Bite Me

Is nothing Sacre? As promised, rumored, alleged and speculated about at length, Sacre Bleu is coming back -- although not as Sacre Bleu. The space, at 410 East Seventh Avenue, will be reincarnated as Vega, a joint venture of Marco Colantonio, former floor man at Denver's Tamayo (and director of operations for all four of Richard Sandoval's Tamayo and Maya restaurants around the country) and executive chef Sean Yontz, also recently of Tamayo and, before that, with Kevin Taylor at Zenith and the long-dead Cafe Iguana.

"I want to stress that we're not reopening Sacre Bleu," says Yontz. "It's in the same space, but it's an entirely new restaurant."

Michael Payne -- whose ex-wife, Julie Payne, opened Sacre Bleu with a splash in April 2000, then got out after the initial buzz subsided -- had been running Sacre Bleu until it closed for "remodeling" this summer; his role as building owner and landlord continues with the new project. Colantonio is in charge of that promised remodel and is running the front of the house; Yontz is responsible for the kitchen and the menu, which he promises will be contemporary American with Latin influences. "I've worked a long time for other people," Yontz says. "And I didn't think I was ready for my own place until about eight months ago. With my food, my learning, looking for spaces, the right deal, the right sommelier, the right front-of-the-house guy -- everything just seemed to fall together in the last eight months. I just think I'm ready."

Let's hope so. Yontz's cooking at Tamayo inspired raves, but the menu and recipes were all designed by Sandoval; at Taylor's ventures, he was still working under that renowned chef. But now all of the back-of-the-house responsibility involved in opening a high-end eatery will fall squarely on the 35-year-old Yontz's shoulders.

"I'm excited," he says. "I've cooked in Denver -- at some of the best restaurants in Denver -- for seventeen years, and this is the most exciting time there is. With places like Adega coming in and raising the bar, I think this is a great time."

Speaking of bars, Vega will be able to accommodate more diners than Sacre Bleu could, thanks to a redesigned bar area. Although the interior will be getting a major facelift, too, according to Payne, everything is set to be wrapped up in time for a mid-October opening.

"We like October 18," Yontz says, his voice so enthusiastic I can feel his smile over the phone.

And you know what? October 18 sounds pretty good to me, too. I can't wait.

Nuclear lunchmeat: The U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, has come up with pre-packaged sandwiches that are supposed to be able to last three years and survive such rough handling as air drops, extreme temperatures and other combat situations. These indestructible sandwiches are made possible by the use of chemicals called humectants, which prevent sogginess and limit the moisture necessary for that green funk that grows on your normal, non-combat bologna-and-cheese sandwich when it's left in the back of the fridge for a couple of months. The sandwiches themselves -- which are currently being tested in pepperoni and barbecue-chicken varieties -- come sealed in airtight packages, kind of like the ones found in Amtrak-station vending machines.

Meanwhile, British researchers are hard at work designing special meals for soldiers that would cause them to glow. Compounds in the food would be exhaled or ooze through pores -- making troops visible to pilots or specially equipped satellites and therefore less likely to be shot at by their own side.

Could these developments lead to a new Cold War among the sandwich-loving nations of the world? Could we be seeing the beginning of a humectorized, glowing lunchmeat stockpile that will explode into a full-blown arms race reminiscent of the nuclear brinksmanship of decades past? It's possible, and we here at Bite Me HQ are cool with that, because we all know that Nuclear Lunchmeat would be a great name for a punk band.

And besides, glow-in-the-dark snacks can't be any more dangerous than the 717,000 pounds of ground beef mixed with E. coli-contaminated meat that was recently recalled by GFI American, a Minneapolis meatpacker. Originally intended for pet food, the stuff was shipped to hotels, restaurants and institutions in twenty states (including Colorado) before anyone caught the error. It wasn't until August 22 -- during an inventory audit almost two months after the beef was shipped -- that the USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service was notified. And Colorado health-department officials didn't hear about the recall until five days after that.

