According to Gorizont (Horizon), a popular Russian-language newspaper published in Colorado, this state's population of ex-pat Russians is now 70,000 strong, with more coming every day. About two-thirds of this group live in the Denver area -- and since these people all have to eat, several authentic, honest-to-Lenin Russian restaurants have popped up around town in the past couple of years.
Restaurant Festival (9250 East Hampden Avenue), which opened in 2000, showcases Russian, Georgian and Ukrainian food. The dinner menu is large (as is the dining room), listing pelmeni, vareniki dumplings, real Western Russian pirozhki stuffed with spiced meat or potatoes, both black and red caviar, and even dolma (grape leaves stuffed with ground beef), for those looking for more Mediterranean flavors. Festival's lunch menu is smaller but includes a $5.99 special complete with entree, soup and salad.
California Bakery is located in the Russian Plaza at Leetsdale and Oneida, just two doors down from Astoria Restaurant (see review, page 61). But don't let the name fool you: There isn't one ounce of West Coast in this place. Among its offerings are another version of pirozhki (they might have another name at California Bakery, but I couldn't get it out of the counterman). While your garden-variety piro is an oval of puffed sweet dough about the size of a fist and stuffed with spiced meat or potato and onions, these are more like torpedos -- as long as sub rolls, sweet and soft, and crammed with the best creamed-potato-and-onion mix I've ever tasted. Even better: They're just 99 cents each. Dollar menu be damned -- I ain't never setting foot in another McDonald's.
California Bakery also does cookies, heavy breads, pastries, strange little Russian cakes with marzipan mushrooms on top, tiramisu and a triple-decked puff pastry layered with what the counterman claims is zabaglione but tastes more like an incredible sherry-free, yolk-thickened French sabayon. Frankly, I don't care what the bakery calls this confection, as long as they keep making it and always have one on hand when I come looking. Otherwise, there might be trouble...
A few blocks away, the Russia House (1180 Leetsdale Drive) -- which was once called something in Cyrillic with "International Restaurant" tagged on the end -- has recently installed bright new English signs and colorful awnings. I'm not sure what went on here previous to the facelift, but the sixty-seat nightclub/restaurant now seems to be positioning itself to expand its market with lunch and dinner specials, live music and spicy Eastern Russian fare.
Downtown, the four-month-old Russian Palace (1800 Glenarm Place) does "a little bit of everything," according to general manager Lila Orbidan. The menu at the Palace is Continental but focuses on traditional high-end dishes and authentic Russian foods cooked by guys who know. Owner George Zadikyn came to Denver from Russia with the dream of opening a classy joint in a location that would attract customers who wouldn't balk at a dress code (business casual -- no jeans, no cowboy hats, says Orbidan) and might be interested in his idea of upscale Eastern European cuisine. The downstairs space, which was formerly the home of Vartan's Jazz Club, seats 250 and has a full bar featuring Russian beers and wines and a good selection of vodkas.
On March 7 and 8, the Palace will be celebrating Women's Day -- a Russian holiday that's sort of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day rolled into one -- with Gypsy Spirit, a band that fans of Russian-style gypsy love songs the world over will recognize, Orbidan assures me. A dinner/concert package is $55 on Friday, $65 on Saturday; that gets you the show and a six-course dinner that includes red caviar and all the wine and vodka you can drink. For any of you guys who messed up on Valentine's Day, this might be a good way to make amends. If the gypsy love songs don't get you off the hook, that bottomless vodka glass just might do the trick.
And while at the start of this year the Little Russian Cafe finally rolled up its carpets after two decades in Larimer Square, owner Eugene Valershteyn's Russian Cafe (2500 East Orchard Road, Littleton) is still going strong, serving the simple peasant fare that he grew up with - along with an impressive spread of flavored artisan vodkas.
The Little Russian's space at 1424 Larimer Street was snapped up by Eric Roeder, formerly of Micole and without a kitchen for nearly a year now. He'll be opening an as-yet-unnamed bistro there as early as April, after going to France to do some "research" in the bistros of Paris and at Alain Ducasse's extravagant Louis the XIV-style restaurant called, simply, Ducasse.
