Things are tough right now in the restaurant industry. Okay, things are always tough in the industry: That oft-quoted statistic (most recently quoted by Rocco DiSpirito during commercial breaks on The Restaurant) that nine out of ten restaurants fail in their first year isn't an absolute number, but it isn't all hyperbole, either. The actual figure is probably closer to six or seven in ten, but the nut of it is still true: The restaurant trade is a rough gig, and the odds are against you. And Denver's restaurants aren't just fighting the poor economy bedeviling everyone else in the country; they're also battling a glut of fine-dining options. There are plenty of diners out there willing to pay solid green for a good meal in a high-end house, but there are also too many high-end houses for them to choose from. The ratio of willing butts to serviceable seats is lopsided, heavily slanted toward the seats side of the equation. And while the pool of available money is broad, it is also shallow, spread thinly over many houses rather than lavished on a few.
Which is exactly the way this game is supposed to work. In the microeconomics of food towns headed toward culinary respectability, if twenty polished-silver-and-linen-tablecloth temples of haute cuisine open in any given year, and then fourteen or sixteen of them close within the next twelve months, the handful that survive are the ones that deserve it. They put out the best food, have the best service, make the fewest mistakes, provide the best cost-to-benefit calculation. Absent any discussions of fate, luck or freakish mishap, this winnowing process is how the market finds its level. I don't think any of the recent newbie closings took many industry-watchers by surprise. Aquarela? Seeing the lights dark there would have only been a shock to a coma patient. Bistro 250? That was over before it started.
Others hang on, though -- some deservedly so. People had incredibly high expectations of Vega (410 East Seventh Avenue) when it opened in the old Sacre Bleu space last fall, but the nuevo Latino restaurant got off to a rough start, suffering through a rushed and rocky opening and losing some staff -- including a partner -- early on ("A Room of One's Own," April 10). Still, chef/owner Sean Yontz soldiered on -- and today Vega is as good as it's ever been (which can be very good indeed). True, the dining room is too fancy by a degree for a neighborhood where Benny's (301 East Seventh Avenue) packs 'em in every night of the week. And perhaps because of the sudden profusion of white-tablecloth eateries, Vega slips too easily off the radar of some foodies.
But when I stopped there for dinner last week, the food was excellent, with tightly controlled flavors and plates almost as beautiful as they were tasty. The service was personable and exacting, with just enough warmth to feel friendly, but not so much that the chumminess gets intrusive. The restaurant wasn't very busy, though.
Back in April, I closed my review of Vega with this: "When I asked Yontz how he was handling the stress and the pressure of his first chef-owner's gig, he graciously thanked the guys who'd gone before him into the weird, brutish, awesome world of being The Man. 'I'm just doing what all these guys taught me,' he said. 'What I learned from them. It's a tough time right now in Denver, and these last four months have been the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I was with Kevin for ten years, so believe me -- I know how to get through tough times.' And then he laughed. 'Really, I just want it to be a year. I want to be open a year, get through all the bullshit and get on with the routine.'"
Not only has he gotten through the bullshit, but Yontz and his kitchen have settled into their groove, even loosened up a little. Flavors that once seemed strangled, forced into a constricting balance on plates crowded with competing tastes, now have some room to breathe. The salmon napoleon that failed to move me on my first turn through Vega is no longer on the menu; the superb veal albondigas are better than ever, displaying an equipoise between the heavy, solid weight of the truffle, veal and manchego and the light sweetness of the corn purée and baby vegetables. And the butter-poached salmon is still as perfect as I found it last spring, still dripping with butter.
Vega's coming close to the one-year mark. If it sometimes has trouble attracting a crowd, that has nothing to do with the product -- and everything to do with the market. So if it's been a while since your last visit, it's time to return. The albondigas alone are worth the trip.
Two degrees of separation: In the beginning, there was Tamayo (1400 Larimer Street). That's the house where chef Sean Yontz and floor manager/frontman Marco Colantonio first got the opportunity to work together under the watchful eye and exacting administration of bi-coastal restaurateur Richard Sandoval. Then there was Vega, where Yontz and Colantonio struggled to reinvent the Sacre Bleu space owned by third partner Michael Payne. But a few months into that project, Colantonio left Vega and announced, somewhat prematurely, that he was going to be starting his own restaurant-consulting business. His first client? Cielo, the concept that Curt Sims and Pam Savage wanted to put into the old Denver Buffalo Company spot at 1109 Lincoln Street.
But after an impromptu lunch thrown together by Savage while Cielo was still under construction, a meal that showcased the simple norteño cuisine that chef Marcela Guerrero (a former sous chef at both the Denver and Florida Tamayos) would be featuring on the menu, Colantonio decided that he wanted to be part of Cielo. "About a week after entering into the consulting arrangement," he said, "I just told them, 'I want to run this restaurant.'"
