Hickenlooper weighs in
Hickenlooper weighs in

Bite Me

Okay, so you've got this great concept for a nightclub -- an Austro-Bulgarian hip-hop joint, some all-Japanese speed-metal sushi bar, whatever -- but no place to set up shop. Well, I've got good news for you: a zillion square feet just opened up in a prime location at the Denver Pavilions, when Sevilla -- the Latino steakhouse/flamenco joint/nightspot that last got some ink in this column when its ownership group, Sevilla Entertainment, and its operator, Bart DeLorenzo, were sued by Charo ("The Reign in Spain," June 5) -- was evicted from its upstairs digs. Sevilla had moved into the former home of Cafe Odyssey (a hideous concept that let you eat in a Disney-like Machu Picchu or Atlantis) in February 2002, leaving behind its subterranean spot in the Icehouse at 1801 Wynkoop Street. (That space will soon hold another nightclub, Lush.) Sevilla had only been pumpin' bass and servin' tapas at the Pavilions for twenty months -- but those twenty months were rough, filled with court orders, lawsuits, bankruptcy filings, Charo and the shuttering of the Las Vegas Sevilla at the Aladdin Casino.

Now, with Sevilla's eviction from Pavilions, all that's left are debts -- which run into the millions -- and a message on the Sevilla answering machine recorded by DeLorenzo himself: "Due to circumstances beyond our control, we were forced to close Sevilla by our landlords, the Denver Pavilions mall." And that's true…if you happen to consider the non-payment of over a hundred grand in rent to be a circumstance beyond your control. DeLorenzo blames the soft economy. Pavilions management blames Sevilla.

"First there was the bankruptcy in Las Vegas," says Susan Cantwell, Pavilions general manager. And like lots of folks who take a gamble in Sin City, DeLorenzo and company "lost their shirt," she adds. "I think they lost their focus on Denver while they were in Vegas."

Toward the end, Cantwell says, it looked like Sevilla's Denver business had begun to stabilize -- but at a level so low that DeLorenzo hadn't forked over rent money in months. Oddly enough, Sevilla Entertainment didn't file for bankruptcy protection in Denver (some blame confusion between the company's lawyers, others chalk it up to last year's chaos), and now it's too late to save the Pavilions address. Earlier this month, those doors were locked and the property seized.

Which means you could probably get a good deal on some slightly used Styrofoam stalactites right now.

DeLorenzo says he's "optimistic that we'll be able to reopen Sevilla, soon, in another beautiful location." But the landlord of that location might want to ask for cash up front.

As for DeLorenzo's former landlord, this was the Pavilions' second high-profile closure in less than six months (the first was that Margarita Mama's/Banana Joe's Island Party debacle), leaving a total of almost 50,000 square feet of vacuum right there in the middle of the balance sheet. "From a cash-flow standpoint, I've got to tell you, it's painful," says Cantwell. "When you're a landlord of restaurants, you expect this kind of thing. But it's tough with these two coming right on top of each other like this."

At least one of her vacancies is about to start generating cash. When Jon Field bailed on his 35,000-square-foot Margaritaville nightmare, longtime local restaurateur/nightlife impresario Curt Sims sailed right in and took over a space filled with racks of TVs, a nearly new light-and-sound system, and room enough to do nearly anything his club-kid heart desired. What he chose was an upstairs/downstairs arrangement that will put Lefty's Cabo Cantina, a restaurant, on the third floor, and Beyond, a nightclub, on the second.

Can Sims, who's most recently given us Larimer Square's Lime and Cielo, pull this off, too? We'll find out when he opens the doors sometime within the month.

Casey at the bat: It was a big night for Boone, and it was a big night for Calloway.

Last Thursday's Menu Affair (sponsored by Westword at Invesco Field) pitted chef John Calloway from the Hilltop Cafe in Golden against three-time Steel Chef champion and crowd favorite Frank Bonanno from Mizuna and Luca d'Italia in a 45-minute, winner-take-all culinary battle royale. Running concurrently was game seven of the American League championship game at Yankee Stadium, with the Yanks and the Red Sox locked in their own mortal struggle for a shot at the World Series, all of it brought live to the crowds at Invesco on every TV in the joint.

