I miss Leon a little already. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad to be back from my East Coast adventure -- but he was something special. To lift a line from the good doctor (Hunter Thompson, that is), Leon was "one of God's own prototypes -- a high-powered mutant of some kind who was never even considered for mass production." And without his grounding influence, New York City wouldn't have seemed right to me.
As it was, being spat out of the Lincoln Tunnel and into the thrum and rush of Manhattan was a little like one of those Twilight Zone episodes where everything is the same, only somehow oddly changed. Coming in, Jersey City still smelled like it always has -- like Sinatra's underpants after a long night out with Dean and the boys -- and navigating the tunnel was still a dystopic nightmare of Soylent Green proportions, but Manhattan proper was different. It wasn't like the hydrants were spouting champagne or anything, but there was no longer that overtly hostile, xenophobic, heads-down vibe I'd come to expect. Fer chrissakes, a New York cabbie stopped in traffic to let me through -- actually waving me in ahead of him rather than merrily bashing in the nose of my rental, then circling back around the block to finish me off like I expected. Blame 9/11 or ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani's Machiavellian dictums for chasing all the hookers and smut shops off 42nd Street. Blame whoever or whatever you want, but the city's changed in the six years since I last visited, and without Leon there to ugly things up, I would have thought that I'd actually died in a plane crash on my way into the Philly airport and that this kinder, gentler New York was my heavenly reward. Leon was my 300-pound Samoan, and without him, the trip would have been altogether too calm and weirdly sterile.
But enough about Leon. As those of you who read the latest "Jason Sheehan's a stupid asshole" installment in last week's Letters section already know, I wasn't in New York just to sniff around and get a slice of pizza. I was there for the James Beard Foundation journalism awards and all of their attendant hoopla. And while the short version of the story goes something like this -- the awards went fine, and I won the category of Newspaper Restaurant Review or Critique, bringing back the gold for the home team -- when have I ever gone with a short story when a long one would be more fun?
Not about a reataurant
The event kicked off with a cocktail party reception at the Grand Hyatt New York, which might have been great had the wife and I known one single person other than ourselves. Unfortunately, we didn't, so instead we hung out near the bar -- me wearing a dorky red nominee ribbon like the third-place hog at the county fair, she looking fabulous and well above my station -- and were shut pretty effectively out of the shmoozing and elbow-rubbing. Trying to appear aloof and at ease in this crowd got tiresome after about twenty minutes, so we skipped out and headed across the street to Daikichi Sushi, which I can wholeheartedly recommend as a fine alternative for anyone stuck at a Manhattan cocktail-party set piece and in need of a quick escape.
Two orders of assorted nigiri and one veggie sampler later, we were back in the swing of things just in time to see Swoosie Kurtz (which was rather strange) and her majesty Ruth Reichl (not weird at all -- the Gourmet editor is queen of this business and welcome at all the best parties) making their entrances. The awards ceremony followed, and it was, I'll admit, mostly a blur. The food (all products of Oregon, home state of food legend James Beard, and cooked by Oregon chefs in tribute to what would have been the man's hundredth birthday) was fantastic. I remember the spring-run Chinook salmon tartare cut with coarse-grain mustard and radishes because it was the first course, and the steamed cabbage stuffed with American Kobe short-rib meat, potatoes and foie gras because it was so good, but much as it pains me to admit it, the food was really wasted on me. I didn't think I'd be nervous -- honestly figuring that my loss was a foregone conclusion -- but I would've thrown up butterflies had anyone poked me in the stomach. And then, the way things worked out, I didn't lose, and my return to the table (after a very brief and mumbled acceptance speech where I believe I thanked my cats in addition to everyone else on the planet) was attended by the delivery of glasses of grappa, making it an iron-clad lock that I wasn't going to remember the rest of the night, either.
But of greater importance than my winning was the fact that my fellow finalists (Robb Walsh of the Houston Press and Jill Posey-Smith of the Riverfront Times in St. Louis) came from sibling papers. In blind voting overseen by the accounting firm of Lutz and Carr, three ink-stained alternative-weekly wretches kicked the collective ass of every big-time paper out there. San Francisco Chronicle reviewers? Smoked 'em. Washington Post? Them, too. New York Times? Whooped 'em on their home turf. And am I being a bit too proud of us when humility might better serve? Probably. But we done good, and Christ only knows if it'll ever happen again.
Of course, the aforementioned Chronicle and Post did win other food-journalism awards, as did Gourmet and Bon Appétit. And three nights later, at a ceremony honoring chefs and restaurants, Eric Ripert (of Le Bernardin) got the James Beard nod as outstanding chef, New York's L'Impero won best new restaurant, Zuni Cafe in San Francisco took the outstanding restaurant award, and Thomas Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, California, was awarded the outstanding service medal. Many more categories were involved, and if you care for a peek at the big list, it's available at www.jamesbeard.org.