That was fine with Sims and Savage. After they worked out a contract, Colantonio came on board as a kind of operations manager, handling both the front and back of the house, overseeing construction, approving menus and shepherding Cielo through its long-delayed opening. He was happy with his position, thrilled about the restaurant and excited for the future. All seemed right with the world.
But things are about to change again. Colantonio got me on the red phone at Bite Me HQ last week to announce that his time as Cielo's manager is coming to an end. "I've been in this business since I was a teenager," he explained. "And I've learned that once you become an employee, no one listens to you anymore. I feel I've done as much as I can with Cielo. Six months in, I think they have a great product. I think the food is great. They have some really interesting things happening in the future. But I've decided to open a public-relations and restaurant-consulting business."
The time had come, he told me, when he had to take a risk and step out on his own. "You know, I've lived on both coasts," he said. "I know the restaurant business, and I'm still a fairly young guy, but my thing is not to operate a restaurant on a day-to-day basis. I sell food and I sell chefs. I don't want to be worrying anymore about the circuit breaker that blows on Saturday night or if the dishwashers are going to show up on time."
We spent quite a while on the phone discussing the future of Denver dining and his thoughts on what this town needs to really come into its own as the great food city we both know it can be. His career change could fill one of those needs, he said, since he wants "to do consulting services that are real. Sort of what my life has been about, making restaurants work. I know demographics, and I think I know what the people want. And I don't want to be the guy who just tells you that every idea is a great one and nothing ever goes wrong."
Colantonio will be staying on at Cielo through the transition but hopes to have his new office -- Colantonio Communications -- up and running in Cherry Creek before the first of November. And can you guess who his first clients are going to be?
Yup, he'll be handling all the PR and consulting work for Cielo, plus Sims and Savage's other restaurant, Lime, at 1424 Larimer Street, just up the block from his old stomping grounds at Tamayo. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Leftovers: Recently I've reviewed one very bad Italian restaurant ("Same Old, Same Old," September 11) and one very good one (see page 73). Another one that still thrills me -- the joint I keep sending people to whenever they ask where to get honest Italian food -- is Venice (5121 South Yosemite Street in Greenwood Village). Chef/owner Alessandro Carollo's bastion of country Italian cuisine has been a favorite since I reviewed it for my debut Cafe column ("Now, That's Italian," July 18, 2002) a few months after it opened, and it's been so successful that Carollo opened a second, larger Venice at 5946 South Holly Street, also in Greenwood Village.
Now the original is about to undergo a transformation. At the end of September, that Venice will shut down for nine days for a major overhaul of both menu and decor. The walls are being redone with murals of small-town Tuscan villages and views of the Chianti region of Italy; the ceiling is being painted to make the space seem more open; and the menu is being totally scrapped in favor of an all-Tuscan board of fare. And when the place reopens on October 7, it will also have a new name: Chianti.
The second Venice, though, will carry on the name, as well as retain the original Venice menu.
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In other news, the space at Leetsdale and Forest Street that had housed Tacos Jalisco #2 until last month has already been snapped up. Come October, it will be the Blue Line Bar and Grill. Out in Lone Tree, Greg and Christie Metheny recently opened the Dragonfly Cafe (7824 Park Meadows Drive), designed specifically with busy parents in mind: Worked into the design of the coffee-shop/lunch bar is a play area for kids with tables set up around it so that Mom can keep an eye on Junior while grabbing a quick breakfast or lunch or cup of java. The menu includes wraps, panini sandwiches and salads, with PB&Js, sliced apples with caramel and plenty of healthy choices for kids, "plus all the usual full-sinful stuff," says Greg.
Kapre Lounge (2729 Welton Street), where fried chicken was king and everything else was a side dish, is gone after many decades in Five Points. After seven years, Mt. Everest has closed its 1533 Champa Street location, but a second outpost at 406 East Colfax Avenue is still dishing up Nepalese grub. Farther along the strip, at 9115 East Colfax, the Korean Kang Chon has been replaced with the House of China. The Japanese Genroku, at 2188 South Colorado Boulevard, has said sayonara. In the meantime, if you're hankering for some good old-fashioned pork (sorry, PETA), head over to Marczyk Fine Foods (770 East 17th Avenue) from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, September 28, for its second annual pig roast and harvest supper. Details at 303-329-8979.
So, if any investors out there want to write me checks for my new Nepalese-Korean bistro-slash-chicken-shack-sushi bar and Mexican, I think I've got a staff on hand that could make it work.