Long ago, in a column far, far away -- July 18, 2002, to be exact, when Bite Me debuted -- I had pretty strong things to say on the topic of restaurant decor, service and all that pomp and stagecraft that goes along with the execution of a fine meal.
"Since putting down my Henckels and picking up the pen two years ago, I've found that I no longer believe a restaurant should be judged on the weight of its silver, the art on its walls or the name hung above its door," I wrote. "I'm still just as much of a prick when it comes to things like overcooked garlic, people who misuse the word Œaioli' and celebrity chefs who forget that it's the food and not them up on stage when the plates hit the table. But then, I'm also less embarrassed to admit that on some nights, I feel like one more black-pepper-crusted ahi tuna steak might kill me. These days, I believe only in good food or bad food. Everything else is just window dressing."
While I can't blame the tongue-wagging solely on youth or naiveté (I already had nearly a decade and a half of chefdom behind me at that point and about a hundred thousand words of food writing), I can say that I was a different man back then. Not better or worse, just different. At the time, my view of the restaurant world was still colored by my experiences behind the scenes, on the lines and in the whites of more houses than I can comfortably admit to even now. I still had a cook's hands then, a cook's weltanschauung. I was still the guy who'd nearly gone to jail for drunkenly dropping trou in a packed food-service bar in New York, dangling my cornstarch-dusted tackle just to get some free drinks for me and my guys (most of whom also had their pants around their ankles in a show of solidarity); the same fella who once punched a produce vendor for bringing a flat of mushy strawberries too close to Friday-night service for me to send them back.
And although I understood in intimate detail the way pro kitchens worked, my education on the rest of the business was just beginning. Interior design, the magic of light, the weight of silver and the diamond-edged sparkle of fine crystal, the delicate interplay of service and bus -- even with a hundred-odd professional meals already under my belt, this was all new to me. So I talked to servers, got to know hosts and floormen, interviewed owners and -- while still espousing the dogma that it was all about the food, stupid -- began backing off that hard-line stance and really looking at what went on in the front of the house.
So now, with several hundred more meals behind me, I can confidently say that the little nut-waving scamp with the busted knuckles was exaggerating just a smidge when he wrote "Good food or bad food. Everything else is just window dressing." The food -- the ultimate expression of the soul, heart and talent that lives in a restaurant -- is still the most important thing, but that other junk? It matters, too.
All things being equal, two restaurants that do the same kind of food in the same kind of environment with equal measures of skill must finally be judged in terms of the overall dining experience. Denver's restaurant scene has a wealth of steakhouses, but when you're talking high-tone steak-and-potatoes meateries -- dark wood, leather, filet mignon, prime rib -- you're talking about a line all cut from pretty much the same cloth. What set Capital Grille (see review) apart from The Palm and everyone else were all those things that a younger, cockier me would have considered just so much window dressing. Little things like great steak knives, the color-coding of the napkins, the padded tables, the library of newspapers from the past two days. Slightly bigger things like the sherry tureen, and then the biggest thing of all: the service. I've never felt more competently handled or better treated with less apparent cause than I did during my visits to the Grille. And though I'm sure this restaurant has its moments of crisis and disconnect, I've rarely seen a staff operate so smoothly or so well.
This has a lot to do with the truckloads of money the good folks from RARE Hospitality Management, which runs the Capital Grille brand, backed up and dumped into what had been an empty lot at 1450 Larimer Street; it has even more to do with the amount of time, effort and expense that went into the training of the kitchen (both chef Paul Schutt and manager Charlie Stauter were sent to the hinterlands for three months to train at already operating Grille locations), the floor staff (which went through three test lunches and five test dinners before the doors ever opened) and even the valets who park your car. The right way to do everything, from opening a door to lifting a plate, was hammered into this crew long before the first paying customers arrived. But far from coming off smarmy and forced -- like the stapled-on smiles of a Papadeaux server or Jimmy the Waitron at your local T.G.I. Friday's -- the hospitality offered here was honest. The staff's attention to every detail of service was reminiscent of the crazed perfectionism of Charlie Trotter's, only without the image of an obsessive-compulsive maniac like Charlie hanging over everything like the face of a vengeful, nitpicky God.
