It was a little tough back then," Sean Yontz, now of Vega (see review), says of his ten years with Kevin Taylor. "We all, all of us, worked 10 a.m. to 1 a.m. every day. I saw more of Kevin than my wife or my son. I spent my life with Kevin. We traveled together, took our vacations together. On our days off, we'd go skiing or waterskiing together." He pauses, focuses. "I owe everything to him. He gave me my career."
Yontz worked with Taylor -- one of Denver's first full-on celebrity chefs and sole lord and master of the Kevin Taylor restaurant universe -- almost everywhere Taylor went. Dandelion (now closed), Cafe Iguana (gone), Brasserie Z (kaput), Zenith (a reincarnation of Taylor's original Zenith that took over for Brasserie Z, then also closed), Palettes (still open at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway), Jou Jou (still open in the Hotel Teatro at 1106 14th Street) and Restaurant Kevin Taylor (still open, also in the Hotel Teatro) -- everywhere except Nicois, which took the place of Zenith back in August 2001, then died a painful death on New Year's Day. Yontz became Taylor's executive chef, setting up new houses anywhere Taylor's eye settled, then putting out fires wherever trouble popped up. The two of them were close -- like brothers, the way Yontz tells it -- and that sounds like a great story, until you get to the part about Yontz leaving. The break was bad, and the two haven't spoken since the day Yontz walked out of Zenith.
After Yontz departed the Kevin Taylor empire, people predicted he'd open his own place. "Everyone expected it," Yontz says. "Everyone wanted it except me. There are these kids now who come out of culinary school, and after two years -- at twenty or whatever -- they want their own place. They want to be called chef. At 34, I wasn't ready. There was so much more for me to learn." So when Tamayo opened at 1400 Larimer Street, Yontz was in Richard Sandoval's kitchen. "I'd been talking to Richard for about a year," he explains. "I was interested in the cuisine he was doing." More to the point, Yontz was interested in the idea of an upscale Mexican/Latino restaurant. He had the foods and flavors in his blood but wasn't sure how to make them work in a white-tablecloth setting. Yontz spent a year and a half as Tamayo's chef de cuisine, cooking Sandoval's menus and Sandoval's food -- which is exactly what he wanted to do. "I went to learn," he says simply, "and I learned a ton about Mexican food."
But didn't it bother him to be forever cooking someone else's food?
When I ask, Yontz doesn't answer right away, and when he does, he doesn't give the answer I expect: He says no. When he was working with Taylor, "it was all Kevin's food." And when he was working at Tamayo, it was all Sandoval's food. "It was always someone else's food, but I wasn't ready yet to do my own thing." And even now -- now that he is ready and now that he is doing his own thing at Vega -- "I'm doing what all these guys taught me," Yontz says.
When he left Tamayo, he left with Marco Colantonio -- Sandoval's champion front-of-the-house man who'd been brought in to keep an eye on the joint when Sandoval himself was off checking up on his other restaurants in New York, Florida and San Francisco. Yontz and Colantonio inked a deal with Michael Payne -- who'd stepped in to run Sacre Bleu after his former wife left and still owns the building at 410 East Seventh Avenue -- and Vega was born. The three partners survived a rough opening last October that suffered from rushed training and very high expectations, and they were just settling into a routine when Colantonio bailed.
He and Colantonio had "different visions" about what the restaurant should be, Yontz says.
Now essentially on his own (Payne stays out of day-to-day operations), Yontz is happy. He paid his dues working at the right hand of the best guys he could find and made his bones in some top-class houses. He has a good staff under him -- many of whom have been with him since his Kevin Taylor days -- and "they understand where I'm trying to go and what I'm trying to do," he says. He's working hard. He's in the kitchen every day and every night, just like he's always been, but it's his kitchen now, on his terms. And finally, that's what makes all the difference.
Two degrees of separation: So where did the après-Vega Colantonio go? Initially, the word here at Bite Me HQ was that he'd be doing restaurant-consulting work and his first client would be Cielo (1109 Lincoln Street, in the old Denver Buffalo Company space), which is owned by Curt Sims and Pam Savage, the couple who brought us Lime (1424 Larimer Street). But now Colantonio's role has expanded.
Here's how he describes it: In the middle of the construction mess (the space is being redone in a contemporary minimalist style, requiring the services of a feng shui master), Savage set out a lunch for everybody that was so good, it convinced Colantonio that he wanted to be a part of the place. "I was so blown away by her passion and simplicity," Colantonio tells me, "that about a week after entering into the consulting arrangement, I just told them, 'I want to run this restaurant.'"