While Congress continues to quiz the USDA about the earlier ConAgra recall (the largest of the 73 recalls announced this year), I asked Steven Cohen, an FSIS representative, and learned that of the 717,000 pounds of bad GFI beef "distributed into commerce," only 85,000 pounds had been returned by September 6; it's likely that most of the rest had been eaten. In a recall of this nature, where a significant amount of time has passed, it's "not common to recover a large proportion of the product," Cohen said. "We are working on requiring the company to look at their inventory-control system and to demonstrate that this won't happen again."

Asked about his agency's investigation, Cohen told me that if GFI had "acted in a deliberate or misleading way," there would have been much more serious consequences, "but at this point, the investigation has not uncovered that there was any criminal intent by the company." He also reminded me that so far, there have been no reports of anyone becoming sick because of the meat.

Which is just about as comforting as this howler on GFI's Web site: "By embracing today's technology, GFI premium foods has maintained their aggressive emphasis on product research, coupled with exceptional quality." Yet GFI can't keep the dog food separate from the people food? How does that happen?

First, blame GFI, which calls the release "inadvertent." The tainted beef had been stored in a freezer and was mixed with fresh beef this summer only because it was miscoded in the company's computer system, officials explain.

Next, blame the USDA. Its regulations call for contaminated meat to be stored separately from edible products and properly labeled, and its inspectors are supposed to ensure that the meat is disposed of properly. Yet this stuff sat in the coolers of a major meat packager for months, improperly labeled, was eventually combined on nine different occasions with fresh beef headed out to consumers -- and no one knew a thing about it until almost two months later. Why not have a regulation that says any bad meat you find must be labeled with a big red flag that says "POISON" and burned within 24 hours?

Last, we can blame ourselves. What do you get when customers demand ground beef at 59 cents a pound? You get 59-cent meat, folks. You get slaughterhouses that have to produce the stuff so quickly that, on average, a cow is killed once every ten seconds on the dis-assembly lines just to keep up with consumer need; you get meatpackers whose own internal systems of safety checks can't keep up with the amount of production; and you get an industry whose growth has far outstripped the capacity of the USDA to inspect and regulate it.

You absolutely get what you pay for. And that should scare the hell out of you.

Leftovers: Last Thursday was a big day for restaurant openings. Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), which promises "Nouveau American with a Japanese Attitude," opened to the public after lots of practice on hundreds of friends the night before, serving them platefuls of sushi by Jimmy Tajima (fresh from Nobu in Las Vegas) and Miki Hashimoto (still of Japon), as well as other tidbits by Duy Pham, most recently of Tante Louise. The color scheme has been de-peached, the bar's been expanded, and Bucky Parker, a holdover from the space when it was Radex, promises a late-night menu available until midnight weekdays and 1 a.m. on weekends.

Just around the corner, the Parlour (846 Broadway) celebrated its comeback in the former home of Basil Ristorante. A couple of miles down the street on September 12, Heidi's Brooklyn Deli opened its third outpost at 1645 South Broadway in a wonderful old Victorian storefront that briefly held the Banyon Market deli and coffee shop. And yes, Margarita Mama's Mexican Grill and Banana Joe's Island Party joined the lineup at Denver Pavilions that same day.

Coral Room (3489 West 32nd Avenue), which recently took over the space once occupied by China West, looks promising; executive chef John Nadasdy (formerly of Rapids Restaurant and Lodge in Grand Lake) is set to impress with the unique retro-Asian-American cuisine that got him mentioned in such lofty places as the pages of Bon Appétit. Christopher Cina, who worked around Denver for several years with the likes of Radek Cerny, Kevin Taylor and Sean Kelly, has returned from a stint as chef garde manger at the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, to take on the post of food-and-beverage manager and executive chef at Tuscany in the Loews Denver Hotel (4150 East Mississippi). And on the lower-priced end of the food chain, Andrew White, the new general manager of the Trail Dust Steakhouse at 9101 Benton Street in Westminster, is overseeing renovations and overhauls that include the addition of the Corral -- an after-hours saloon where customers can enjoy happy-hour specials, watch the game on more than twenty TV screens, and whoop it up 'til the cows come home. Or 1 a.m., whichever comes first.


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