It's been a rough year for the food business. The economy's still in the tank, and yet more and more restaurants are opening, creating more and more seats for diners willing to spend less and less. If I were a pessimist, I'd call it an inescapable spiral. But at heart I'm really an optimist, and I still believe there's room for good guys to make good money cooking great food. I think that running a restaurant is tough, but it's doable if you follow this simple rule: Cook it (right) and they will come.
Then I hear news that makes me doubt even my own convictions. News like this: Indigo, one of my favorite restaurants in town, with one of Denver's best kitchens bossed by one of our best chefs, has closed. Yup, that's right. Indigo est mort. Kaput. Fini. Over and out. On Tuesday afternoon, Indigo served its last lunch, and on Tuesday night began serving the new menu for the restaurant that will officially fill the space at 250 Josephine Street on some as-yet-undetermined date. For now, we'll call it the Go Fish Grill, because that's what owner Larry Herz has in mind for a name, even though that's not yet settled. And we'll say that the new place should be firmly in place, so to speak, by sometime after June 1, because that's the date Herz has in mind -- but that's not settled, either.
"I haven't committed to anything yet," Herz says. "I'd like to have some more details or something exciting to tell you, but I don't know."
Except he does. We talk about the menu, which is going to be fish, mostly, and the kinds of things that go with fish: crabcakes, macaroni and cheese, Key lime pie. There'll be some Vesta Dipping Grill-style sauces for every entree, daily menu changes, and a board of fare that sounds like it's arranged more like Tom Colicchio's Craft in New York City than anything we've seen recently here in the sticks. And that makes sense, because Herz has been poring over Colicchio's menus -- along with those from the Empire Diner and his own from Carmine's on Penn -- for weeks in preparation for the shift.
"The most important thing was to be casual and consistent," Herz says. "The key is to make sure nothing gets too fancy." And that's a big departure from the vision that drove Indigo, where the food was a lot more about art and less about craft. "Now it's just about cooking the best of whatever we're cooking, right? It's a cook thing. If you're cooking roasted chicken, you cook the best roasted chicken. If you're cooking fish, you cook the best fish in the city."
Chef Ian Kleinman will still be in the kitchen, along with his old Indigo crew, and Herz assures me that the young cook is totally on board with the new plans. "Ian understands that something has to change," he explains. For months, like just about everyone else in town, Indigo had been suffering from low head counts, good weekends but miserable weeknights, and constant battles over pricing. "It's tough," Herz says. "Everyone who comes in, they tell me, 'Oh, I love this place. It's my favorite restaurant.' I ask them when's the last time they were here, and they say three months ago. Well, it's no wonder I'm closing, then, right?"
Not closing entirely, though, because while Indigo will be gone, Kleinman's kitchen will keep serving until the space goes dark for a few days of remodeling. "We're gonna warm it up a bit," Herz says of Indigo's cool blue interior. "Make it a little fishy."
And there's a still a chance that the restaurant could turn into something completely different than planned, because Herz has been talking with potential investors. "And if one of them comes up with a hundred grand and wants to change the name, change the menu," he says, "well, then they're gonna get to change the name or the menu, I guess."
So only one thing's for sure right now: If you didn't get in for a last meal at Indigo over the past few days, now it's too late.
Ragin' Cajun: I liked the food at Broussard's Creole Cafe (see review) but really disliked the space. According to the owners, the house is working on all those things that got between me and my simple enjoyment of some really good Creole grub. Soon the restaurant will be serving a full menu every night. Soon it will have its front-of-the-house act together so that the food -- not the spotty decor or distracted service or mostly empty dining room -- is what people will remember. I'm just hoping all of this comes together soon enough, because I'd hate to see étouffée and po' boys as good as Broussard's disappear from the scene.
If only the Broussard family, which dreamed of opening a restaurant for years, had found a better spot than 233 East Colfax Avenue, a big ol' dinosaur of a room on a heavily trafficked part of the street with no designated parking and some pretty rough neighbors; a little, humble spot, a place where no one had to be concerned with anything but the food. Because let's face it: Gumbo, po'boys, red beans and rice -- this stuff is street stuff, the Big Easy equivalent of a red hot with 'kraut and mustard. It's street food, peasant fare with an American twist.
Over at 1618 East Colfax, Bourbon Grill offers a perfect example of street-level eating. This place is a shack, a tumbledown storefront crammed between a nail salon and a vacant lot that once held a Burger King. And even calling it a storefront is being generous, because there's no store and really no front, just a kitchen that opens straight onto the street and a hole that you shout your orders through. Two plastic picnic tables are set up on the sidewalk -- that's the dining room. Paper menus are taped up on the windows, and there's usually a line in front of those windows. A lot of Bourbon Grill's business comes by way of the bus stop ten steps away (location, location, location). And the front door is always open to let out the smoke that rolls in chicken- and charcoal-scented clouds all the way down the block.
