I talked with Frank Bonanno of Mizuna (225 East Seventh Avenue) last week about...well, about just about everything, really. Sushi, restaurant design, the economy, why people eat foie gras, how to keep and feed your waitstaff.
Most important, we had a chat about the place that Bonanno and partner Doug Fleischman will be opening just around the corner from Mizuna at 711 Grant Street, in what is currently home to China Hill. The new joint will be called Luca d'Italia and will take a "rustic approach" to Italian cuisine, Bonanno says, with reasonably priced food made entirely from scratch right there in his kitchen, then served in the style of Italian farmhouse meals -- which means antipasto courses featuring prosciutto, cured meats and cheeses; a pasta course; then meat, game or fish; then dessert. "I had three grandparents come from Palermo, and this is how we always ate at home," he explains. "We always had salami, maybe some cheese and bread to start, then a pasta, then a leg of lamb or something like that."
And weak economy be damned, Bonanno thinks the time is right in Denver for this sort of restaurant. The only thing holding up Luca's debut is a problem with the liquor license. According to Colorado rules, a restaurant owner can't own one place that has a full liquor license (like Mizuna) and a second with a lesser license (like the beer-and-wine-only license held by China Hill), so all other plans are on hold while the partners apply for a new license.
By the time Luca opens, Vega will have opened less than two blocks away (at 410 East Seventh, in the former home of Sacre Bleu), the economy will still stink, more restaurants will have closed their doors, and national chains will be on the verge of taking over the entire world and forcing everyone to eat nothing but chicken nuggets, trademarked ribs and jalapeño poppers for the rest of their natural days. But is Bonanno worried?
"I feel comfortable," he says. "Italian food is Italian food, and people will always want Italian food. I want people to come in and be comfortable. I want to have fun doing this, because why do it if you're not having fun? I'm certainly not going to get rich."
And he's in no rush, because he wants everything to be right before swinging wide the doors. "If we can't get it open by November, then you're into December, and that's a short month with the holidays and everything," he points out. "Plus, we close down Mizuna around Christmas because you have to have a life, you know? Honestly, a January opening would be just fine with me."
And when Luca does open, it will do so with a staff completely separate from that of Mizuna, and with Bonanno and Fleischman dividing their time between the two properties, whose kitchens are just a quick sprint apart.
In the meantime, Mizuna is still going strong and getting ready for the new season's menu, which will launch in October, topping out around the $30 mark. If this week's review of El Taco de Mexico inspired you to try some adventurous foods, I highly suggest Mizuna's sweetbreads and foie gras for a stunning display of what can be done with organ meats by someone on the other end of the culinary spectrum.
Chef and tell: Star chef Sean Yontz's big move from Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street) to his new digs at what will soon be Vega, left Tamayo owner Richard Sandoval with a large hole in his kitchen. He filled it with Troy Guard, who comes to Denver after stints with Roy's Restaurant in Hawaii, Tokyo, Hong Kong and New York; some time at Tao in NYC; and most recently, the post of executive chef at Doc Cheng's in the famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore. (For more on Singapore, see this week's Letters section.)
This move raises two questions. First, Guard has spent his entire career cooking Asian and Pacific Rim cuisine -- and frankly, the food at Tamayo ain't. So how in hell did this guy end up here? According to Philip Sandoval, Richard's brother and now Tamayo's director of operations (Marco Colantonio also left that post for Vega), they've known Guard for quite a while. "We're friends," Philip says. "It wasn't like we used a headhunter or anything." Guard was excited about trying something new, he explains, adding that Guard's pan-Asian cooking is somewhat similar to the high-end Mexican done at Tamayo in that both are heavily spiced, sweet and complex.
My other question: How are things going to work for Guard -- who's used to having control of his own menus -- in a kitchen like Tamayo's, where all of the recipes are designed by Richard Sandoval? "It's going to take some time for us all to get used to each other," Philip says. "For now, everything is going to stay the same, but in the future -- in a year or so -- Troy will have some changes of his own. He'll be involved in the creative process."
Sounds to me like Guard had been brought on staff permanently -- not as a temporary replacement -- and that Tamayo could be going through some changes in the future. I'll be watching...and eating.
Jax owner Dave Query has been putting in face (and kitchen) time at the month-old Lola (1469 South Pearl Street), the coastal Mexican restaurant in which he's partnered with former Jax chef Jamey Fader. With its emphasis on fresh ingredients, Lola's already changed its menu three times, has picked up fans with its extensive tequila selection, and could be open for lunch as early as this week. I'm curious to see how the mid-day menu will compare with the reasonably priced fare on the board after five.
Opal opened just two weeks ago at 100 East Ninth Avenue, in the former home of Radex, and it's now serving lunch, too. But then, Opal has three chefs to keep busy: Miki Hashimoto (of Japon), Jimmy Tajima (most recently of Nobu in Las Vegas) and Duy Pham (formerly of Tante Louise) all share the kitchen. What's that they say about too many cooks spoiling the sushi...?
Pham won raves from everyone in town for his AAA four-diamond and Mobil four-star French cooking at Tante Louise (4900 East Colfax) but left there almost four months ago for a sabbatical in his native Vietnam, according to Corky Douglass, owner and host at Tante Louise. Marlo Hix, who was a sous chef at Tante before she moved on to the Grouse Mountain Grill in Vail and the Eldorado Hotel in Santa Fe, has taken Pham's place behind the burners and -- because of her history with this venerable French establishment -- the transition has been smooth as Normandy butter, Douglass reports.
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Leftovers: Say goodbye to Tony's (2401 Blake Street), which briefly occupied the old home of the Flying Dog. Tony's was a joint that brought out the Wisconsin cheesehead in all of us and even won a Best of Denver award this past spring for its fried cheese curds. Now where am I going to get my fill of Schlitz and chips?
And don't hold your breath for Cielo, another "upscale Mexican" joint that was reportedly opening in mid-September in the old Denver Buffalo Company, at 1109 Lincoln Street. The renovation work looks nowhere near complete, and when I e-mailed owner Curt Sims (who also owns Lime, at 1424 Larimer Street) for a status report, I got this response: "We are not even close. I will decide, by the end of the week, whether we can open this year or not..."