Bait and Switch
Larry Herz is happy. Walking the floor of Go Fish Grille on a Saturday night, he's in his element -- an industry veteran working a crowded house -- and he's got an energy that arcs off him like sparks. He moves between tables, chatting, checking up, floating, dodging. He back-pedals to let a tray-laden waitress pass, then squeezes tight against a booth to let a runner go by on his other side, all the while continuing his spiel. He's talking about the arctic char special, explaining the many characteristics of the fish -- the stiff flesh, the coloring so like salmon, the taste so unlike salmon. Larry knows his fish and likes to talk about it, but what he's really doing is assessing the plain-Jane salmon on the plates of the diners he's talking to. He's seeing how much of the fish is eaten, how much it's been played with -- a measure of a customer's lack of interest in his chosen entree -- and how the sides and sauces are working. At the same time, he's checking levels in wine glasses like a mechanic checks oil, looking for dirty silverware and watching the body language of the four ladies at the table. Are they comfortable? Are they smiling? Are they hunched protectively over their plates (a good sign), or leaning back, relaxed and satisfied (also a good sign). And why hasn't the woman sitting so stiffly touched her food? That's not a good sign at all.
"Lemme get someone to bring you a couple different sauces," he says, done with his arctic char lecture and gently disengaging himself. "And another glass of wine? Yeah, another glass of wine, okay?"
Herz has been in Denver a long time, but he hasn't lost his New York accent or cadence. He twists out of the way of another runner, this one carrying a long sheet of white butcher's paper. As the kid whips by, Herz watches him go, then moves on, directing a waitress to check on the four ladies with the salmon, jumping across the room to spend a minute with another table.
Then another. Then another.
He never really stands still, except when he's at the hostess stand, looking at the book, or at the service station in the back, peeking at the night's numbers. Once in a while he'll duck back into the kitchen, but he never stays there long. His place is out on the floor.
Hidden behind a big party at the end of the room, I feel like a bit of a voyeur. I know Herz, but he doesn't know me -- not on sight, at least. We talk every couple of months about the restaurant industry in general and a few restaurants in particular. We talk about fish and fish suppliers. We talk about New York and Denver, and Denver as compared to New York. I loved his last restaurant in this space, Indigo, and thought its chef, Ian Kleinman, was one of the best and most creative in town. Maybe a little wild -- Kleinman once had this idea for doing an event dinner where he would move his kitchen to the center of Indigo's dining room and cook to music, with all the dishes inspired by the tunes being played -- but young yet, and young chefs will (arguably, must) try some wild things.
The bulk of Denver diners did not share my opinion of Indigo, though. Matter of fact, the bulk of Denver diners stayed away in droves, and I remember Herz telling me how he'd spend Saturday nights with a half-full house, staring out the window at Little Ollie's across the street, where the lines ran out the door. Nowadays, I doubt that Herz has time to look out the window.
After he closed Indigo last spring, he explored and dismissed many replacement concepts -- a New American diner, a cyber-cafe, a burgers-and-meatloaf comfort-food joint -- before settling on the idea behind Go Fish Grille: a fresh-fish restaurant with a sense of humor, much more warmth than Indigo and some of the same genes that made Tom Colicchio's Craft in New York City such a hit. Even after the buyout offers for his location started coming in, he stayed the course. He's a lifer, one of those old-school creatures not meant for anything but the restaurant industry. After starting Carmine's on Penn, the late Uncle Sam's and Indigo, what was he going to do if he sold out? Ski?
Instead, Herz recognized that he had a potential winner with the Go Fish concept. He saw that one thing -- maybe the only thing -- missing from the overcrowded Cherry Creek dining market was a decent seafood restaurant. So he and Kleinman put together a new lineup that saved a few Indigo appetizers, but essentially started from scratch. They sourced good fish, chose some simple salads, sides and starches that could be banged out fast and on the cheap, rounded out the board with a few pastas and landlocked proteins, then arranged the menu like a giant culinary Lego set where a diner can pick his fish, then a sauce to go on that fish, salad from one list, starch and veg from another, and bingo: dinner. The kitchen offers a few specials (like the Saturday-night arctic char) and adjusts the menu for seasonal changes in the available species, but for the most part, cooking here is an assembly-line process. For table 12, mahi mahi with lemon-thyme tartar, iceberg wedge, creamed spinach and fries; sea bass on 4 with wasabi cream, Caesar, garlic mash and asparagus.
The process is so assembly-line, in fact, that Kleinman has since left for the new-old Hilltop Bistro in Golden, explaining that Go Fish didn't need a chef so much as it needed a kitchen manager to keep an eye on food costs and boss the line -- which was both right and wrong. Go Fish may not need Kleinman's creativity or grounding in nouveau Frog-American bistro food, but every kitchen needs a chef.
