The duck feet did me in. I've eaten some pretty freaky stuff in my time and have had duck (and chicken) feet on more than a few occasions, but after spending several days gorging myself up, down and across Denver's Far East intersection at Alameda Avenue and Federal Boulevard, the duck feet at The Empress (2825 West Alameda) proved a little much.
I blame my Easter-weekend excesses on a single episode of the Food Network's Iron Chef. People claim that all the sex and violence on TV is responsible for the sorry state of today's youth, but what about those impressionable youngsters who are hypnotized by the flash and glam of kitchen life as presented by the Food Network? What of those misguided little guttersnipes dreaming of rewarding careers in investment banking or home-siding sales who take one look at Mario Batali flaming up a dish of gamberetto, or Bobby Flay doing terrible things to an inch-thick cut of Kobe beef, and decide right then and there to forget their dreams of variable bond markets and sink all their Christmas money into a junior-sized chef coat and a secondhand set of Sabatiers? For that matter, what about impressionable young restaurant critics who innocently sit down on the couch, flip on the tube and -- purely by accident, I assure you -- stumble across a re-broadcast of the classic June '99 sushi battle between Nakazawa Keiji and Iron Chef Morimoto?
Okay, so I'd actually caught that episode before. In fact, I've been a huge Iron Chef fan since the day the Food Network started showing it, and I'm such a glutton for it that over New Year's, I spent two solid days digesting a marathon twenty episodes -- but that's all beside the point. Watching Morimoto and Nakazawa up there in Kitchen Stadium banging out the most innovative, beautiful, Edo-style conger eel, o-toro and kanpyo sushi I've ever seen affected me deeply. So much so that I spent the next two nights and three days on an Asian food bender that would have done Chairman Kaga proud.
I went out Good Friday looking for...something. I didn't know what, exactly. An adventure. Something different. Some weird, Blade Runner-meets-Indochine, neo-classic gaijin experience. I wanted to get drunk and sing Styx songs in a divey karaoke bar. I wanted to sit in a sushi bar in the rain and have a stranger invite me across town for an underground game of high-stakes paigow poker with a one-eyed midget dealer and soft-footed geishas bringing round after round of pearl sake to the nervous players. I wondered how much of my losses I could expense to the company's tab.
Unfortunately, I didn't find any of this. While these particular thrills may be available in Denver, they're tough to find when you're out looking for them blindly on a Friday night. So instead, I ended up getting an over-large takeout order of good sushi from Sonoda's, driving home and watching the director's cut of Blade Runner.
But bright and early the next morning, I headed back out for breakfast at the Empress, one of those cavernous dim sum joints I tried before finding Mee Yee Lin.
"Cavernous" is an understatement. The Empress can probably seat 250 comfortably, and maybe fifty more than that if they squeeze in tight. The menu is vast, too, with a huge selection of Chinese entrees as well as all the dim sum standbys necessary for a properly terrifying breakfast. I had croissants stuffed with roast pork (not scary at all, really, just a slightly Asian take on the French pâté chaud), squishy har gow (shrimp dumplings), pork dumplings in sweet soy with quail-egg yolks quivering on top (the perfect breakfast food if you think of them as bacon and eggs and not pork paste and quail yolk), huge baked sweet buns filled with lemon curd, copious volumes of chrysanthemum tea, and the aforementioned duck feet.
I knew precisely what I was getting into when I ordered them. As expected, the plate came bearing four whole feet (chopped off above what I guess would be the duck's shins) and two smaller pieces that looked like chicken wings, all bathed in a thick, dark sauce. And here is where we get into one lesson of supreme importance when dealing with dim sum: Always arrive early. The earlier you show up, the fresher the food will be, the less time anything will have spent sitting under heat lamps or in warming boxes -- and the less chance there will be that a suspiciously metallic-tasting sauce will have coagulated around the duck feet, making them more a test of manhood than a meal.
I ate one foot -- picking the thin shreds of meat and skin off the bone, working around the webbing between the toes -- and was concerned. I ate the two extra pieces and was worried enough to stop eating there (having already made enough of a dent to prove I wasn't a wimp). I'm pretty sure that if I'd finished off the plate, I would have suffered some severe gastrointestinal consequences.
Still, everything else I had at the Empress was excellent, the crowds were loud and happy, and while the service I received was -- to put it politely -- dismissive, no one was outright hostile. But then, no one invited me across town to play paigow with a midget, either.
