Six weeks have passed since Colorado's new booze legislation took effect -- the give-a-little/take-a-little double whammy of decreased blood-alcohol levels for drunk-driving offenses (a .08 limit now, down from the somewhat more forgiving .10) and the legalization of take-away wine. Prior to July 1, diners constantly faced the Sophie's Choice of either drinking too much so that they could polish off that $60 bottle of Bordeaux they'd unwisely ordered with the dessert course -- which meant dodging prowl cars and trying to keep the Escalade between the lines on the way home -- or leaving the bottle unfinished, with all that good grape going straight down the drain (or into the gullet of a crafty busboy). This wasn't the kind of decision anyone wanted to make, and more to the point, restaurateurs felt the leftover-wine dilemma was driving down their by-the-bottle sales.
On the other side of the issue were state lawmakers, who'd considered lowering the blood-alcohol limit for years because doing so would release millions of federal dollars for much-needed highway repairs, and the restaurant lobby that felt the industry was already suffering quite enough, thank you very much, and the last thing anyone needed was to have sheriff's department DUI checkpoints set up outside every wine bar in town, arresting what few customers they had for the crime of having a couple swallows too many.
What we finally got was a rather elegant solution -- one that gave a little to both sides and minimized losses for everyone. In one fell swoop, House Bill 1021 lowered the legal BAC level and gave restaurateurs the right to let customers take home their half-full bottles, so that they could finish them once they were safely off the road and in their own living rooms, presumably. Folded into the bill were also provisions allowing for wine and liquor stores to do limited tastings on the premises (four one-ounce pours per customer, five hours a day, four days a week) and one unintended loophole that gives Coloradans the ability to buy wine on Sundays in flagrant disregard for this state's blue laws.
Because there's nothing in the new law that says how much of that bottle a customer has to drink before having it wrapped to go, you could conceivably walk into any restaurant open on Sunday, order a bottle, uncork it, recork it and walk out the door -- content in the knowledge that man has once again triumphed over bureaucracy. And not surprisingly, that's just what some people are doing.
"I think we've probably noticed it the most on Sundays," says Goose Sorenson, chef-owner (along with partner Brian Klinginsmith) of Solera. "People will come in, take one swallow and take the bottle to go." But he also says that twenty or so people have taken advantage of the new law on normal service nights, and that he's seeing a slow rise in people buying full bottles rather than halves or single glasses. And Solera, which adds a Wine Spectator Best of Award for Excellence to its curriculum vitae this month, is a particularly good spot for the wine-aware to do a little bar-room shopping, because the restaurant already has a ver de vin system -- one of those suck-o-matic wine resealers that vacuums all the oxygen out of a bottle, then recorks it for maximum shelf life.
Scott Wilkins, bar manager at Le Central, says the new law hasn't done much for his business. "I wouldn't say it's had a huge effect," he tells me. "But you know, here and there, we've had a few people taking advantage of it. I think the problem is that not a lot of people know about it yet, so we try to tell everyone when they come in." As for the new DUI law, Wilkins thinks "people are definitely drinking just as much as they used to."
Marco Colantonio at Mel's Restaurant and Bar only remembers a half-dozen bottles being taken out in the past two weeks; he, too, blames a lack of education. "People just don't know this is something they can do," he says. "It hasn't been talked about enough yet, but personally, I'm thrilled with the fact that I could walk into a place such as this, with a wonderful, esoteric wine list and a lot of bottles with very low markups, and maybe order a second bottle to take home with me at the end of a meal. And Sundays? That's really the most extraordinary thing."
So no more excuses, folks. Now you know: Anytime you want, anywhere you want, you can walk into a restaurant, order a bottle of wine, have a glass, and take the rest right out the door with you. There's nothing the cops can do, nothing the courts can do, and your only responsibility as a good consumer is not to crack that bottle open in the car. It's not going to take many bad apples to spoil this for everyone, so, as Sergeant Esterhaus says, let's be careful out there.
