Yes, it's that time of year again, and I've been sitting here at Bite Me World HQ trying to think of ways to improve this column in 2003. For starters, I was thinking of moving the entire operation to some tiny island in the South Pacific, where the tropical breezes would bring me inspiration, and girls in coconut-shell bikini tops would bring me mai tais while I sat on a white sandy beach considering the Denver restaurant scene from a safe distance. I think the move would be a productive one, because the daily average temperatures in, say, Tahiti or Bali run about 80 to 85 degrees, 365 days a year, and it just so happens that 83 degrees is the perfect temperature for the ink in my Bic ballpoint to run smoothly. Too cold, and the ink gets all gloppy; much warmer, and it gets runny. Yes, I think a small bungalow on the beach would be the perfect place to relocate. Now I just have to convince my boss...
I've gotten plenty of letters over the past few months with suggestions on how I could fix my writing. Most of them, of course, have suggested that I quit, step in front of a bus, or sit down to a nice tomato-leaf salad -- but we have a policy here at Bite Me HQ that says no letter written in crayon on the back of a cocktail napkin will be taken seriously, so those I can safely ignore. Others have arrived complete with immature stick-figure drawings of me being killed in a variety of gruesome ways, but that's just my wife's way of telling me she misses me during the approximately eleven minutes a week I actually spend sitting at my desk trying to think of amusing new ways to make fun of chain restaurants or fresh and interesting words to describe yet another crème brûlée or plate of strangled baby field greens with Styrofoam vinaigrette.
But now and then, I do get letters that offer sensible, well-reasoned criticism of the work I'm doing. Like this one from Leonardo Bortolotto, who writes, in part (and you think I'm wordy):
"I am a restaurant refugee, much like you. I worked in the Denver restaurant business for about seven years, sweating it out on the line and consuming all of my 'staff meals' on my feet in the direct vicinity of a really stinky dumpster. Now I'm out of the kitchen, but I continue to interact on a daily basis with the same bunch of guys, but in a different light. I'd like to give you a bit of direct feedback straight from the same guys who sit around on Wednesdays, waiting to see who's going to get reviewed next. It seems that there is a general consensus on the street that you spend a little too much time describing your own personal trials and tribulations as a fledgling cook, rather than reviewing restaurants. Don't get me wrong, if humor is what you're looking to accomplish, you're doing it. But come on...seven paragraphs about you, Hans, and pommes frites!? An equal amount of space and time devoted to Sean Kelly and his calloused fingers?! Your first article was a great introduction. It was humorous, entertaining and made us all chuckle and thank God Kyle was finally gone. But let's talk about food now. Let's talk about individual plates and the food being served. Let's talk about decor, service and ambience. Does the coffee suck? Would I want to eat there? Is it too loud? Too stuffy? How's the lighting? Do they play too much Dean Martin in the dining room? Would I take a first date there or my grandmother visiting from Minnesota? Anyway, I know your job must be tough. I know it must be hard to please even a fraction of the people who read you, let alone them all. I know it has to be tough to be liked as a critic. All I'm saying is this: I am around kitchens and restaurants every day, talking to chefs, owners, grunts and dishwashers. They all seem to share the same sentiment. We don't need to hear more personal stories from the trenches, we need to hear unbiased, objective criticism."
Really? That reminds me of this time I was working at...
Just kidding, Leonardo. I hear what you're saying and understand that I have a tendency to go off on extremely personal tangents about my time on the other side of the swinging doors -- but that's because I feel as though food and restaurants are very personal things. The restaurant business has been my life since I was fifteen years old, and I bring a lot of that experience with me to the table when I sit down and have to make a critical judgment of the work another chef is doing. I firmly believe that this is not a job that can be done well without bias, and I take care to always make my bias known. Much of the time -- as with the pommes frites story I told in my December 5 review of Bistro Adde Brewster (now just Adde's) -- this comes through in the form of personal stories, because I want people to know where I'm coming from when I tell them something is very good or abysmally awful.
But I'll tell you what: I resolve to try to keep my misty reminiscences short and on point in the future. I will take care to always let you, the public and all of the folks in white know whether or not the coffee sucks, how the room looks and if your grandma would approve. Further, I resolve to continue talking about food as if it were the most important thing in the world and letting you guys -- the chefs, the grunts and the dishwashers -- know where to go for the best grub in town.
But only if you'll admit that there's no such thing as too much Dean Martin.
I received another letter recently from the good folks at City Wine (347 South Colorado Boulevard), which started out fine: "We enjoy your reviews in Cafe." But then it continued with this: "However, what would really pique our interest is a short mention of the wine program."