There's a food-court operation -- the Bourbon Street Grill -- that's a mall-ified version of this place. And like those happy, plastic cookie-cutter outlets, this Bourbon Grill serves Bourbon chicken -- whole breasts cooked on a smoky, char-black grill, then pulled off, laid into with a cleaver, and doused in a woody-sweet sauce that's all Liquid Smoke and sodium benzoate. I know that sounds nasty, but it's not. It's good in a lowest-common denominator sort of way (the only denominator that real street food should ever be concerned with), and for $2.99, you get the equivalent of two full breasts, chunkily brutalized with the cleaver, all grill-black and fatty but fresh and hot, too, served over rice in a bulging takeout Styro.
And unlike those mall spots, Colfax's Bourbon Grill also serves boiled cabbage, egg rolls, quote-unquote Philly cheesesteaks ruined with peppers and mushrooms, chicken wings and steamed vegetables. There's sweet-and-sour chicken right out of the wok, Texas barbecue sandwiches -- all manner of weird culinary combinations that would seem wholesale freaky served in any place with silverware or waiters but here feel just right.
On a Wednesday night, with Cajun still on my mind, I dropped by Bourbon Grill for a little something after work. I watched rush-hour traffic while waiting in line behind construction workers, an old Navy man with a faded Popeye tattoo gone smudgy blue on his shaved scalp, and four young rock-and-rollers sporting Napalm Death tees and enough steel in their faces to trick out an old Buick. It was a Colfax crowd (not the kind generally showcased by the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, but still), and after ten minutes spent slouching around jawing with the neighbors, I ordered my Bourbon chicken (the same thing everyone was ordering, and the spécialité de la maison if ever there was one), as well as a chicken sandwich, Cajun spiced, with grilled onions and big, gooey gobs of white American cheese on a spongy sub roll that'd been sweating all day in its plastic bag.
The sandwich wasn't a Broussard's po' boy, by any stretch, but it was good, and it came from precisely the sort of place that I wish the Broussard family had made their stand.
In its headlong rush to ape every trend and fad exploding onto the scenes of food cities everywhere, Denver may have forgotten that not every food needs (or even wants) a pretty plate to sit on and a sculpted garnish to fuss it up. Service captains, soft jazz, flower arrangements and even construction-paper crocodiles all have their place, sure, but they don't belong in every place. And with my Bourbon Grill dinner, I was perfectly content to sit on the trunk of my car, eat in the fading sun and wish this spot served po'boys too.
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Leftovers: Further east on Colfax, Tante Louise is moving "away from the French box," according to owner Corky Douglass. The venerable establishment, which I gave a bit of a kicking a year ago ("A Rocky Romance," February 13, 2003), has struggled some with its identity after replacing chef-about-town Duy Pham with former sous chef Marlo Hix. And considering the years (decades, really) that this place has stood as a bastion of old-guard haute French cuisine, this new menu is a daring departure. We're talking Kobe beef, scallop ceviche, goat cheese and spinach panacotta, hand-shucked oysters with grapefruit mignonette or (gasp) tomato-horseradish salsa. And while some house classics remain on the appetizer menu (foie gras, for example, and garlic-crusted sweetbreads), the entree side has seen even more change. Ginger-glazed duck breast in pineapple-miso broth? Roasted deer loin with roasted pasilla peppers and lavender-honey jus? Escoffier must be spinning like a drill bit in his grave.
As for me, I can't wait to see the old Tante get some new life.
Mirepoix, the newest venture from the guys at Adega, is having an invite-only bash on May 26 at the new J.W. Marriott in Cherry Creek, with a full-service opening just five days later. And, yeah, even before the grand unveiling, this restaurant is already being called a "culinary marvel" by the guys' PR machine, which I think is a bit premature. But I will give them this: Mirepoix hit its opening-date prediction right on the nose, and that's pretty rare these days. It's also in marked contrast to what the Adega owners found when they tried to open Table 6, which finally debuted about six months behind schedule and with an entirely different management structure.
We've lost Cafe Rio at 6830 South University Boulevard -- the lights are off and nobody's home -- but gained yet another sushi joint. Sushi Lodo is up and running at 1530 Blake Street, offering all-you-can-eat rolls for $9.95. Finally, the Gold Hill Inn in the mountain town of the same name has opened for the season, with the Finn family once again offering a six-course, prix fixe dinner for $28 a head, no credit cards accepted.