We have had an interesting 24 hours at Luna." That's how the conversation started when Wendy Aiello, who's doing PR for the new hotel, got me on the red phone here at Bite Me World HQ last Friday.
First, the easy stuff. The space at 1612 Wazee Street that had been the LoDo Inn -- and there's nothing easy in the story of that venture's demise (see "The Shah Was a Sham," February 8, 2001) -- is now home to Luna, a nineteen-room boutique hotel with some major green behind it that's ready for business-traveling jet-set hipsterati and glam-seeking locals alike. Heavy on sophisticated design elements (with interiors by Denver-based Semple Brown and designer Thomas Schooz, and art pieces by Andreas Nottabaum), Luna is making its bid to siphon some of the juice from old-guard classics like the Oxford (1600 17th Street) and the Brown Palace (321 17th Street) -- as well as newer up-market hotels -- by trading size for style. The rooms are all fitted out with those fancy-pants amenities -- French coffee presses, high-tech sound systems, Aveda products in the bath, Dean & Deluca in the mini-fridge -- that the post-crash, new-money elite simply cannot live without, while personal service and the heart-of-LoDo location contribute to what could prove to be a winning combination in an already crowded market.
More important to us here at Bite Me World HQ, two restaurants will soon debut at Luna. Come the beginning of May, Velocity -- a crepe shop helmed by Starbucks veteran Kris Lane -- will be serving both sweet and savory varieties (along with a good cup of joe) from early in the morning till late in the evening. Say what you will about Starbucks, it's one helluva place to learn the business of dealing with hungry, cranky, jet-lagged road warriors in need of a boost.
Luna will also have a spot called Flow, and this is where things get complicated. Up until last week, Flow was going to be a restaurant and cocktail lounge with its bar in the competent hands of Oran Feild (a London-born barman with a cook's credentials and an obsession for high-quality ingredients that he brought with him when he made the jump from back of the house to front) and its kitchen tended to by Kevin Savoy. But while Feild will still be on the taps when Flow opens to the public sometime next month, the kitchen will be the exclusive playground of Duy Pham. He's the man who, while behind the burners at Opal (100 East Ninth Avenue), cooked me one of the best meals I've ever had, earning that place Best New Restaurant in the Best of Denver 2003 just four weeks ago. But now Pham's going with the Flow.
Aiello was fresh out of negotiations, the ink still wet on the deal, when we talked, and many things were still up in the air. But she was absolutely certain of one thing: "Duy has left Opal and will be coming to work for us here at Luna."
And, as if having one of the best chefs in town leave the kitchen he'd made the best in town wasn't intriguing enough, the news got even weirder. "The universe of the restaurant world was operating in a strange fashion," Aiello said -- because Savoy is headed straight for Opal, where he'll be on the line as sous chef to new exec (and Pham's former sous) Aaron Benjamin.
"Our wonderful, sweet Kevin Savoy was discovering that the situation was not a good fit at Luna," Aiello explained. At roughly the same time, Pham was in the process of leaving Opal -- he had one foot on a plane to California, where he'd been interviewing for a spot with the Wolfgang Puck organization -- when he fell in love with Luna. "The beauty of the place is what got him," Aiello said. "What's very unusual is that everyone walked away happy. That never happens."
Boy meets restaurant, boy falls in love with restaurant, and both live happily ever after -- oh, if it were only that simple. On Sunday, I finally reached Pham, who really came into his own at Opal and took on a true luminescence. He wanted to make sure everything was smoothed over with former Opal boss Jay Chadrom before he said a word, and the first words he did say were to the effect that he didn't go after the Luna job to take it away from Savoy. And then he continued talking.
"Everything happened so fast," Pham said. "To be totally honest, I was already gone. I was done at Opal and all set to go to California, and I wanted a break. I wanted some time for myself. I wanted some time to be with my family." When word of his leaving started leaking out, he was contacted by many local restaurant outfits, he says, but he wasn't interested. His bags were packed. He was good to go. And then came Luna.
"The first time I had an interview -- the first time I talked to them -- I wasn't quite sold," Pham recalled. "They didn't seem to have a focus on the food, you know? But the second I walked into the space, I had goose bumps all over my body. I was just so blown away. I knew this was the place I needed to be."
Chadrom acknowledges that Opal wasn't the place. "I don't think he can be tamed," he said of his former chef. "I don't think he belongs in just one place anymore. He should be, like, at Nobu or something, some place with many locations, where he can concentrate on writing menus."
It was after attending last week's practice dinner at Bistro Vendome (1424 Larimer Street), Eric Roeder's new Parisian-style street cafe, that the deal started heating up. "That was the night we all shook hands," Pham said. Nothing had yet been etched in stone, but Pham was so excited he had trouble sleeping. "Look," he explained. "I think about food all the time. I dream about food. When I want to read a book, I read a cookbook. When I want to watch TV, I watch the Food Network." He managed about an hour's sack time that night, during which he dreamed about a beef dish for Flow's menu. The dream was so powerful that it woke him, and when he started jotting down a few notes, "I just couldn't stop," he says. "I couldn't stop writing." He went to see the Luna people the next morning with bags under his eyes and a new menu in hand.
