Welcome to the first round of what will soon be America's all-time favorite question-and-answer game: Ask the Critic. The mailroom here at Bite Me HQ is always deluged with questions about the Denver dining scene and food in general. And while my faithful research staff does its level best to answer each and every one of these queries personally -- even if only with a heartfelt "We don't know" -- I've realized that it would be a public service to share the information with a larger audience. For every person who writes in asking about the proper way to store onions (in a mesh bag, basket or crate placed in a cool, dry place, cured winter onions will keep for 30 to 180 days, according to the National Onion Association) or where to get the best durian smoothie (Isle of Singapore, on University Boulevard), I know there are a hundred of you out there just dying to know the same thing, but too shy to ask.
Here's how the game works: You send in your questions -- questions about anything, as long as there's some link (however tenuous) to the world of food or the Denver/Boulder restaurant scene -- and I answer them. I win when all of the questions have been answered and I can put yet another week's work behind me. And now, let's play...
Q: Where can I eat in Denver that has pretty good food and a view of the mountains? -- Jeanette
A: Surprising as it may seem, Jeanette, your options are rather limited. There's the Pinnacle Club downtown, but it's a members'-only joint. The Denver Diner has about three tables where, if you crane your neck just right, you can see the peaks rising over Colfax Avenue. But your best bet for a view is probably the rooftop terrace at Tamayo, on the edge of Larimer Square. Not only is the scenery wonderful, but the food's much better than pretty good, and the happy-hour menu of free botanas (little bites) and $4 margaritas makes that skyline look even grander.
Q: I have an important date coming up and need a real romantic restaurant for dinner. Any suggestions? -- John
A: John, you dirty little monkey. We know exactly what you mean by "important date." You're expecting to get lucky! Well, good for you. There are numerous spots in town where you and the lucky lady, fella or whoever can go to get the pump primed, so to speak. Vesta Dipping Grill is the perennial fave in this category for its dim lights, intimate ambience, cozy seating and entrees meant for sharing. But Vesta is where you eat when you know the evening's horizontal gymnastics are a foregone conclusion. If your date isn't quite as sure of a thing, Cielo and Cuba Cuba are excellent fall-back options. Both places have good food and plenty of atmosphere. More important, both mix drinks that seem custom-made for speeding the panty-removal process. At Cielo, it's the hot-and-cold margarita, at Cuba, the mojito.
Also, John, my wife has a brilliant suggestion for choosing a restaurant on, uh...opening night. She believes a man should take his intended to a joint that somehow expresses his style in the sack. Therefore, all you youngsters should head straight for the drive-thru, because things are going to be quick, messy and not very satisfying, whereas a champion stick-man should opt for someplace like Adega, with a long, slow, complicated, multi-course tasting menu. As for me? The wife thinks we ought to eat at Luca d'Italia, where the portions are small but the service very friendly.
Q: Speaking of your wife, does she only stay with you because she gets to eat for free? -- Lee
A: Nope. She also loves it that I use a newspaper column read by both sets of parents to talk about our sex life. Hi, Mom!
Q: How come you never do any product/ gadget reviews?-- Jenni
A: Couple of reasons. First, PR types send me a lot of new products every month, and if I were to write about all of them, every review would go the same way: suck, suck and more suck. I've got a whole shelf full of bland magic marinades, sticky non-stick cooking sprays, and some of the worst snack ideas ever to come out of a food lab. I mean, come on: Nut Poppers? Don't they have some kind of product-testing apparatus that would tell them that's the worst name ever for something they expect people to put in their mouths? Second, I don't consider myself a gadget kind of guy. A home cook doesn't need any tool more complicated or newfangled than a food processor. And in terms of professional cheffery, I am a total Luddite. While I was cooking, my kit consisted of seven high-quality knives (two chef's knives, one ten-inch, the other six, both Wusthof Grand Prix series; an antique butcher's saber, pedigree unknown; a Joyce Chen utility knife; a Japanese usuba vegetable knife; a mezzaluna rocker that was a gift and went mostly unused; and a bird's-beak paring knife from Global), three old-fashioned spike thermometers, a combo wine knife and corkscrew, a roll of waterproof surgical tape, an emergency pack of smokes, and that's it. No gadgets, no whiz-bang kitchen doodads, no nothin'. I could get by anywhere with what I carried in my roll and whatever equipment was on site.