When I caught Roeder on the phone, I managed to squeeze out a few other details. First, the place will be a true bistro, serving classic French street food. "Cassoulet, steak frites, all that good stuff," Roeder explains. The space will reflect that same aesthetic, with mosaic tile floors, a zinc bar top and a small patio that will expand capacity to almost a hundred seats. The bistro will serve both lunch and dinner, and Roeder promises he'll be in the kitchen every night, working right alongside his old Micole crew. Steven Fling will be doing pastry, and on board as sous chef is Griff Sickendick -- who may have the most unfortunate name in all of recorded history.
French twist: When I put the boot to longtime local favorite Tante Louise ("A Rocky Romance," February 13), I knew there would be someone (or several someones) who would have a few choice words in response. And according to a couple of messages received here at the Bite Me HQ Communications Center, I am an "asshole," a "bitter man" who gets all whiny when I'm "not treated like a king," and, most important, I'm just plain wrong in everything I said about Tante Louise.
Mary Miller wrote that she and her husband have "thoroughly enjoyed dining at Tante Louise many times during the past several years" and disagree with my opinion that the thirty-year-old Denver institution "just doesn't have the legs to stay ahead of the curve." Miller continued: "If the object is to celebrate a special occasion spending an evening dining on excellent food in a leisurely manner in pleasant surroundings, we haven't found many restaurants that can compare."
And that's fine, Mary -- but I have. And not only have I found restaurants that compare, I've found some that leave the old girl in the dust.
"I often pick up a Westword on Saturday mornings when I go to breakfast," wrote Merry Lewis. "Last week as I was looking through the paper, I noticed an article from Jason Sheehan."
Hey! That's me! Well, what did you think, Merry?
"I was interested in the article because my husband and I have gone to [Tante Louise] quite often. I have always received superb service! The food has always been exquisite. I was very disappointed. Why would Westword print such an article?"
Well, Westword printed the article because I'm a restaurant critic -- meaning it's my job to talk candidly about the good and the bad things going on in the kitchens and dining rooms of the places I visit. I am under no obligation to say only nice things about these places, and when someone (like Merry) asks me why I say mean things about some restaurants, I have a very simple answer: because they deserve it. I'm not making this stuff up, folks. Having spent a good chunk of my life on the other side of a critic's pen, I think I'm a pretty understanding guy, but the simple fact of the matter is that if you have a chef in your kitchen who thinks her food is worth thirty bucks a plate, she'd better know how to cook a potato. And not most of the time, but every time. If you have a reputation for being a special, romantic restaurant, you'd better have a floor staff that makes every single goddamn table feel special. Not most of them. Not all but one. All.
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I also spoke with owner Corky Douglass last week, and he -- an experienced and total professional who's been through his share of reviews, both good and bad -- was taking things in stride. Some dishes and presentations are being changed for a new menu starting this week, he explained, adding that he took my "criticism of the food and the service very seriously. How else do we learn?"
Douglass has a smooth operator's attitude about the whole business, and he insisted that over all these years, he's only tried to get a little better every day. "We enjoy people, and we enjoy taking care of them," he said. "We expect to be around a while. And we always expect to get better."
Leftovers: What's better than plain Mongolian barbecue? Mongolian barbecue and drunken karaoke! Kermen Mongolian BBQ, which claims to be Denver's largest Mongolian barbecue joint, has opened at 7400 East Hampden Avenue, with a full bar, live music on the weekends, and karaoke on weeknights, when the pros are at their day jobs. Perhaps the second-biggest Asian barbecue joint in Denver, the generically named Korean Barbecue, is now open in that giant glass terrarium at 3179 South Peoria Court in Aurora, in what had been a super-sized McDonald's. The weird thing about this place? The new owners didn't do a lot of structural work before hanging up the "grand opening" sign, so it still looks and feels enough like a McDonald's to make you want a kimchee happy meal. For more Asian fare, there's the new Thai House, at 7113 Sheridan Boulevard in Arvada, and China House, at 990 West Sixth Avenue (which took over the storefront once occupied by the late, lamented El Chelango). And if two houses just aren't enough, how about Sushi City? It opens this week at 2040 South Havana Street in Aurora, right between Waffletown and Chickenburg.