Rather than the worldly fusion fare originally envisioned, Pham had come up with some radical departures. For Flow's upstairs lounge area, he saw nothing but appetizers: "Twelve items, maybe fifteen. And mostly cold, but classics, you know?" His voice quickening, then finally deconstructing into a kind of working chef's line patois, he talked about torchons of foie gras, grape gastrique and "escargot, you know? In brioche. Hot. Puff pastry, maybe. With something like...bleu cheese." Downstairs, in a more proper dining room that hasn't been named, he'd do even more appetizer plates, and no more than five entrees. "If people want that -- if they want a full, heavy meal with a plate full of meats and vegetables and starches, then they can have that," he said. "But I want people to be able to kind of make their own tasting menu. That was my compromise."
He'll also have a special room where he'll do only one table a night. "Like a chef's table," he explained. "One seating a night. Seven to ten courses for one price. But they have to put their trust in my hands." Why? Because those lucky few at Pham's table will get a custom-tasting menu that will be a total surprise. Nothing off the menu, nothing announced beforehand -- just whatever the chef's in love with that night.
Is Denver ready for such a thing? Pham has no idea. All he knows is that he loves the place and the opportunity it provides. "Foodies will love it," he insisted. "My peers, they'll love this. But the average Joe? I don't know."
Still, Pham is almost giddy with confidence. "I love cooking for people," he said. "Having an audience. I don't want to be recognized myself; I want the food to get the respect. I remember every single comment on my food, and every eye that was open wide at the table when I was working. Now I want them to come in and play around with food and to play around with tastings. I want them to just play. I want everyone to taste everything. It doesn't matter what they want; I just want to give it to them."
The inn crowd: It's been a tough six months for celeb chef Kevin Taylor, what with the closings of Dandelion and Nicois, but in all those gray clouds hanging over his restaurant empire, there's finally a silver lining. Restaurant Kevin Taylor in the Hotel Teatro will be named one of the top fifty hotel restaurants in the United States in the May issue of Food & Wine magazine (whose April issue gave the nod to Adega's Bryan Moscatello as one of the ten best new chefs in America). Taylor's in good company, with props also going out to Montagna at Aspen's Little Nell; The Dining Room at Chicago's Ritz-Carlton and Atelier at New York's; Picasso and Renoir in Las Vegas, at the Bellagio and Mirage, respectively; and Jean George at the Trump International, Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, and Lespinasse at the Saint Regis (all in the Big Apple), among many others. Guys like Taylor and Moscatello -- and all of the other hardworking guys and girls in white -- are slowly but surely making a name for Denver as a great food town. Hell, pretty soon we'll have to use sticks to beat away the celebrity chefs (dibs on Bobby Flay).
Leftovers: Pico de Gallo (571 West Sixth Avenue), which I loved for its dirt-cheap borderlands Mexican food and truly rustic (as in bare drywall and exposed two-by-four) decor, está muerto. It was always tough to reach the place on the phone -- and even tougher to make yourself understood once you succeeded -- but the "for lease" sign on the side of the building delivers a pretty unequivocal message. Also gone: Jose's Hamlet, at 246 Federal Boulevard.
Finally, if you saw something strange going down at the Chipotle at 1600 California Street two Saturdays ago, don't be alarmed. The limo, the white tablecloth, the tableside service -- that was all part of a pre-prom dinner for three couples from South High School.
According to Debbie Jones -- mother of Katie Jones, one half of one of the couples in question -- the kids were all seniors, most of whom had already been to a prom, "and they were like 'been there, done that -- we want to go to our favorite restaurant.'"
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So Katie and her friends had already decided to eat at Chipotle on prom night, but then Debbie mentioned that to a co-worker who just happened to be neighbors with Steve Ells, founder of the burrito chain. Lucky break, huh? Next thing Debbie knew, she was getting calls from Chipotle's PR people who said Ells liked the idea and was planning something special. "Most of the kids had absolutely no idea they were going to do anything other than go through the line and get burritos," Debbie says. "My daughter had some idea because I had to know the details to set this up, but the other couples had no idea."
Personally, I think a more romantic restaurant might have been in order, but when you're doing dinner on a babysitter's wages, burritos aren't a bad choice. While the initial idea for a pre-prom Chipotle meal came straight from the girls, "it was our idea to go all the way with it," area manager Cory Puckett says. "They had a great time. They came in their gowns and everything and were all ready to go through the line when we said, 'No, we have this special table for you." The couples got personal service from both Puckett and the store manager, and while the burritos came off the regular menu, they were served with plates and silver borrowed from Tamayo just for the occasion.
Will Chipotle offer more special meals? "This wasn't really planned," Puckett says. "It was kind of organic, like most of our marketing. We enjoy doing stuff like this in the community."
And Chipotle got off cheap: The final tab was around forty bucks, which the restaurant picked up as a gift to the lucky couples.