It was a night for underdogs, for guys who'd been counted out almost before the game had started. It was a night for surprises. It was a night for Richard Nixon.

Yup, that's right: Nixon. I came on board this year as a mystery judge for the Steel Chef match, serving alongside Penny Parker from the Rocky Mountain News; Lori Midson, formerly of 5280 and now doing the food-and-travel beat for Colorado Avid Golfer; and Rob Meitzer from Johnson & Wales University. Kitted out in my presidential finery -- one latex Tricky Dick mask, a pair of three-dollar sunglasses and a black T-shirt labeling me as an ANONYMOUS RESTAURANT CRITIC -- I looked like a complete dork sitting up there drinking beer through a straw and trying to knock back shots of tequila without accidentally unmasking myself before the throngs. But a little embarrassment was a small price to pay, because this was the bigtime. The Steel Chef match was about more than getting your name stuck on a trophy; it was about bragging rights and about someone getting to raise his hand in victory. And while it may not have been a grudge match or carried the kind of historic rivalry that exists between the Sox and the Yankees, both Bonanno and Calloway had come to win.

Calloway and his Hilltop crew were cocky. When asked before the competition how they thought they were going to do against Team Bonanno, they had no doubts: "Oh, we're gonna win, no question." The judges, however, had plenty of questions. After all, Bonanno had been here before. He knew the drill. He'd opened a serious can of whoop-ass on Eric Roeder from Bistro Vendome on his last turn through Kitchen Stadium, effortlessly putting out stellar course after course while Roeder struggled with the unfamiliar setup and time constraints. And Bonanno expected nothing less this time around.

There was a slight complication, however. That afternoon, Bonanno's wife, Jacqueline, had gone into labor. It wasn't serious -- yet. And the Bonannos had decided that Frank would come to the event, do his thing, stick around just long enough to collect his trophy, then speed off to the hospital with his wife and become a daddy for the second time.

Was he distracted? Probably. Did it show? Not at all. Frank is a kitchen guy, a lifer. And when they're in the zone, nothing distracts a kitchen guy. Bonanno's secret -- the thing that has given him the advantage in every contest thus far -- was that he always came straight from the line at one of his restaurants. He'd cook through the first rush of dinner service, pack up his knife kit and secret ingredients, then get in his car and haul ass over to the venue in time to jump up on stage and get back to cooking. That's how he stayed focused, he said. That's why he always won.

Working from the mystery basket of ingredients supplied by Johnson & Wales (which included a Cornish game hen, half a rattlesnake, a pork chop and shrimp), Bonanno put out six courses in about fifty minutes -- and all of them were excellent. He did rattlesnake tacos, which impressed the hell out of us judges, even though the soft-shells were a little rubbery; subtle shrimp wontons in a butter-heavy coconut beurre blanc; sweet pork kicked up with chile flakes over shrimp-studded sticky rice; a simple seared pork chop with wild mushrooms, floored with a mellow, powerful demi-glace thrown together in record time; and handmade pappardelle in a muscular meat broth, finished with silky foie gras and topped with pieces of boneless Cornish game hen. Bonanno did good. He did everything with the same level of skill and passion with which he attacks every plate, every night. He wasn't off his game, didn't choke, didn't blow it in the clutch. Frank cooked as well as Frank always cooks.

Only this time, it wasn't quite good enough. Calloway had game, and the kid brang it. He did things up on the stage and in front of an audience that most cooks couldn't have done in the comfort of their home kitchens with a dozen hands to help them. And he did them like a pro -- like it was the easiest thing in the world. He started off with a mixed-greens salad topped with crispy slices of game-hen breast and tiny shards of walnut brittle, all set on a single foie gras wonton with the delicate liver inside undamaged by the heat. Following that was a pork chop, sliced off the bone, pan-seared crisp, mounted atop polenta that could've used maybe one more minute's cooking time and a little salt, then topped with a rustic sweet-corn-and-butternut-squash relish over soft, mild fennel dressed with sage oil. It was the only plate he did that was less than a masterpiece, and even it was still worthy of a spot on any menu in town.