Ah, so you noticed? I don't write much about the wine lists offered at restaurants around town for the same reason I don't write much about sushi or Bulgarian food: I don't know much about it. Yet. Ask my opinion on three different cuts of beef, six different preparations of bordelaise or a dozen different plates of foie gras, and I can speak (or write) in an educated manner about each. I could taste subtle differences in the fat content of the goose livers and tell you which bordelaise sauces had been mounted with marrow and which with butter. But when it comes to wine, I just don't have the depth of experience necessary to confidently judge one bottle against another.
But I'm working on it. And I do hereby resolve to spend the next six months getting snockered on expensive bottles of grapa in order to learn the differences between regions and growers, and to spend a lot of time on the phone with my little brother -- a sommelier and front-of-the-house guy back in New York -- learning all of those snooty words that wine experts use to describe their fancy-pants grape juice.
I'm going to do the same with sushi. Slowly but surely, I'm being educated by people who know much better than I do how to appreciate the delights of eel and seaweed and fish skin. By this time next year, I hope to be at least half as confident in my knowledge of wine and fish balls as I am about the classical French, New American, Asian and Italian cuisine I grew up with.
Hey, they serve lots of fish in the South Pacific . . .
Ice, ice baby: In my review of the Fourth Story ("Tale Spin," December 19), I mistakenly credited pastry chef Syd Berkowitz for the fantastic apricot-tangerine sorbet I had there. Turns out that sorbet was the work of Michael Rubens and crew from The Iceman Cometh. For over six years, Iceman has been supplying killer sorbets to some of the best kitchens in town. Places like Barolo Grill, the Rialto Cafe and the Fourth Story have been dishing up Iceman desserts on their menus, while markets like Spinelli's and Marczyk's Fine Foods have been selling their handmade half gallons retail to the Denver dining public.
But now the Iceman leaveth. "Since 9/11, our sales have taken such a nosedive," explains owner Rubens. That, coupled with some health concerns, caused Rubens to make the tough decision to stop production and get out of the business for good. "I've had incredible loyalty over the years," he says. "I mean, there's been a few jerks, but I just want to let everyone know how thankful I am."
The only silver lining to this dark cloud is that Iceman has a lot of sorbet stocked up in the coolers and is trying to get rid of it before the lights go out for good. Rubens is loading up his restaurant customers with all they can take, but he's also got some for sale to the public. So if you've got a post-holiday dinner party coming up or just want to fill your freezer in anticipation of the long, hot summer to come, give Iceman a call at 303-394-3466.
Leftovers: And the first restaurant casualty of the new year is...the Little Russian Cafe, a longtime fixture in Larimer Square that closed its doors after a New Year's Eve blowout. When I talked with co-owner Steve Ryan a few days before the final bacchanal, he told me that the owners of Larimer Square (and the restaurant's landlords) had decided not to renew their lease with the venerable cafe. "I think they're looking for a younger crowd," Ryan said. "They have to justify their existence, you know? And I think they're getting a little cocky with all the new places coming in." We've always attracted an older crowd," he continued. "The theater crowd and like that." And while Ryan said his restaurant's numbers were up -- no small feat in these lean times -- the owners still wanted to get a new tenant that would attract a slice of that bar-hopping, bistro-loving demographic that frequents the nearby Lime. "Personally," Ryan added, "I don't think they know what they're doing, but they think they know what they're doing. We'll see what happens."
Meanwhile, Singapore Grill (7923 South Broadway in Littleton), which I reviewed on September 12, didn't last long enough to welcome the new year. See what happens when you people don't take my advice on these little, out-of-the-way places? They close! Which means there's nowhere in town now that I can satisfy my roti canai jones, and I can no longer terrify out-of-town guests with ice kacang -- that psychedelic mystery sundae with vanilla ice cream, lotus jelly, corn and kidney beans. Singapore Grill has been replaced by one of those by-the-scoop Chinese joints. Same owners, same staff, same address, but a whole new ballgame.
Last gasp: A quick word of thanks to all of you who voiced your opinions regarding my piece on a possible smoking ban for all Denver bars and restaurants ("Smoke Free or Die," December 5). While I'd love to run every single letter (even the ones that called me names, and especially the ones that called the smoke-banners names), there's simply not that much space in the paper. Westword received over a hundred letters (a new record for correspondence regarding a single story!), almost evenly divided between pro- and anti-ban, although reasons for those positions varied widely.
Will the push for a blanket ban succeed? I don't know. But even if new smoking regulations are proposed by Denver's Board of Environmental Health, even if Denver City Council votes them into effect, and even if I am never again able to light up at my favorite dives and diners, at least we've all had our say.
I now resolve to stay away from all political issues in '03. Or at least until something else comes up that really pisses me off...
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.