Bite Me

Just so you know: I'm Jason Sheehan, your hot-off-the-press, brand-spankin'-new restaurant critic and gustatory point man, and I'm co-opting this week's column for a little self-serving rant. I always promised myself that if I were ever given the chance to start fresh in a city where I was entirely unknown, I'd take a moment right at the beginning to introduce myself. To let you, the readers, and all the restaurant folk out there know who I am, where I come from, what I like and what I loathe. This isn't an autobiography, or by any means a comprehensive detailing of my tastes. Think of it as a critic's personal ad: Married white male, not yet 30, strongly opinionated and full of bias, sometimes mean, occasionally clever, seeks the restaurant of his dreams.

Feel the love, Denver. Here we go.

I don't like celery. It is -- in my considered opinion -- as nasty and evil a bit of flora as has ever put down roots. That said, I understand its necessity, and any classically prepared consommé or stock built up from a mirepoix without celery will always taste off to me. Critically speaking, I get snotty about that kind of thing, but as an eater, I still think it's the devil's vegetable.

I have no palate for sushi. It's not that I dislike it or misunderstand it: Unfortunately, I learned to love bad sushi first -- the fake, imitation-crab-and-red-dye-number-12 kind they used to sell fifteen years ago in little black plastic clamshells out of a refrigerated case at my neighborhood grocery back home in New York. I understand that my youthful recollections of loving something so strange as raw fish wrapped in seaweed are corrupted because I was loving the lowest form of a high art and have only these memories against which to judge the work of masters. It's a tragic hole in my culinary radar, I admit, but I'm working hard to patch it.

I hate food that is architectural purely as a matter of style, but I will love forever the stylist who understands that while art on the plate is important, it's secondary to the flavors of the food. Similarly, I'd never been a fan of the monstrous portobello mushroom caps that have become so ubiquitous in the trend-du-jour restaurant game until a friend prepared one for me -- and in simply treating the fungus with love and the kind of respect you'd give a Kobe tenderloin, he changed the way I'll think about mushrooms forever.

Today I have what you'd call a love/hate relationship with food. It's a contradictory, powerful feeling, created during more than a decade working in the trenches of kitchens across the country. I've spent years working all day, every day --twelve, fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day with food. From six o'clock in the morning, hunched over a stainless-steel prep table in the peaceful calm of a house not yet awake, to midnight and the wasted aftermath of a Saturday-night rush, food was my universe. My alpha and omega.

I've spent countless days up to my elbows in food: slicing, dicing, boning out mountains of chicken, slivering garlic, chopping shallots and forests of parsley, laying everything out like ammunition for a coming war, and I've passed thousands of nights in that rare and wonderful hell of a front line going all-out for a full house. Weeks could go by where food was the last thing I'd think about before going to bed and the first thing on my mind the next morning. If there were bills to be paid, I forgot them. Appointments to be kept? I blew them off. The rest of the world could go to hell as long as my kitchen was running smoothly, and when everything else in my life was falling apart, it was food that held me together.

Good food, bad food, fresh food, rotten food. I've challenged produce suppliers to bare-knuckle fistfights in my back parking lot over a bag of dead mussels or a flat of mushy strawberries. Once, in a fit of inspired hubris, I yanked all the salt shakers from a dining room because I no longer felt that customers could be trusted to add anything to my food. Had I been an accountant or a librarian or an orthodontist, no doubt my life would have been very different, but I wasn't any of those things. I was a chef -- French-trained, old school, but a punk nouveau-classicist at heart -- and food was my life.

Now I'm something different: a critic. Things have changed a little since I moved to the other side of the swinging doors, but not much. I sleep better now. Maybe I've mellowed a bit. Christ, I certainly smell better most of the time, and these days you're less likely to find me grabbing a smoke in some stinking back alley somewhere, covered in blood with a butcher's knife in my belt -- but that's not to say it'll never happen again. Every day brings its own surprises, right?  

I'm still just as much of a prick when it comes to things like overcooked garlic, people who misuse the word "aioli" and celebrity chefs who forget that it's the food and not them up on stage when the plates hit the table. But then, I'm also less embarrassed to admit that on some nights, I feel like one more black-pepper-crusted ahi tuna steak might kill me and that I would be happier just sitting at home with a good fight on TV, having beef jerky, Mountain Dew and a bag of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips for dinner.

Since putting down my Henckels and picking up the pen two years ago, I've found that I no longer believe a restaurant should be judged on the weight of its silver, the art on its walls or the name hung above its door. I no longer believe that the purity of any cuisine -- and the adherence of its chef to some dusty tome of culinary lore -- should be the sole factor on which a kitchen is rated. I also think the word "fusion" should be given back to the scientists. These days, I believe only in good food or bad food. Everything else is just window dressing.

Yes, I'm totally biased; anyone writing about an experience as subjective as a meal who tries to claim otherwise is lying. But at least I'm honest about my biases. Across the country, there seems to be some sort of an unwritten rule that critics should never say things like "I loved this" or "I hated that," a laughable practice that deprives me of some very useful words. If that's the way the rest of the team is gonna play, then I'm taking my kickball and going home. The truth is, I love and hate things every day, and if I come across a fish taco, a Chateaubriand or a beef pho that makes my heart race and my palms sweat, I'm damn sure gonna tell you folks about it. By the same token, serve me a dish that is an insult to its ingredients, and not only will I hate it, but I will also hate the chef who made it, the server who put it in front of me and the restaurant under whose roof it was made. Yes, I can be petty and I can hold grudges, but I'm also fair, and spending so great a portion of my life in kitchens has given me a near-infinite capacity for mercy.

All I ask is that a place try. In my universe, there are many culinary sins, the least of which is putting diced celery into a good chicken salad, the worst being ennui. Any kitchen that's just coasting, treading water or getting by on the power of a good name alone is going to get it in the neck from me every time. That's a promise.

Is there more? There's so much more. In the coming weeks, we'll get to know each other better. In the meantime, I'll be out there -- knocking around my new city, eating, drinking, getting poisoned and having a blast. It's going to be a great adventure, I just know it. And I can't wait to tell you all about it.

Leftovers: The Greenwood Village Venice (see review, page 65) isn't the only Venice in town. On July 12, another Venice -- this one a pizzeria -- opened at 5708 East Colfax Avenue. The dueling names are enough to confuse operators, but don't you folks get confused: If you're craving carpaccio or a fix of fruitti di mare, the Venice on South Yosemite has you covered. If you're dying for a pie, though, the other Venice may be able to help you out. I can't make a recommendation because I haven't tried their pizza yet, but never know, right?

Speaking of which, there are something like 3,500 places to eat in the Denver metro area alone, and I'm just one guy. If you've got a tip on some hot, out-of-the-way places, a line on some great ethnic food, or maybe just want to blow off about some really awful meal you've had, drop me a line. Something opening or closing in your neighborhood? Let me know. Got some good gossip? Horror stories from behind the lines? Help a brother out and pick up that phone. I can be contacted most easily at or sometimes found at 303-293-3551.  

Thanks in advance, Denver. I owe you one...

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