I had sushi again that night, then two meals at Mee Yee Lin over the next three days before I was truly satiated. And while I never quite got that true stranger-in-a-strange-land kick I was after, I got enough to hold me till the next time some TV-land fantasy catches me the wrong way.
Butt out: The smoking issue caught fire again this past Monday, when Mayor Wellington Webb hosted a gathering on the steps of the City & County Building that attracted councilmembers and lobbyists, pissed-off restaurant types, a whole gaggle of reporters, political operatives looking to score a little face time, and at least one bright-faced guy from the Don Mares campaign handing out leaflets and making sure his candidate wasn't forgotten. All that was missing for a hell of a lawn party was a keg and some BBQ.
But no one was drinking and, of course, no one was smoking. Because this was the long-awaited -- and not unexpected -- announcement by the outgoing mayor that he was throwing his weight behind a smoking-ban compromise sponsored by Councilwoman Happy Haynes. The proposal (which has not been scheduled for a vote or even formally drafted) will reportedly eliminate all smoking in restaurants and close the loophole currently allowing smoking in offices with four or fewer workers, but let people smoke in bars, taverns, cigar bars and at the smoking lounge at DIA. Under whipping flags and backed up by a praetorian guard culled from the ranks of Denverhealth agencies, Denver City Council and the local restaurant community, Webb made his position very clear. "The issue here is very simple," he said. "It's about life and death."
Is it? As regular readers of this column know, my bias on the issue is plain. I am against the ban -- and almost any compromise version thereof -- for a whole bunch of reasons, none of them simple. I have personal issues with any mayor (or councilperson or what have you) telling me what I should or shouldn't be doing to desecrate the temple that is my body. I have a hard time seeing why tobacco (which is still, as far as I know, legal -- nasty, deadly and addictive as hell, but legal) has become such a hot-button issue of late while booze -- which also kills a lot of people, including clean-and-sober types who happen to cross paths with the wrong drunk driver -- is not. Until I see a neo-temperance movement throwing a lawn fete on the steps of City Hall, I will have serious reservations regarding any claims that this is being done purely for the interest of the innocent. I already have serious political concerns over the right of any legislative body to poke its nose into the private affairs of business owners, and with the exception of a law requiring every capable restaurant in town to serve breakfast burritos from open 'til close, I will go to the wall fighting against any such intrusions by the state.
And I worry over the potential chilling effect that a smoking ban -- no matter how riddled with compromise -- will have on the restaurant industry. In his remarks, Mayor Webb talked about visiting a couple of bars in Boston (where smoking is now banned) and seeing them full of people. According to Webb, these joints -- including Cheers -- didn't seem to be suffering one whit from a lack of business after chasing out the smokers.
When it was her turn at the podium, Haynes promised that the proposal would be "primarily focused on the health of the employees" -- although the compromise wouldn't do anything for bar employees. Asked about this glaring exception to the protective bubble she'd see us all wrapped in, Haynes replied: "The bar exception is a compromise we're discussing. There are no 100 percent solutions."
Well, actually, there are. A statewide ban enacted by the state legislature, for example. "There's no question that would be preferable," said Haynes, "but in a state where our legislature balked at seat-belt laws...I don't hold out high hopes."
"We'll have a vote on this, up or down, before the term ends," Webb promised, back at the podium. And if the proposal doesn't pass, he assured everyone that we could soon look forward to a public referendum on banning smoking entirely. "I would rather have them alive and mad at me than dead and happy," he said.
Dead or alive -- what's your opinion? E-mail me at email@example.com. I promise to send a summary of readers' responses to hizzoner.
Don't touch that dial! Speaking of TV-land fantasies, how does this strike you? First we build a restaurant in lower Manhattan. We staff it with zany kitchen characters (you know -- the crazy Russian baker, the alcoholic sous chef, the mobbed-up brother-in-law, etc.), hire Rocco DiSpirito -- formerly of Gotham and Union Pacific -- as chef (with a name like Rocco, he's marketing gold!), have the whole joint wired with cameras, bring in reality TV superstars Ben Silverman (the brains behind Nashville Star) and Mark Burnett (Survivor), and then open to the public. It's a behind-closed-doors look at the wild, wacky, wonderful world of professional restaurant life, starring the real behind-closed-doors guys who do this for a living and real people who eat in lower Manhattan. And come this summer, it's really gonna be on your TV.