But it was Calloway's dessert course that cinched the win. A simple bananas Foster crepe, drenched in warm caramel, crowned with a scoop of melting mascarpone and cardamom ice cream that he'd whipped up on the fly, right there on stage, doing the fairly impossible -- which was making a cheese-flavored ice cream that didn't suck. It was beautiful. It was plain. Excepting the ice cream, it was a dish that's in the standard repertoire of every cook in the world -- a flashy throwaway that you use to round out a weak dessert menu and use up all that leftover banana liqueur behind the bar -- and Calloway turned it into something divine.

His offerings ended with a rattlesnake cream soup pooled around a single seared shrimp. I loved it. Cream and butter and more cream and more butter all worked to carry the gamey tang of the rattlesnake base, and I got just a hint of the harsh, earthy flavor at the back of my throat when I swallowed. It was the perfect way to end a nine-course night, even if I did have to slurp the soup through Mr. Nixon's food hole.

So Calloway, the underdog, took it. No one expected it. No one saw it coming. He unseated the champ by a narrow margin in the best Steel Chef competition yet, climbed the steps to the stage and proudly accepted his trophy. The crowd went wild.

Then, with my judging duties finished, I went outside to watch another victory that no one expected. Sitting in the second-tier stands under the stadium lights, I watched Aaron Boone -- a mid-season defensive replacement for the Yankees, and probably the last guy the Sox saw coming -- slug a Tim Wakefield knuckleball out of the park to clinch an eleventh-inning victory for the home team and a place for himself in the Yanks' history books.

No one expected that one, either. And as the ball sailed clear over the left-field fence, the crowd went wild.

Leftovers: I'd brought two chef buddies to the Menu Affair, in case we had to pinch-hit because of baby Bonanno. When it became clear that Frank would go the course (the newest addition to the family, Marco Douglas Drake Bonanno, was born Friday evening), I set my friends -- retired line guys now doing what most retired cooks do: selling used cars -- loose with instructions to bring me the best and the worst of everything that was on offer. Open bar? Free grub? Bring it on!

Kudos to India's, which served its wonderful saag paneer to all comers; Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai, which ran out of food early, it was going so fast; and Seven 30 South, which created a lobster bisque so good I heard one (only mildly inebriated) young lady say she would have taken a bath in the stuff if they'd let her. LaMar's Donuts was also doing a booming business -- but what crowd doesn't dig free doughnuts?

But what is the Art Institute of Colorado teaching its students? Those little tart/profiterole things it was serving tasted like they'd come from the back of a freezer at Sam's Club. Somehow, Hanson's managed to break a red sauce, which takes effort (although the meatballs in it were okay). And Blue Moon Saloon was serving cold chili to all those willing to stand in line and wait for it. Ugh.

In better news, Wynkoop Brewing Co. is celebrating its fifteenth anniversary with beer and menu specials all week. The festivities culminate outside the restaurant, at 1634 18th Street, on Saturday, October 25, with the annual "running of the pigs" -- which no longer involves running the porkers, but does involve eating them. And the Wynkoop recently gave us more reason to celebrate with the resurrection of the Beerdrinker of the Year contest. Unlike the January 2003 version -- when Bite Me World HQ operatives were able to snag this snapshot of Wynkoop founder and long-shot candidate John Hickenlooper weighing in at the finals -- the 2004 contest won't feature Hickenlooper, because he's put his restaurant empire into a trust while he does his mayoral thing. But everyone else is welcome. Applicants for the contest must send their "beer resumés" to the Wynkoop by December 31 in order to be considered for the finals, which will be held there on February 21.

The winner gets free beer for life at the Wynkoop. That should get you rummies up off the La-Z-Boy.

Or you can get up to check out Ristorante Amore, opening next month in the former Cafe Paradiso space at 2355 East Third Avenue. Inspired by the fare at Ti Amo, Amore will offer classic Northern Italian cuisine in an intimate cafe setting. Chef John Smilanic-Beneventi will man the stoves; owner Greg Goldfogel will sign the checks. A few doors away, at 2445 East Third, Y Lo Epicure is set to debut soon, too. Chef/owner Yvonne Lo promises gourmet paninis, soups, salads, pastries, Illy coffee and Chinese flower teas.


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