A long time ago, in my pre-scribbler days, I had a banquet captain named Jonathan who was a grave proponent of the "good servers are made, not born" philosophy. He firmly believed that a person born to the trade of service could walk onto any floor in the world and do his jobs with perfect, unobtrusive smoothness -- and Jonathan wanted none of that. "Fuck him," he would say, always giving a one-finger salute as some industry veteran with twenty years in house livery went strolling out of the banquet office. "Another one. Bah... The ones who know everything are useless to me. They can't learn anymore. Refuse to. A good server can be born, but great service, a great team, has to be made. Better I have twenty who know nothing than one who thinks he knows everything. Nothing, I can work with."
And that's a lesson in service I'm coming to understand.
Second helping: The same week I introduced myself in Bite Me, I reviewed Venice Ristorante. At the time, chef Alessandro Carollo's restaurant at 5121 South Yosemite in Greenwood Village was barely three months old, packed every night, and a showcase for the sort of dishes Carollo had learned in his time at LoDo's Il Fornaio, San Diego's Tuscany, the Grand Hotel in Florence and in the classrooms of the Italian Culinary School in Venice.
The place has gone through some changes since then. For one thing, it's no longer called Venice. Carollo changed the name to Chianti and added menu offerings from Italy's Chianti region. But it's still a hot spot, still packed from open to close, and still can do amazing things.
On a recent Saturday night, the aragosta ravioli with smooth lobster sauce that had underwhelmed me my first time through was much better, and the galleto Chianti was better still -- a fine combination of tomato, roasted eggplant and whole cloves of garlic in a soft-edged sauce over breaded chicken breast, with a side of excellent Tuscan beans salted with slivers of pancetta. But a plate of linguine gamberoni in a simple tomato beurre blanc was disjointed. Although the pasta was al dente, the sauce mild and sweet, the shrimp perfectly cooked, it seemed as though each element of the plate had been cooked at a great distance from the others, with everything thrown together at the last minute for service. Nothing tasted like it belonged with anything else. In fact, no one element tasted as though it had even been introduced to any of the others, let alone given time to mingle and do a little dancing. Add to this a Toscano salad with beautiful-looking but underripe, out-of-season tomatoes, and the necessity of having someone in the kitchen tasting things before they leave the dining room becomes plain.
It could be that Carollo was out -- seeing to a second restaurant that still bears the Venice Ristorante name, located just a few blocks away, at 5946 South Holly -- or that the kitchen was having an off night. It could've been a lot of things, but most telling was that many of the mistakes I'd found during my first visits to Venice -- an early pulling of sauces before the flavors had been given time to coalesce, a concentration on elemental perfection without keeping an eye on how these elements worked together -- were repeated last week at Chianti. This is a kitchen that does some great food, but one that also needs to be very careful in the way that food is presented on the plate.
Like the man says: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Leftovers: The space at 1039 Pearl Street in Boulder that had been occupied by Triana is now The Kitchen. For their soft opening, chef-owners Kimbal Musk and Hugo Matheson put together a light, pleasantly simple spring menu filled with little bites like Kumumoto oyster shooters with flying-fish roe and ginger vinaigrette at $2.50 a pop, sea scallops over pea purée, Burrata and roasted olives on bruschetta, and a torchon of foie gras with poached cherries (the thought of which is making me drool on the keyboard). Entrees cover all the traditional bases: a pork shoulder, leg of lamb, duck, filet mignon, salmon with asparagus and morels, wild bass in a basil broth. This is a chef-driven board of fare filled with solid classics -- not overdone, not overblown, not excessively complicated just for the sake of showing off the season's latest buzzword ingredients. What's more, the new kids on the block are striving for breakfast, lunch and dinner from a kitchen stocked with free-range, natural and organic produce, with as much as possible coming from local farmers and ranchers. Admirable, sure, but running three-meal-a-day houses is tough.
Still, I wish these guys all the luck in the world. I'll miss Triana, but I'm looking forward to seeing what Kimbal and Hugo can do.
Down in Denver, that space at 1 Broadway that most recently swallowed up Sweet B.O.B.'s BBQ, a place I really liked, has been taken over by Spicy Basil. And happy anniversary to Kevin Taylor, whose eponymous Restaurant Kevin Taylor in Hotel Teatro hits the five-year mark this month. Here's wishing him five more good ones.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.