It's The Restaurant -- part of NBC's summer onslaught and, according to Silverman, "the ultimate workplace reality drama."
I can think of, I don't know, about a million reasons why this is a bad idea. How about watching some big-haired Long Island princess vapidly shoving gobs of duck confit into her capped and polished maw? Or six hours of gutting bunnies for the lapin à la moutarde special condensed down into one blood-soaked thirty-second clip sandwiched between shots of the celebrity-heavy dining room and hidden-camera footage of the dishwasher picking his nose while he's polishing the Riedel crystal? I don't know much about how to make a hit show, but I do know what the back of the house looks (and smells) like on a busy Saturday in the middle of August in Manhattan, and I don't think the viewing public is ready for that much "real" in their quote/unquote reality TV.
It could be enough to drive viewers to drink. And that's where Coors Brewing Company fits in: As the official malt beverage sponsor of The Restaurant, Coors will provide all the beer to fuel this experiment. Advertising during the show will be done by way of product placement -- undoubtedly leading to some rather stilted dialogue along the lines of: "Sir, would you like some HEINZ ketchup (tilt bottle to show label) to go with your delicious HUDSON VALLEY foie gras (pan down to show quivering slip of elegant foie perched delicately on plate) and beef tenderloin, courtesy of the AMERICAN BEEF COUNCIL? And can I get you another ZIMA?" -- and the restaurant itself will supposedly be run as a moneymaking operation.
"The show's about Rocco," Burnett says of the Food Network regular. "There will be other elements, but the drama here will be about the challenges of Rocco opening this restaurant. He's on the line here."
And I, for one, will be watching. Just as long as they don't schedule it opposite Iron Chef.
Leftovers: Eric Roeder put the finishing touches on Bistro Vendome, at 1424 Larimer Street, (named after the Place Vendôme in Paris) in time to open on April 21. Roeder (formerly of Micole, Q's and Lespinasse in New York City) says he'll be "on the hot side of the line," with Griff Sickendick as sous, Steven Fling on pastries, and Mike Peterson working the floor. Vendome is now serving breakfast (how long can that last?), lunch, dinner and weekend brunch off a menu that stretches from the simple (macaroni au gratin, croque-madame, steak frite) to the classically grand, including seared duck breast with cassoulet and caramelized orange sauce, trout with sevruga caviar, and a $49 plateau de fruits de mer royal with lobster, crab, mussels, oysters and shrimp.
Spies operating in the service of the Bite Me HQ espionage wing sampled some of Roeder's fare during the test dinners he ran in mid-April, and they report that while there were some minor glitches that could be attributed to nerves, overall Bistro Vendome's spare preparation and wonderful, rich flavors went a long way toward supporting Roeder's contention that what he wants is a place that evokes the simple, unpretentious and well-loved bistros that ring the center of Paris. As an added bonus, Vendome offers a 65-bottle-strong French wine list, a variety of pastis and royales at the bar, and a selection of gueules de bois -- hangover drinks -- for the morning after.
As for the former occupant of Bistro Vendome's location, the Little Russian Cafe, Bite Me's spies report that according to signs posted in Writer Square, Steve Ryan plans to open Red Square Euro Bistro just a stone's throw from his old restaurant.
There are more restaurant openings and closings to report -- but none will be as sad as the eventual loss of King's Land Seafood (2200 West Alameda Avenue), the most cavernous and colorful of this town's dim sum joints -- and one that still uses the much more frenetic cart method of delivering dumplings to the masses. After a year of controversy and valiantly futile efforts to save the Alameda Square property that's home to King's Land as well as many other Asian businesses, owners Khanh Vu and Hamid Simantob finally agreed to sell the property to Wal-Mart. According to King's Land manager Sufan Siu, there's no date for when the doors will close. "Maybe three months, maybe the end of the year, maybe next year," she says. "The city came to meet with us and told us Wal-Mart hasn't told them anything yet." Also very much up in the air is exactly how much the businesses will be compensated for being booted out of their locations. The only number being tossed around now is $20,000, for unspecified moving expenses.
Definitely gone is Citrus, the upscale eatery/ vodka bar/club in Union Station (1701 Wynkoop Street) that suffered despairingly from nights when the dozen lonely revelers slumped at the bar made the dim interior and dramatic point lighting look like a nicely stage-dressed wake, shut down ten days ago after a two-year run.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.