Yup, it's that time again: The mailbags here at Bite Me HQ runneth over with letters, faxes, e-mails and the assorted detritus of this strange biz, so before they begin runneth-ing over into the next cubicle, I figured I'd deal with a few of them.
First up, I've been getting complaints regarding Las Brisas (6787 South Clinton Street in Englewood), which recently changed ownership. In a nutshell: The old owner, Jamie Smith, had apparently sold, donated and given away a whole bunch of Las Brisas gift certificates before the place changed hands, and when the new owners, B.A. and Mary Joe Claussen, took over the joint, there was some disagreement about whether the old certs were still valid.
Okay, so "disagreement" might be putting it mildly. According to one pissed-off ex-customer, when she tried to use a gift certificate that she'd bought at a charity event, the new owners "had a fit at the table" and claimed that the former owner had been "giving those things out all over town" -- $5,000 worth, to be exact. Harsh words were exchanged and the gift certificates refused.
But here's the good news: When I called Las Brisas last week to try to get to the bottom of things, manager Derek Cook assured me that all Las Brisas gift certificates -- no matter if they predate the regime change -- are now being accepted. "We apologize for any inconvenience," he concluded.
Next up, this missive from reader Chris Reap, who wonders: "After reading the recent Bite Me articles and other reviews over the past, I am curious how a food writer can be fare [sic]."
Fair, Chris? What do you mean?
"My question stems from how a writer can compare or review two totally different concepts in the same publication." His examples? Kyle Wagner giving Noodles & Company and Intrigue the same rating after reviewing the restaurants in the Denver Post, or the Rocky Mountain News's John Lehndorf reviewing Adega one week and ESPN Zone another. Reap goes on to ask how national publications can include small-time local chefs in the same articles as Big Time food guys like Alex Stratta and Alain Ducasse, talks some trash about Denver restaurateurs, then finally comes back to the point: "I'm still curious how a writer approaches and differentiates when doing their reviews."
Simple answer, Chris? I don't. Food is food is food, my friend, and it must be experienced each time for exactly what it is. If I tell you, for example, that the 20th Street Cafe (1123 20th Street) has the best chicken-fried steak I've had in years, that's because I'm comparing it to all the other orders of chicken-fried steak I've slurped down. I'm comparing its gravy to other gravies I've tasted, its crust to other crusts. I'm telling you where on the spectrum of the world's best and worst chicken-fried steaks this particular contender falls.
What I'm not doing is comparing the chicken-fried steak at 20th Street to the tasting menu at Adega (1700 Wynkoop Street) or Ian Kleinman's phyllo-wrapped lobster at Indigo (250 Josephine Street). Adega is a great restaurant -- a great, pricey, New American restaurant with white tablecloths and a killer wine list. 20th Street Cafe is also a great restaurant -- a great, cheap, hole-in-the-wall restaurant, well-steeped in history, with good coffee and the best chicken-fried steak in town.
Westword doesn't use stars or letter grades or pork chops or middle fingers to shorthand my opinions of a place. That would be unfair, I think, because it makes it too easy to simply say, "Oh, well, Nancy Frufru gave The Gilded Truffle only one star, and the next week she gave Joe's House of Meat four stars, so she's an idiot because The Gilded Truffle is obviously a better restaurant."
Fact is, I've been to plenty of multi-starred joints across the country that could have used a little help from the sort of guys who'd work at a place called Joe's House of Meat. The starch in the tablecloths and the shine on the silver will never matter as much to me as what's being done in the kitchen -- what's being done to my dinner, more specifically -- and if you don't believe me, check out this week's review of Aquarela.