But I do have some strong opinions on certain kitchen products. To wit:
Q: I received an expensive garlic press as a wedding present, and can't make it work right. Is there some secret that I don't know? -- Sean
A: Yes. Take the garlic press firmly in your dominant hand, keep it angled so that the holes are facing down, then turn and deposit said garlic press in the trash. Go out and buy yourself a 99 cent box of razor blades, or learn how to use your chef's knife for shaving, slicing, mincing and crushing those cloves. Frankly, if you can't handle preparing garlic without a press, you don't deserve to have garlic in your kitchen. Stick to Hungry Man microwaveable dinners.
Q: My non-stick baking sheets don't work. Everything I cook on them sticks. What am I doing wrong? --Amy
A: Falling for the hype. Know why most professional kitchens don't invest in fancy-pants non-stick cookware? Because most of it is crap, and the stuff that isn't crap (like some of the ultra high-end Calphalon products) is prohibitively expensive and needs to be handled with more care than uranium. Like those shitty knives they sell in grocery stores that claim to never need sharpening, most non-stick pans are total garbage and should follow your garlic press straight into the trash. A simple solution for your baking pans: parchment paper. Go to a real restaurant supply store (like Standard Restaurant Supply at 1420 Oak Street in Lakewood), buy the biggest box there, and use it to line your basic ten-dollar sheet pan. No more sticking.
Q: It seems like you have a pretty sweet job. How can I become a restaurant critic? -- Terry
A: Simple, Terry. Just go out and get yourself a restaurant job. Spend a decade or so working your way up from prep cook to executive chef and two hours or more every night writing about it after your fourteen-hour shift is done. Eat everything. Read everything. And never forget where you came from. But if all that seems like too much work, getting a picture of the New York Times features editor in bed with two marmots and a can of Crisco would probably do just as well.
Q: In reading your columns, I see you constantly bad-mouthing chain restaurants. Yet in your reviews, you always like them. What gives?-- Brian
A: Since joining Westword, I've written nearly a hundred reviews -- and only four have been reviews of chain restaurants. That's a generous count, too, since Griff's Burger Bar on Broadway is one of the last locations of an empire that reached its peak while I was still in short pants, and Tucanos Brazilian Grill in Colorado Mills (see page 69) is part of a chain with only three links. Of those four, only two -- Griff's and the Capital Grill -- received glowing recommendations. I had mixed feelings about the Cherry Creek Grill: loved the burgers and atmosphere, hated being made to feel like an anonymous cog in its giant cash-removal machine. And Tucanos impressed me with its concept, but little else.
And yet, wrong as you are, Brian, you broach an interesting topic. According to the National Restaurant Association, 46.4 percent of every food dollar spent in the United States goes to a restaurant. The food-service industry is expected to bring down $440 billion in sales in 2004, and of that massive chunk of change, roughly $124 billion will go straight into the coffers of quick-service restaurants, to the McDonald's, Taco Bells and Pizza Huts of the world, to "chain and independent establishments without waitstaff service," in the words of the NRA. Of the remaining $316 billion, $157.9 billion will go to full-service operators (which includes everything from Clair de Lune to Chili's). And here's another stat to think about: According to the 2002 edition of the Technomic Top 100, a guide to the chain and fast-casual food-service industry, the top 100 chain-restaurant companies took home $145 billion. That same year, the NRA's projected sales for quick and full-service restaurants combined was only $262 billion. That gives the chains over half of every dollar spent.
To a dispassionate, uninvolved observer, the math on this should be simple. If I want to consider myself a true people's critic -- the vox of the populi, offering useful information and a few laughs to the broadest possible majority of diners -- then something like 55 percent of my reviews should deal with these places. Not 4 percent. That means Burger King one week, Olive Garden the next, then Bennigan's, and maybe, once in a while -- once in a long while -- a visit to Indigo, Brasserie Rouge or Sushi Den. I should be a regular at Olive Garden and have french-fry grease oozing from my pores, because this is the way the majority of Americans eat when they go out for a meal -- and who am I to mock the tastes of the masses?
