Shrimp and chicken shao mai; steamed duck spring rolls dipped in warm soy; short ribs with red onions in a scallop sauce; a whole striped bass, split, head and tail mounted on opposite ends of the plate and served with the tender filets soaking in a gingered soy broth. While L.D. Buffet (see review, page 59) may have satisfied my urge for extreme critical sport, it did nothing to settle my yen for good Chinese food. For that, I had to go across town to Johnny Hsu's Imperial Chinese Seafood Restaurant.
Looking at side-by-side menus for the two places, you could (almost) believe they were related. Moo shu this and kung pao that, duck and chicken, lots of seafood, and every dish with a name so familiar (beef with broccoli, shrimp in lobster sauce, Happy Family, Triple Delight and sesame whatever), so common in the diner's modern lexicon, that none of them even seem foreign anymore. But on the floor, the two restaurants couldn't be more different. In every vital measure save pure volume, Hsu's longtime Broadway outpost wins. If L.D. Buffet is where cuisine goes to die, then the Imperial is where it comes to be rehabilitated, taught a vocabulary of Sino-American flavors, dressed up pretty and served with the dignity which it is due.
The waiters here move silently across the carpeted floor, watching their tables with a practiced eye, recognizing the most subtle signs of want or need and responding long before the raised hand or dinner-napkin semaphore is required. Like ghosts in starched shirts and black bow ties, they arrive bearing trays and covered plates. They spoon out rice, mounding it up along the edge of an empty dish, then whisk away finished platters and bowls and used silverware like a circus novelty act -- walking with them stacked all the way up their arms to the elbow.
The Imperial's food is exemplary of what's basically a half-assed concept to start. Americanized Chinese food is a hobbled style, a fence-sitter's idea of perfection with neither traditionalism nor originality on its side, the menus an eternal Fibonacci sequence of repeated themes beginning with good and rocketing down quickly to twisting extremes of pure suck. Although the Imperial can't escape this critique of the cuisine as a whole, its interpretation is near the top of the spiral, offering inspiration in place of originality and clean, bright lines of balanced flavor rather than the dumb, blunt force of the copycats.
The whole bass is beautifully prepared -- not perfectly boned, but tender and delicate nonetheless, steamed with scallions and served in a black bath of ginger-infused soy. The beef with snow peas brings ribeye soft enough to cut with a fork and earthy-sweet pea pods green as flawless jade. The yakitori is dull -- far from the grill-charred skewers of glazed chicken neck and rib meat served on the Ginza -- but harmless, something that can never be said of the Japanese food-cart version, where every order is a gamble on par with eating Tijuana shrimp cocktails off the street. And the signature dishes -- which go on for two pages on the wide-ranging menu -- are all excellent, highly personalized riffs on workaday Asian cafe standards. Whole roasted duckling, stripped off the bone and served with scallion pancakes; sesame prawns that don't taste just like maple candy; Chinese five-spice crab; filet mignon stir-fried with snap peas; even an Asian gumbo -- this is red-velvet, sit-down American Chinese the way it's supposed to be.
What's more, Hsu's other restaurant -- the Palace at 6265 East Evans Avenue, not the takeout joint at the Tech Center King Soopers -- has recently added weekend dim sum to the board. The Palace essentially cloned the Imperial's success, offering that same red- velvet Chinese-American grub as well as Vietnamese food, with excellent, soft-footed service in a Midwestern Chinatown space. The Palace's food is good -- better in some cases than the Imperial's -- but not terribly original, so this experiment in the fish-balls-and-fried-pork breakfast of champions is a welcome addition. Although the dim sum here doesn't quite rise to the level of that found at, say, Mee Yee Lin, which starts doling out the Vietnamese coffee and dumplings at 8:30 a.m. every day of the week, and is available only at weekend brunch, these small plates are priced to move, and some dim sum is certainly better than no dim sum at all.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em: After my original (and highly pissed off) screed on Denver's potential smoking ban ("Smoke Free or Die," December 5, 2002), and after the subsequent weeks of following up and piling on, I figured I was done. I'd had my say, used my soapbox not as a step to elevate myself above the throng, but as a club to bludgeon the dumb, and I felt pretty good about the results. We had a swell dialogue going in these pages for about a month, and shortly after that, the ban offered up by proponents of the nanny-state died an ignominious (though questionable) death -- ground to a fine powder by the machinations of an outgoing city council.
It was a triumph for free will, free-market economics and the freedom for people who know better to make bad choices anyway.
But now I find myself drawn back into the fray. Not because the Fun Police have come knocking, and not because the fight is heating up (the issue has been locked into a nice Cold War state since the deep-sixing of the last comprehensive ban proposal, and with 70 percent of Denver restaurants now willfully smoke-free, the non-smokers are winning by logic, not legislation, which is fine by me), but because of a weird synchronicity in the news.
