with coffee ice cream and mint crème fraîche that capped my last meal at Indigo. Julie and I were too stuffed -- and frankly scared -- to try the gigantic (seriously: as long as my forearm and about six inches high) chocolate almond taco filled with Bailey's chocolate mousse, fresh berries and mint whipped cream, and topped with a swirly pulled-sugar tuille.

Indigo doesn't have an in-house pâtissière; Ian and his crew do it all themselves. They scratch-cook almost everything on the board, bake their own incredibly dense and rustic bread, and make their own desserts (with the exception of the sorbet) -- and now that they're working every night at least one man down, it's only gotten tougher.

Still, whatever hard feelings there might be, none of that meanness, none of that anger or bitterness or exhaustion or confusion, had made its way into Indigo's food. And that's reason to be proud.

Ian is. When I asked what he what he was going to do about finding another sous, he answered quickly, "Nothing. For now, I'm just going to handle it on my own." So Indigo's kitchen staff will close ranks, cowboy up and get on with the business they're best at. They're still in the game, and from the dining room, you'd never know the slightest thing was wrong.

Because everything else at Indigo is so very, very right.


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