Only one problem: I eat at places like this and it makes me want to die. And I do eat at them, Brian. I can't help it. When I talk about my desperate loathing of Applebee's and its ilk, I'm not attacking them from an elitist ivory tower, but from the ground, throwing rocks and bottles. The Olive Garden is one of my parents' favorite restaurants. On the evening after my first college visit, we ate at the Olive Garden. Dad's birthday? Olive Garden. Not too long ago, I found myself with an hour to kill before a movie and, by default, ended up spending that time crammed into a table at a local Applebee's eating Riblets. The place was packed to the rafters, the Riblets tasted like horse knuckles dipped in K.C. Masterpiece, and the service made me want to go out and buy a gun.
So should I write a review about that experience? Probably. But what more can I say about a night spent sucking down lowest-common-denominator pap? That I felt like I'd just been stripped naked and dipped in a vat of 60/40 salad oil? No one needs to hear that.
So I pick and choose. When I review a chain restaurant, I have a reason for being there. Either it's done better than I expected or has some draw powerful enough to get me through the doors. At Griff's, it was history. At Tucanos, an opportunity to discuss American shopping-mall culture. And even though the demographics say I should be eating one and a quarter meals every day at a chain restaurant, don't expect to see an Outback Steakhouse review in this space next week.
Leftovers: The first Marie Callender's in Denver -- built, owned and run by the McArthur family since 1976 on South Yosemite -- ended its 28-year run last week. "A hit from the start," remembers Lydia McArthur. "My husband worked hard to stay away from the 'chain' attitude and continued to create food each day from scratch." But ultimately, she says, declining sales, changing demographics and her husband's health problems did the place in. And chain or no, this closure is reason for sadness, because the McArthurs made great pies, and a good lemon meringue washes clean many sins. Just four more Marie Callender's outposts remain in the metro area, out of about 150 in the country.
While I doubt that Taste of Philly -- the little cheesesteak shop that could -- is ever going to get up into that range, it now has three locations: the original, at 2432 South Colorado Boulevard, a second spot at 2660 East County Line Road in Littleton, and a third that had its grand opening last week at 8755 Wadsworth Boulevard in Westminster. What with Taste of Philly making the best cheesesteak in the city (on Amoroso-brand rolls), as well as displaying TastyKakes and Pennsylvania Dutch-style birch beer, every new address of this sandwich shop is cause for celebration.
Here's some news that will mess up my entire system of gauging restaurants: The Hornet has a new man in the kitchen, and it's none other than Kevin Savoy. If the name sounds familiar, it should. Savoy has made repeated appearances in this column: He always seems to be the guy leaving a kitchen just ahead of the introduction of a new chef, a new concept or some sort of massive overhaul in operations. He was at Flow pre-Duy Pham, at Opal post-Duy, and was most recently seen fleeing Agave Underground just ahead of the arrival of Kirk Bliss from Seven 30 South, who did double duty at Agave and Seven 30 until new Agave top dog Michael Degenhart signed on. (Like Duy Pham, Degenhart got his start at Tante Louise, then moved on to the Manor House -- and he apparently won't be joining Pham in Meeker, as Duy suggested in this column two weeks ago.)
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Anyway, Savoy now has the reins at a joint that I've used as my zero-point restaurant since moving to Denver, the place against which all other downtown restaurants were judged. The Hornet has always been exactly good enough -- neither outstanding nor awful -- and a visit here served to regulate my restaurant judgment. If I liked a spot more than the Hornet, it was good. If I'd rather be at the Hornet than where I was, then both the place and I were in serious trouble.
But now that system's shot to hell, and I'm going to have to find a new spot against which to calibrate my opinions. It's too early to know what will happen to the Hornet under Savoy's tenure, but I'm hoping for the best.
Two weeks ago in this column, I offered my musings on the secret of eternal happiness: a long lunch. Now one of my favorite restaurants is taking up the cause. Le Central has proposed that every April be a time for long lunches, lazy afternoons and a return to "the mystic time before the alternative-minimum tax, the tattooed waiter, the fusion food or the espresso to go." And owner Robert Tournier is putting his money where his mouth is, with $2 well martinis ($3 for call) with any lunch entree, and a "retro food sampler" menu to keep that long lunch going all day long.