Had Charlie Huang opened Little Ollie's Asian Cafe, his all-American noodle shack, among the nail salons and after-market car shops along South Federal Boulevard, deep in one of the area's several versions of Chinatown (or Koreatown, or Vietnamtown, or whatever), he would have been laughed off the block. That's the popular conception among Asian foodies, and it's one to which I subscribe -- especially after my recent meals there (see review). Had Huang stuck to dumplings, that might have been fine. But candy-coated fish and those abysmal ribs wouldn't fly down in the land of duck feet, black-bean prawns and crispy fried intestine.
But here's the thing: Huang never tried. He opened his original Little Ollie's in Aspen -- right in the middle of Fat City -- and his second in Cherry Creek. Like the saying goes, location, location, location...
Of course, if you're going to bastardize a cuisine, it's best to go someplace were no one knows the parents. Then there's no stigma. No complaints except from sore-ass snobs like me and a handful of purists you'd never be able to please anyhow. I may consider Huang's kitchen a total snooze, and I may think that he could save a lot of money on food cost by taking Polaroids of each menu item and then serving those snapshots instead because they'd taste about the same, but that's just me. The restaurant has a following as loyal as any -- customers who'd fight like gladiators in the pit just to get to the hostess station and then walk happily over the bodies of the vanquished for an order of ribs and Singapore noodles. Denver's Little Ollie's is ridiculously popular. I imagine Huang has to haul the money out every night in gunnysacks, there's so much of it. And when you've got that kind of support, there's only one right and decent thing to do.
So Huang decides to open another restaurant nearby. But not Little Ollie's squared, not Little Ollie's Mark III; more like Little Ollie's times a thousand, partnering with real-estate developer Jim Sullivan in his new building at Second and Columbine for Mao, a concept so big that the two of them probably had FRANCHISE tattooed across the inside of their eyelids so they could see it when they slept.
And, sure, the partners looked crazy as goddammed loons to all the looky-loos who spent the next year strolling by the almost-block-long space with the brown paper taped up over all its windows, craning their necks to try to get a peek inside. The opening was delayed again and again -- a tactic I'm not entirely convinced wasn't intentional to keep Mao's ridiculous name in the press.
But then Mao finally opened its doors in December, and not only is it far better-looking than I could have guessed, but it's twice as over-the-top and weirder by an order of magnitude. First, of course, there's the sweet irony of doing a zillion-dollar buildout in Cherry Creek, assembling a menu where dinner and drinks for four can easily run you upwards of 300 bucks -- and then naming the place after the granddaddy of Chinese communism. Better still, Mao's menus (which, except for the mediocre offerings from the sushi bar, are only nominally Asian -- which means exactly like Little Ollie's, only more expensive by 30 percent) come tucked inside little red books, and the back wall is adorned with a lovingly rendered, twenty-foot-high portrait of the chairman himself, looking more like Joe Pantoliano out for a stroll than the leader of a murderous agrarian revolution. For shock value, Huang and Sullivan might just as well have opened a Jewish deli called Little Hitler's or a breakfast place named Black Sambo's Chicken and Waffles. But choosing Chi-com agitprop as a decorating style? That takes both nuts and a really unusual sense of humor.
The color-changing sushi bar is hypnotic, the computerized laser-light system that splashes the dining room's ceiling with an ever-shifting smear of shape and color flat-out strange. Ever been to one of those Pink Floyd laser shows? It looks kind of like that, only Chinese, and worth -- in someone's mind, at least -- $50,000. And then there was the porn -- soft-core, sure, but from what I hear, some pretty hot girl-on-girl action -- that got early play on the dozen or so flat-screen plasma monitors that Mao sports throughout the bar and bathrooms. It was a strange move -- risky and doomed to scandalous failure in this age of New Puritanism, when five queers on prime time are A-OK, but two homosexuals kissing on a street corner can ignite a Supreme Court fight -- but the ladies went up on the screens only after 10 p.m. (when Mao the restaurant sheds any veil of respectability, turns down the lights, cranks up the DJs and becomes Bad Mao the nightclub), and it was nothing you couldn't see for $50 in the Champagne Room of your favorite gentleman's club.
The porn is gone now (and again, I'm not sure it wasn't a stunt to begin with), replaced by Hong Kong-style kung fu action flicks. When I showed up on a Monday night to check out the place, I got to watch Sonny Chiba kick some serious ass while I was peeing. And that's just not something a man gets to do that often.
