Wow. No, I mean seriously. Wow. I've taken shots before for my reviews. I've been called lots of nasty names. I've been screamed at on the phone. I've been threatened with everything from lawsuits to having my teeth kicked down my throat. That all comes with the job -- at least, with the job the way I've chosen to do it -- and it's something I've become accustomed to, even come to expect. Because Denver is a city that's passionate about its restaurants, and I wouldn't want to work in a place that wasn't. In fact, to ensure that everyone can fire back at me with the same weapon (just words, nothing more), Westword provides lots of outlets. We've got the Letters section; we've got my blog, From the Gut, which allows comments; we've got a little digital button-thingy (don't ask me to explain it; I barely know how to work my cell phone) now running above and below my review online, which lets readers post opinions that are appended to the review itself. And readers aren't shy about having their say; that's another reason I love this town.
But again, wow. My review of Chi Bistro ("Loveless," February 22) inspired such an outpouring of responses (two of which you can read in this week's Letters section, and many more of which you can find at www.westword.com) that I'd like to set a few things straight. That review was not an "assassination" or a "slaughter," as some readers have tagged it; it was a critique of a restaurant that had bitterly disappointed me on virtually every level except interior design. I'm not a hit man. Much as I might espouse a fondness for (and find some familiarity with) the Cold War spy novels of John LeCarré and his ilk, there are no midnight meetings in dirty alleys with shadowy characters who hand over a name and an envelope full of unmarked, non-sequential twenties. Plenty of restaurateurs have tried to manipulate me in a variety of ways, have tried to use me to kneecap their enemies or further their own careers. But none of them have succeeded.
So no, I'm not a hit man, but neither am I a cheerleader. It's not my job to give anyone a medal just for showing up. I'm a critic; it says so on my business card. If everything in the world was just sunshine, hand jobs and fresh-baked apple pie, there wouldn't be a need for me or any of my blackhearted, skulking, lizard-eyed brethren. But as everyone well knows, the world ain't that way. The Departed was not as good a movie as GoodFellas. The Ramones were a better band than Iggy and the Stooges. Some restaurants are good and some of them just aren't.
"Mr. Sheehan," wrote Jeff Shoemaker, "the fact that your 'review' (or more accurately 'self chosen assassination') of Chi Bistro is unfavorable and inaccurate is not the basis for my response. Rather, I am doing so because your method of offering your opinion is the most unprofessional collection of diatribe I've witnessed in memory. One guesses that perhaps you have a frustrated or even failed personal history in the restaurant business and that the old adage of 'those that can, do/those that can't, review' applies to your situation."
Thanks, Mr. Shoemaker, but you're wrong. I didn't come to this gig cold. I was a professional cook and chef for almost fifteen years, and everything I write today is colored by those experiences. Every judgment I make is called against everything I learned, everything I did, every victory and failure I knew while on the other side of the swinging doors. Yes, those who can, do. And I did. Thing is, I figured out a few years ago that I can also do this. And while I may not have made it to the James Beard House as a chef, I have as a food writer.
Those who seem to think I don't take the reviewing job seriously should know that I always make two, usually three, sometimes four, occasionally as many as a dozen visits to a restaurant, all on the company dime. I know papers (well-respected, serious big-city dailies) where the critics are allowed one meal only, others where every new restaurant, ready or not, must be reviewed within three months of opening, still others where no negative reviews are allowed at all and the critic's only method of expressing disdain is silence. I've heard any number of horror stories about how the job is done elsewhere -- and every one of them makes me glad I am where I am. For Chi Bistro, I made multiple visits over many months. Even after the review was in the can, I went back to make sure that nothing was on the verge of a miraculous improvement. Sadly, nothing was. But I have to say that I agree with El Foldo's online comment that my review should have been just three words long: "This place sucks." End of story.
Finally, others commenting online have accused me of being crass and derogatory at best, and at worst, an out-and-out racist -- all because I dared use the phrase "yellow man's culture." As with all excerpts, a little context is vital. Here's how I used it: "The menu was a nightmare of Sisyphean proportions, the kind of hell to which I've long feared I will someday be consigned, where every surefire, guaranteed, dim-witted and just flat goofy crowd-pleaser of a dish stolen from the Asians over the past fifty years has been re-concepted, dumbed down and fucked up, uncomfortably wedded to some recognizable American food item with all the grace and subtlety of a shotgun service, and thrown out there for the gnashing pleasure of stick-thin yuppies, holiday window shoppers with more credit than smarts, and brain-damaged foodies who believe that eating a lettuce wrap in Wash Park really puts them in touch with 10,000 years of the yellow man's culture."
Crass? Yes. Derogatory? Only toward those self-professed "foodies" who can tell you everything that's on the menu at Frasca, think they're personal friends of Frank Bonanno just because they go to Mizuna twice a year, and believe that Tamayo is "edgy" because half the menu is in Spanish -- but have never set foot inside the ungentrified little mom-and-pop Vietnamese restaurant next door to their million-dollar loft. As for racist, if someone from the Asia-Pacific news service were to offer me a gig tomorrow writing about the foods of China, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia with the only complication being that I'd have to share a one-bedroom apartment in Pyongyang with all the other members of the Pacific Rim press corps, I'd head for the airport so fast all you'd see is a me-shaped hole in the wall and the smoke left by my sneakers.
Leftovers: Although Denver Restaurant Week absorbed everyone's attention last week, other things were shaking on the scene. It appears that Cuba Libre, Littleton's surprisingly enormous Cuban restaurant with the imaginary nouvelle Cubano menu ("Running on Empty," March 16, 2006) that was once overseen by chef John Daly, has closed. Ditto for its basement sushi bar, I-Zen. The phones have been disconnected and the websites taken down -- which are never signs of anything good.
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In the Golden Triangle, Bambino's has thrown in the towel. According to the Canino family, an un-renewed lease did this location in -- and they say they're in the market for a new one. I know, I know: Everyone says they're in the market for a new location when they finally lock the doors behind them. But while most restaurants never get a second life, the folks behind Vita Bella ("All in the Familia," November 14, 2002) may resurrect the concept as Salvatore's Vita Bella Ristorante in a new spot, at 4550 South Kipling Street.
And finally, for those of you who know from good coffee, great news: Dunkin' Brands (parent company of Dunkin' Donuts) recently cut a deal with Procter & Gamble that will allow the company to sell bags of its coffee at grocery stores across the United States. Why is this a big deal? Dunkin' Donuts makes wicked, 100 percent arabica coffee that's the secret, shameful addiction of many transplanted East Coasters. Up until now, I had to stock up every time I went back home and then carry the one-pound bags wrapped up in my luggage like some kinda drug mule. But not anymore. No word yet on when the coffee will be available locally, but you can bet your ass I'll know the minute it hits the shelves.
Finally, this past Saturday, Greg Goldfogel, who'd opened Alto just a month ago in the former Sambuca space on 15th Street, closed down Ristorante Amore, at 2355 East Third Avenue. The closure came with little warning -- other than the fact that counts at the Cherry Creek location have been way down since the announcement was made that the building had been sold and Goldfogel would have to clear out by June, anyway, to make way for a corporate chain restaurant.
But this news isn't all bad. Because while Amore barely managed a single turn of its dining room last Friday night, Alto pushed 260 covers. And the next day, when Goldfogel finally decided to stop the bleeding (he admits that babysitting Alto through those all-important first months helped hasten Amore's end), Amore was dark while Alto was completely sold out for a private shindig.