This from a twenty-year vet of the New York City restaurant scene with a string of successful houses behind him. So when Colantonio talked, Sims and Savage listened.
Now Colantonio will be operating the restaurant, and he's overseeing the final phases of construction while putting together a management team that includes chef Marcela Guerrero, a former sous chef at both the Denver and Florida Tamayos, who also worked the line at Vega's opening and has just given notice at Samba Room (1460 Larimer Street). The cuisine will be norteño, drawing on the Southwestern borderlands grub of northern Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas as envisioned by Savage and executed by Guerrero. "It's not trendy," Colantonio says. "There are no twists on anything, just good, solid food." And nothing over twenty bucks, either.
And finally, Cielo has a potential opening date. I know -- people have been saying that since the original potential opening date back in August 2002, but Sims and Savage have been taking their time, watching the market and trying to get everything just right. The way things look now, there will be some invite-only parties next month, with a soft opening planned for Monday, May 26. Those of us at Bite Me World HQ will be keeping our fingers crossed.
Three degrees of separation: The Best of Denver 2003 was almost out the door when we learned that Stephanie Cina was no longer at Adega (1700 Wynkoop), which meant no award for her "variations of chocolate" dessert, either. Cina's slowly easing her way into the pâtissière's post at Vega, doing the wonderful desserts that are already on the short, sweet finishers list -- but changes may come as she settles in. In the meantime, the offerings include a very good crème brûlée with cotton candy (made in the kitchen with Vega's own cotton-candy machine), tamarind sauce and a Colombian strawberry sorbet; Mexican rice pudding and pilloncillo ice cream; and a surprising tropical-fruit ceviche that pairs strawberry, kiwi, mango and what-have-you in a sweet syrup with cilantro, sandwiches them between several layers of chocolate tuille, then tops the whole thing off with the strangest, most shockingly delicious sweet avocado crema I've ever tasted.
Vega ends its meals with a gesture that I wish would catch on at other restaurants: an after-dinner sampler of tiny desserts. A couple gelées, a single truffle -- the perfect thing for putting a smile on everybody's face just before they pay their bills.
Speaking of Adega, executive chef Bryan Moscatello has snagged himself a Best New Chef nod from Food and Wine Magazine in his last year of eligibility. Only ten chefs nationwide are chosen each year, and Moscatello's in some pretty prestigious company. When I got him on the phone the day after he returned from the awards ceremony at the Chelsea Art Museum in New York, all he could say was, "It was amazing, awesome. Just awesome."
It's understandable if Moscatello's a little overwhelmed. After all, in addition to the thrill of being chosen one of the ten best, he also got to meet Al Roker, who -- in his new, slimmer incarnation as the jolly Prince of all TV Land -- emceed the event. And really, who wouldn't be a little bowled over by that?
Also, Moscatello has a new place in the works. Along with Chris Farnum (Adega's sommelier) and partner Mike Huff, he's in the very early stages of planning an as-yet-unnamed restaurant that will go into the new Marriott hotel being built in Cherry Creek. The space, which should be opening around a year from now, will seat ninety to a hundred, include a restaurant, bar and lounge, and feature "a little more casual cuisine and be a little less pricey," he says. The folks behind the Marriott approached Farnum with the idea; Moscatello says they got interested because it's going to be "one of their higher-level properties." And while many (okay, most) corporate hotel properties are where good food goes to die, Moscatello assures me that while there will be certain unavoidable menu requirements (such as the ubiquitous breakfast buffet), they worked out a lot of the sticking points with the hotel chain before anyone shook hands on anything. "We're going to be able to do what we want," he says. "We'll have a lot of freedom."
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Leftovers: "They just ran out of money," chef Joe Sinopoli says. "You could see it happening. They came in the kitchen before lunch on Wednesday and said, 'Wrap it up. That's it.'"
The place? Bistro 250, cut down less than four months after taking over the space at 250 Steele Street that had formerly been home to Bistro Adde Brewster -- and just a week after Sinopoli's pommes frites won the coveted Best Fries award in this year's Best of Denver issue. And Sinopoli saw it all. He ran the kitchen at Adde Brewster, ran it during an interim period after Adde Bjorklund sold the restaurant and it was called simply Adde's, ran it when Bistro 250 turned only a half-dozen tables a night.
"It's like someone having a midlife crisis," he says. "They don't buy a Corvette; they buy a restaurant. We'd ask how things were going, and the owners would say everything's fine and not to worry, but you know...four tables a night? You just know."
Yeah, you do. And often the kitchen can see these things coming long before anyone else, which is probably why Sinopoli already has another job lined up: He'll be taking over the kitchen at Nectar (3000 East Third Avenue).