Where there's smoke...: The Pueblo recall election and vote on a proposed smoking ban -- which sprang forth after a whole bunch of pissed-off locals and restaurant folk signed on to a "throw the bums out"-style petition against four of the city councilmembers who voted in favor of Pueblo's comprehensive, and now on hold, smoking ban -- is scheduled for May 20. No word yet on whether the Denver City Council will do as councilmember Happy Haynes and Mayor-for-a-few-more minutes Wellington Webb urged two weeks ago and prohibit smoking in this fair city (Bite Me, May 1), but the two remaining mayoral candidates are getting antsy, trying to one-up each other on the subject.
Don Mares, who takes the issue very seriously after losing some family members to cancer, wants a ban in all establishments that serve families, but he says he'd consider an exemption for adults-only establishments such as bars and nightclubs. Mares recently challenged front-running opponent John Hickenlooper to jump on the smoke-banning bandwagon, and did so from the steps of the Wynkoop Brewing Co. (1621 18th Street), one of the seven restaurants Hickenlooper owns.
Hick responded thusly: "I am against a restaurant smoking ban in the City and County of Denver because it is unfair to smaller restaurants around the city's perimeter, which would be at a competitive disadvantage to restaurants just across the county line."
Good point, and spoken like a true businessman. "That being said," he continued, "I would support a regional smoking-ban proposal that would be put before the voters."
And that's where the budding politician in the Hickster comes out: It's always good to let us, the people, feel like we have a say. Of course, a public vote is almost a guaranteed check in the win column for the anti-tobacco forces, because smokers make up only about 20 percent of the voting public. But still, it's a nice sentiment.
Hickenlooper went on to suggest that restaurants (but not, it should be noted, bars -- at least not in the language of his official statement) be encouraged to invest in ventilation systems that improve air quality "to the same standards established by the Environmental Protection Agency for outdoor air." What most folks don't realize is that the outdoor air-quality standards are already met by most existing systems; trouble is, sometimes the outdoor air ain't terribly rosy to start with. The man who would be king finished with this: "Restaurants that did not meet these standards could be required to post 'Hazardous to Your Health' warnings in their place of business."
Notice he didn't say that those restaurants should be shut down -- just that they would have to post a sign letting the people know that there would be secondhand smoke in the air, thereby letting us make up our own damn minds about how risky a life we want to lead. Nice bit of tap-dancing, that. And, in all, a sensible if not terribly declarative statement from Hickenlooper.
Personally, I'm just waiting for someone to come out on the populist side of this and say how happy he (or she) would be to personally kneecap any smoker caught practicing the disgusting habit in public. Any takers?
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Leftovers: Good news from northwest Denver, where Parisi (4408 Lowell Boulevard) plans to move into bigger and better digs sometime after the summer season. The new address will be 4401 Tennyson Street, the new space will be roughly 7,000 square feet (a huge increase from the current deli/lunch spot), and it will feature new ovens, banquet space and "real real Tuscan food," according to owner Simone Parisi. And there's one more change to report: Parisi recently acquired himself a new chef: Don Gragg, who made a national name for himself at the late Sacre Bleu. Gragg is working the stoves right now at the old location and will head over to the new space once it's up and running.
The Rialto Cafe (934 16th Street) is also doing a little staff-trading, with manager Ben Rizzuto heading off to Italy to pursue an accelerated master's degree in business, manager Michelle Gibson moving over to the Wynkoop, and Jessica Taylor from the Wynkoop taking her place at Rialto. Confused? It gets better. Rialto's new general manager, Scott Mercure, is formerly of the Table Mountain Inn (1310 Washington Avenue, Golden), where he worked with Taylor before she went on the floor at the Wynkoop.
The former Aurora Broker (12100 East 39th Avenue), which had been closed for remodeling since February, is now back -- as the Bull and Bear Tavern and Steakhouse. Why the change? The restaurant is back under the supervision of the Broker chain's Ed Novak, who, because of a heavy lunch business in the area, decided that the Aurora location should break with tradition and become a more casual dining spot. The Bull and Bear (named after the bull and the bear on top of the original Broker sign) has TVs, a much larger bar and a more casual feel. The biggest change, though, is lower prices. The Bull and Bear has come down off that fine-dining price point that made the Brokers primarily destination and special-occasion restaurants, offering lower-priced lunches and dinners in hopes of capitalizing on the business crowd.