Ready for bottle: Solera, Mel's, Le Central... there are plenty of places to pick up a good bottle in this town. Don't forget Brix or Adega, either. And how about one worthy eatery that keeps slipping off my personal radar: Potager (1109 Ogden Street). In this week's review, I give Zengo props for putting together a menu without any particular historical precedent, a menu that -- if nothing else -- is entirely true to its own individual geometry. Potager is another place with no precedent, unrecognizable as anything but itself.
Chef Teri Rippeto and sous Mary Kay Bader just rolled out Potager's late-summer menu on August 5 and will be serving it until the first of the autumn produce starts coming in. They're featuring a summer market's worth of good flavors and simple combinations -- just reading the menu fills your head with the sound of crickets, the feel of splintery picnic benches and the smell of sweet corn roasting.
Upside-down tomato tart with feta cheese and mint; river oysters with lemon verbena ice; a salad of grilled shrimp, watermelon, cucumber and Haystack Mountain goat feta with mint syrup; summer tomato salad with fresh basil; brined Niman Ranch pork loin with gingered peach chutney, green beans, summer squash and currants. These aren't just menu items, they're pure expressions of a season as seen through one chef's eyes, as tasted through one chef's memories. And when a kitchen is cooking like that, the food can't be anything but unique.
Speaking of unique, you'd have to look far and wide for another Midwest/Southwest/ Cajun-style spaghetti-Western cowboy diner with a brick-walled Gernsback atomic-alien theme like Atomic Cowboy, the two-month-old restaurant/bar at 3237 East Colfax Avenue. The Cowboy -- brought to life by two of the most dedicated restaurant cultists in Denver right now, Leigh and Robert Thompson, who also own B-52 Billiards and Brasserie Rouge ("Obsession," November 27, 2003) -- is already a favorite haunt among the regulars on that stretch of Main Street USA. It's got everything anyone could want in a diner: good grub served with no fuss, six kinds of salsa to go with the house chips, garlic fries, peanut-butter pie, friendly bartenders, booths covered in cowhide, scantily clad pinup girls straddling Looney Toons rockets, and a kitchen that's open until 1 a.m. every night.
When I first talked to the Thompsons about their plans for Atomic Cowboy, Robert said they were going for "Mark Miller-style cowboy cooking in a place that's a cross between David Lynch and the Wild West. But, you know, with aliens." That's pretty much what they've given us. And because Mezcal and the Goosetown Tavern are within staggering distance, I'm certain the place will look even better two years out, after the crowds have had a chance to break it in a little.
Leftovers: Clair de Lune closed up shop with a final night of service last Saturday. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre.
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"You know how it is," chef/ owner Sean Kelly says. "You just gotta pick a date." And though things had been looking up at the little restaurant that couldn't over the past couple of weeks (a fully committed Tuesday, for example, just last week), Kelly knows it was mostly just folks coming in to say goodbye. "And you know, not just money-wise, but spiritually, it feels good to go out busy," he adds. "No one wants to close with four tables on a Saturday night."
For now, Clair is going to remain dark. Kelly and his remaining crew, including roundsman Seth Black, will spend the rest of the month sitting out the worst of the heat and messing around with the space to see what they can come up with in terms of a new concept. But no one, not even Kelly, is sure what the new incarnation at 1313 East Sixth Avenue will be.
"You'll know when I know," Kelly tells me. And the same goes for you folks out there in Hotcakesland.
And finally, Denver may be losing Clair de Lune, but we're gaining another restaurant in a hole that, just last week, I was worrying would never be filled -- the space in Regatta Plaza, at 12200 East Cornell Street in Aurora, that once held the excellent Maruti Narayan's. But even as I wrote that, a new occupant was calling the place home. Denver Woodlands -- a vegetarian, kosher Indian restaurant and bakery featuring pastries, Indian dosas and a full menu of made-from-scratch Southern Indian dishes -- opened in that very spot just a few weeks ago. And if the crowds there last Saturday night were any indication, Denver Woodlands should be seeing plenty of green.