Beyond that, there's entertainment value just in watching the crowd, which is a cross-section of every bad joke I (or anyone else) has ever made about the kind of people drawn to a Cherry Creek hot spot. You want eighty-year-old men being doted on by their 22-year-old trophy wives? You got 'em. Fashionistas in $200 jeans rubbing shoulders with guys who buy their Levi's off the rack at Sears? Straight-up Vegas-style hookers (or at least girls dressed that way)? Mao has all that, plus families, plus couples, plus singles and everything else under the sun. If it were a friendlier place, I'd call these folks eclectic. But friendly it isn't, so I'll call them fun-suckers instead -- a whole desperate tangle of people so hungry for a good time of any variety at all that they were willing to come to Cherry Creek to try to find it.
And come they do. I had to wait an hour and a half for a table. On a Monday night. And when I got that table, there were still plenty of people lined up behind me waiting for their seats in a cavernous dining room already into its third turn at eight o'clock with no sign of slowing.
Yes, it was the holidays. Yes, Mao is still very new. And yes, when Adega first opened, there was a three-month wait for prime reservations there. But still, a ninety-minute wait is nothing to sneeze at, especially when you consider that Mao seats probably three times what Adega can, not counting the bars -- liquor or sushi. And it's doing it in a neighborhood where the last high-concept, high-price attempt -- that Franco-Brazilian fiasco Aquarela -- died an ignominious death last year, lamented by none, after fewer than six months in business.
I and my party dined substantially, if not well. And though it would be both impolite and unprofessional to rip the floor and kitchen a new one for mistakes made just two weeks after opening, I will say this: If you're going to have a sushi bar and sushi menu, you should really spend a minute explaining to servers the difference between sushi (rice) and sashimi (the raw fish). Our server had no clue. Also, simply jamming a single Asian element (ponzu, sesame seeds, white soy) into an otherwise classical preparation (filet mignon or the menu's odd "lemongrass chicken a l'orange") does not make fusion. A mess is what it makes. A confusing mishmash of borders and cuisines. And if you are going to go for the high-end East-meets-Wild West fusion thing as a concept (which Huang and Sullivan appear to be doing since hiring on Bryan Nagao -- a Pacific Rim fusion stylist, formerly of Felix and KOKAGE, both in Hong Kong -- to run the kitchen), you have to do it better and cleaner than everyone else in town. Right now, Mao isn't.
When the new Marriott is finished, another Bryan -- Moscatello, this time -- and the rest of the Adega crew will open another restaurant right across from Mao. Combined with Little Ollie's and Indigo, that's going to turn this corner of Cherry Creek into one of the hottest restaurant neighborhoods in town. Is it going to be the new LoDo? Only inasmuch as brown is the new black and food is the new sex -- in other words, no.
Six months ago, if someone had asked me whether a high-end Asian fusion combo bar-restaurant-nightclub named after a dead mass murderer and decorated in the style of a Chinese head shop would ever make it among the new money of Cherry Creek, I would have bet no. I would have bet every dime I had on no. I would have taken whatever odds were given and mortgaged my parents' house for more money to bet against it. But now I'm not so sure. Success always follows smarts, and Huang and Sullivan have both in spades. If Mao tanks (as it still very easily could), there will be whole lines of people waiting to say they thought it was a bad idea from the start. But if the kitchen finds its borders and starts turning out something special, something as impressive as Nagao's resumé, I think Mao has a shot. Unfortunately, those crowds -- those hour-long waits -- are coming now. I've got to wonder if in six months those people will still be coming back.
Leftovers: Christmas wishes do come true. First, the Fourth Story has a new chef, a new sous and a new menu that rolled out this past Saturday night. Chris Reap, formerly of Nicois, is top-dogging the kitchen (replacing Tyler Wiard, who's now back at Mel's in place of the departed Jeff Saudo), and John Sage (of the Mediterranean in Boulder) has his back. The Fourth Story has also lowered prices to the high-teens/mid-twenties range on dishes somewhat more egalitarian and in line with the feel of the Tattered Cover, on which this restaurant sits.
In my December 25 Bite Me, I'd also wished for Denver to get its own professional market where cooks could come and manhandle the produce they'd be cooking with that night. And while that's not quite a snap-your-fingers-and-it's-done kinda wish, Pete Marczyk of Marczyk Fine Foods and Wine was on the phone not long after, saying he'd been thinking the same thing. "When we first opened, that was our intention," Marczyk explained. "A big market for professionals and the community." And sometime in the future, he hopes to open his market for a few hours one day a week to "pros only," he says, "just industry guys who could come in and stock up for their weekend specials."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.