As to your concern about comparing local chefs with the big-time chefs on the coasts? There I have to agree with you -- at least for now. Denver is still on its way to becoming a great food town. The talent is here, the dedication and passion are certainly here, but the pool of chefs working in our highest-class kitchens is both shallow and new. These are young guys, most of them. Many are still cutting their teeth on their first or second executive postings and have years to go yet before they can assimilate the knowledge and skill of, say, Ducasse, Jean-Louis Paladin or Thomas Keller. Make no mistake: I think there are guys who have the chance to reach that rarefied inner circle of the truly brilliant, but do we have anyone in town who's there yet? No. If we did, all these conversations about Denver becoming a great food town would be moot. We'd already be one.
Speaking of Indigo, it seems I stepped on some toes in reporting on the departure of sous chef Ben Alandt ("Azure Like It," May 29), because he recently sent me this from Portland:
"I have witnessed the blooming restaurant scene up close for the last six years. Denver has come a long way since then. This is because of a handful of chefs and owners who decided that we as a community -- a select few, mind you -- could do the same as the big boys in the big cities. Denver's dining scene was in its infancy, and the big chains ruled. Then something happened, a small collective of young chefs started pushing the envelope, and the public slowly responded. It seems as though this little cowtown could compete with the big boys. Cue in Westword, the bastion of alternative reporting in the region. With new blood at the dining desk, it seemed as though we chefs had a voice finally. Someone who could relate to the daily toil we all endure, someone who didn't care so much about what brand of flatwear was at each table. Jason was just the person Denver needed, a culinary mouthpiece for chefs, someone to light a fire verbally. I applauded him in his efforts all along.
"But Jason, you fucked up. You crossed the line when you went from reporting about cuisine and the chefs who prepare it to some unethical sot who had no qualms about airing my personal life to the dining public. It's all about the food, first and last. I hope you can contain your Bourdain-lust long enough to realize that slander doesn't sell. Last time I checked, Westword was free."
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I fucked up? Where, exactly? I called Ben to talk about it, and he said what bugged him the most was that I'd brought personal issues into my review -- namely, reporting that it was girl trouble that popped him out of his spot on the line at Indigo and sent him fleeing across state lines. But, Ben, I bring personal issues to every review I write, admitting to every gross breach of taste, etiquette and good breeding I commit, admitting to things probably best left in my therapist's office, and gleefully dragging my friends, family and dining companions down into the muck with me.
Food is a very personal thing, and eating is a visceral, tangled, emotional mess of memories and lust, prejudice, delicacy and appetite, so to leave all my personal baggage behind every time I walk through the doors of a new restaurant seems wrong to me. Wrong and, in a way, cowardly. How can the reader know to what depths I will sink for a good piece of fish fry without knowing that I spent my entire childhood in a place where the Friday fry was as much a part of life as breathing? How can you understand the love I have for good dim sum without knowing that I'd eat the flower garnish off a plate rather than take the chance of missing out on some perfect little morsel?
Same thing goes for my digressions on kitchen life. Working in the galleys of the world is a tough way to make a living. It's hot, uncomfortable and high-stress, involves very long hours spent around the same guys night after night, working in a world of knives and fire, doing a hard, repetitive job under some of the worst conditions conceivable. At the same time, it's the best job in the world, because a cook is being paid to play with food all day -- and what's more fun than that? There is creativity in it. There is art. And being a chef -- especially at a busy house -- takes the skills of a veteran line cook combined with the cunning of a born criminal and the strategic brilliance of a general planning the D-Day invasion. Five nights a week. I've been there. I know that world and love it and am obsessed with the kind of stories that are bred in that atmosphere.
So will I depersonalize my view of the business now that I'm just another diner sitting there with an empty belly and the tablecloth tucked into my collar? No way. These days, it ain't just food first and last anymore. The restaurant business is driven by personality now -- by the chefs in the back and their personal connections with the food they cook, by the love or hate or fear or passion that exists in every knife-wielding, blood-spattered, brilliant or dimwitted one of them -- and my tradeoff is that if every once in a while I've got to talk mean about someone else, then the least I can do is let them have the opportunity to do the same to me. I'm right here. Bring it.