At least, every kitchen that wants to make something of itself needs a chef -- a guy who's come up hard, earned his stripes, and still lives and fucking dies for every plate that crosses his rail. Someone who doesn't just throw an old spud in the nuker when an order comes in -- because a chef knows that this will make the skin come loose and the cut edges stiff. Someone who knows the difference between good risotto and so-so risotto, and who would never serve a risotto that wasn't perfect, creamy, soft and luscious. A good cook has spent years making risotto, perfecting his risotto, honing his risotto technique so that when his time comes to serve his risotto to a paying customer, it is the sum total of all his years of experience. Your entire life on a plate a hundred times a night -- that's what it is to be a chef. No excuses, no apologies.
And at Go Fish Grille, apologies are sometimes called for. As I watch Herz work the room, an order of lobster-and-shrimp spring rolls arrives at my table. One roll is burned. This appetizer is an Indigo holdover that Randy Forsythe -- formerly Kleinman's prep cook, now Go Fish's top toque -- clearly knows how to make, and he shouldn't let a roll out of the kitchen when some of the filling has squeezed out one end of the phyllo and burned under the heat of the top broiler. It takes two seconds to fix that with a knife, patch it, replate and go. So I got a burned spring roll simply because no one cared enough to fix it.
Too bad, because except for the burned end, these are very good spring rolls, with a nice seafood filling, the rest of the phyllo crisp and a pretty golden-brown. But the citrus risotto on top? Less than perfect, and so, a disappointment. (Another night, I try again, ordering an entree of shellfish risotto that's packed with buttery lobster, big chunks of shrimp, asparagus and mussels, all of it wasted in a mess of gummy, stiff, undercooked, under-hydrated, under-spiced Arborio.)
Am I being too demanding of a place that, after tanking when the tablecloths were linen, switched to butcher's paper and is suddenly packed not only Saturday night, but Wednesday and Monday and final seating Thursday as well? I don't think so. It doesn't matter if you're cooking meatloaf or cote de boeuf, beer-batter fish fry or line-caught sword. No matter what's on your menu, you strive to make the best possible version of it. Always. During the changeover last May to Go Fish Grille, Herz and I talked about this, and we agreed: You do the best or you don't bother.
Fortunately, I also get some great plates at Go Fish. Lobster mashed potatoes are my favorite comfort-food upgrade of all time, and this kitchen does them well, because it's generous with the lobster. The "killer shrimp" served Asian style -- with chopsticks and a spicy cream sauce -- is fantastic. So is the ahi sashimi in a mellow, spiky wasabi cream sauce recycled off the entree menu. The galley apparently has a champ grillman, because I try the mahi mahi, the swordfish, the arctic char -- each of them very different fish, each requiring special care while on the heat -- and they're all beautifully grill-marked (the signature of a grillardin who really knows what he's doing) and cooked just right. The delicious crab-and-shrimp cakes are the best I've had in a long time -- fat, meaty patties heavy on the crab and rough-chopped shrimp, light on the bread and with no onions or bell-pepper brunoise, or whatever, to muck them up. But the accompanying aioli, while a good pairing, is a bit gummy, and the lovely golden-brown crusts of the cakes themselves are marred by black flecks. Those flecks don't affect the taste, but they tell me the cakes were cooked in a dirty spot on the flat grill. And not noticing that, not fixing it -- that's just lazy.
Of the sauces, the light coconut curry is my favorite, the lemon-thyme tartar a surprisingly well-balanced match of flavors, the Asian a passable mix that tastes like A-1 dosed with soy but works with the meatier fishes, and the Maytag blue cheese dipping sauce just this side of all right. It would be better, but it comes with homemade potato chips so greasy they leave an oil slick on top of the soufflé cup the sauce is served in. Potato chips are not french fries. They won't absorb oil or shake it off when you bang them around in the fryer basket. Paper towels and a minute to drain -- that's all that was needed to make these chips great. But the kitchen didn't make the effort. Even worse, it may not have recognized that the effort was needed.
From the land side of the menu comes a half roast chicken bright with lemon and garlic and served with a simple piccata sauce that's very nice. The cinnamon-spiced pork chops are topped with a cinnamon-apple-buttery-chutney concoction that would taste great on pork chops that weren't brought well past mid-rare and into the territory of pork jerky. The grilled asparagus is fine, though, as is the coleslaw. The iceberg wedge and Caesar salads are both well made, served in chilled bowls and presented simply, as salads ought to be in a place like this. The bread, made daily by Forsythe, is excellent, and it's even better dipped in the oil and spicy balsamic vin that's brought by fast-moving runners who can clear and reset a turned table quicker than anyone in town. Rather than saving it for dessert, a diner might want to blow any spare folding money on something special off the well-chosen wine list -- fumé blanc by the glass, or maybe something bubbly.
And then raise a glass to Herz, if anyone can catch him as he moves between tables, babysitting his new place through its indisputable success. I'm not hooked, not yet, but as long as he keeps an eye on the kitchen and doesn't get blinded by the head count, he may have a keeper.
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