Last week saw the release of a study by Littleton-based Anderson and Associates, in conjunction with those party animals over at the Denver Department of Environmental Health, who'd sampled the air in 22 randomly selected bars around the city. The results were shocking: In bars where smoking was allowed, there was smoke in the air. And the more smokers there were smoking, the more smoke there was. Go figure. The study found that in most of these places, the air quality inside a room filled with smokers was worse than the air quality outside on one of Denver's notorious "brown cloud" days. Unbelievable, isn't it? Smoke being found in smoky bars? What's next? Fish at a seafood restaurant? Alcohol being served in a bar?
At roughly the same time the results of this study were being presented for vociferous and screechy public debate, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a five-four ruling saying that the newest in a long line of proposals aimed at limiting access to Internet pornography was, first, unconstitutional; second, stupid; and third, just plain wrong and mean and laughably overzealous.
What do smoking and Internet porn have in common? Well, to start with, they're two of my favorite pastimes and together make up the bulk of what I do with my time around the office. But more important, the arguments that the justices used to strike down COPA -- the Child Online Protection Act at the center of this controversy -- are the same arguments that I generally use when defending my right to light up a smoke in public. Those in favor of COPA say Internet porn is nasty. So is smoking. They say that in trying to limit people's access to blurry pics of Paris Hilton choking down her sweetheart's swollen member, they're trying to protect the children who might stumble across such filth by accident while looking for perfectly decent pics of Christina Aguilera pretending to do the same thing in front of a paying crowd. The non-smoking activists also use this inane rallying cry of protecting the children when they say that smoking should be banned.
And you know what the learned justices of the Supreme Court did? They essentially told the folks from COPA to go fuck themselves, to keep a closer eye on their children, to invest in some filtering software for the home PC, and to stop trying to legislate their ideas of morality. By extension, I think their sage wisdom should be applicable in all areas of daily life, particularly smoking. If you don't like porno, don't go looking for it, right? Don't let your children find your stash of back issues of Granny Banger, don't get caught with your willy in your hand watching the late-night skin flicks on Cinemax, and if you have a computer that your kids use, get a filter that will let them learn about breast cancer research for their school science project, but won't let them do research on who's got the best rack in Hollywood. You don't like smoke? Don't smoke. Don't go to smoky bars. Don't hang out in places where smokers congregate. And if you really want to protect the kids, don't take them to a fucking bar with you in the first place!
Frankly, if you and your six-year-old are hanging out at the Iliff Park Saloon on a Saturday night, you've got some pressing parenting issues with that have nothing to do with protecting junior from secondhand smoke.
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I don't know how many times I have to say this, folks. You can't legislate away the things that you don't like. Porn, Kenny G music, smoking -- whatever it is that's chapping your ass, you've gotta let it go, because morality, equality and freedom of choice aren't things that can be sued out of existence. Or rather, they can be, but shouldn't. Simple as that. And if fervent supporters of the nanny-state must go and get their panties in a bunch over something, how about doing something useful? Rather than going after the First Amendment or my right to light up at the end of a long day, how about fighting against Mexican restaurants charging for chips and salsa? In my world, that's a far greater sin than sucking down a half a pack of reds while anxiously waiting for the newest Pamela Anderson wedding-night video to download.
Leftovers: Goose Sorenson is back cooking at Solera after his exertions at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and he has some stories to tell. There's the one about him and the Food Network's stud-of-the-moment, Tyler Florence, being asked if they were brothers; the one about knocking back margs with Mario Batali by the pool; the one about helping to shovel Eric Ripert from Le Bernardin out of a cab in front of the Hotel Jerome because he was too drunk to properly understand up from down. My favorite is this: Because of a lack of time, space and everything else vital to the preparation of a fine meal, and despite a week's worth of prep and the expense of trucking hundreds of pounds of braised lamb shank, calamari and such up and over Independence Pass, Goose, his sous chef and Tyler Wiard from Mel's were forced to clean and strip 600 quail and 33 sides of yellowtail hamachi in their suite at the Little Nell while the debauched festivities raged all around them. Imagine for a moment what that must've smelled like. Imagine the stricken horror on the face of the maid who had to turn down that room. Imagine being the next poor sap to have to bed down there.
Regardless, they did Denver proud. Their foie-gras-lacquered quail was the hit of the event; their late-night excesses at Nobu, Sky Bar and elsewhere were handled with nobility and grace (i.e., nobody barfed on Bobby Flay); and they've already got an invite for next year's bash. Congrats, guys. And welcome home.