While I enjoyed Little India (see review), eating there made me think about the best Indian place I'd tried in Denver: Maruti Narayan's. Because of Narayan's location at 12200 East Cornell Avenue in Aurora -- way back in a forgotten corner of the multi-tiered Regatta Plaza, a graveyard of great restaurants that could have been -- it was probably doomed from the start. There was no road from which you could see it, and it was flanked by nothing more interesting than an Indian grocery, a Latino grocery and a tanning salon. But I loved everything else about Narayan's -- the smell, the casual vibe and the food, which was absolutely fantastic.
Now a new Indian restaurant has moved into that cursed location, and Denver Woodlands is making a brave attempt to revitalize an address that's been dark over a year. The kitchen serves all-kosher, all-vegetarian food, and almost everything is some riff on the crepe, pancake or set cake, stuffed and/or sauced in the style of Southern Indian chefs who can trace their culinary traditions back through centuries of religious perfectionism. The specialties are dosa -- a kind of rice crepe, arguably originating from Southern India, Tamil Nadu or Malaysia -- and the cuisine of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala. This translates to idly rice cakes with coconut chutney, vada lentil-flour doughnuts, curries, the cooked-wheat chow chow bath from Bangalore, and more dosas than I've ever seen. Buttered potato dosa; an unbelievably delicious masala version, in which the crepe is stuffed with curried potatoes; another with green chile; another with sautéed onions and chutney; another with cottage cheese and chutney. The list goes on forever, as do the dosas themselves, which look like stunted baseball bats -- each as long as my forearm, and as big around as the business end of a Louisville Slugger.
Not being a vegetarian, I couldn't help wondering what a bit of lamb or chicken might've done to jazz things up, but still, if I ever give up my omnivorous ways and go over to the dark side, Denver Woodlands will be the first place I stop.
Shot and a beer: In the September 2 Bite Me, I raved about the wonders of the small-batch, artisan Del Maguey mezcal (with a little m) being served up by Mezcal (with a big M), the cantina at 3230 East Colfax Avenue, and pushed by Pablo, champion white-lightning sommelier.
Well, I've since learned that one of my other favorite bars, Brix (at 3000 East Third Avenue in Cherry Creek), is also serving the stuff. I was down there a couple of weeks ago digging the scene, hanging out among the beautiful and the botched, furthering my boozy education (still amazed after all these years that slouching at a great bar, drinking and shooting the breeze with friends and complete strangers, is considered part of my working day) and holding an irregular conversation with Tony the bartender about how George Lucas had betrayed the vision of our collective youths by releasing his remastered versions of the first three Star Wars movies when the talk turned to favorite drinks. I professed a fondness (okay, more than a fondness) for Kilbeggan Irish whiskey, which Brix doesn't serve, and then happened to mention the Del Maguey. At which point Tony lit up, scampered off and fetched a bottle from deep in the back of the rack at the far end of the bar.
Apparently the cult of Del Maguey -- with Pablo as its prophet -- had already made it from Colfax to Cherry Creek. And at Brix, as at Mezcal, the plain bottles with the hand-numbered labels soon became a staff favorite. I had a quick knock of the stuff, chasing it with the dregs of my Pacifico, and thought about how if Brix weren't already the perfect New York-style neighborhood bar, owned by the prodigal son of Brit/American restaurant royalty and run by a bunch of veteran Latino cooks and good-time Denver food-service hooligans, it could easily become my favorite Mexican bar.
Furthering Brix's cross-cultural fertilization, Charlie Master (the prodigal son in question) recently signed the papers to bring on Sean Yontz (once of Vega, now the man behind the scenes at Mezcal) for a six-week consulting hitch. If all goes well, absolutely nothing about Brix will change noticeably. No new decor, no menu changes, no radical alterations of the vibe that's made this joint one of the rare winners in a restaurant season marked mostly by memorable losses. Yontz's work -- with an assist from his friend and Mezcal chef Roberto Diaz -- will be all back-of-the-house tinkering with ordering and kitchen operations, bringing food and labor costs into line. All the stuff that, by his own admission, isn't Charlie's forte. He's a front-of-the-house guy, born and bred, and can get more money and mileage out of five minutes working the dining room than he ever could from five hours poring over the books.
So what is it with Yontz making the leap from chef du moment to in-demand restaurant consultant? Simple: He has the touch.
In the battlefield that is the restaurant business, there are essentially three kinds of chefs. First is the working chef, who thrives down in the trenches with the grunts, pulling station duty, expediting, commanding troops from the front lines. The Corporal Kilgore, "Charlie don't surf" kind of chef who does his best work under fire. That was the kind of chef I was, and my experiences are drawn from that unique, bottom-up view of the job.
Second, there's the true exec -- the General, the weather-beaten pirate captain -- who works best at one remove from the fray. These are the slightly aloof, slightly distant chef-gods, the ones who take the long view rather than operate ticket to ticket and night by night. The General can look at the book and see into the future, flip through the pages of numbers and figures generated by his kitchen and see the past. The best of them can take one turn through the galley in the worst depths of second seating, inspire his crew to work through the pain, and know -- in a single glance -- everything that's going wrong, has gone wrong, and will go wrong tomorrow.
Yontz is one of these. He's got the eyes and the nose and the hands of a cook and the clear foresight of the Oracle of Delphi. With consulting, he's found a way to use all of that to his best advantage.
Oh, and the third type of chef? That's everyone else. The clipboard checkers. The stuffed white jackets drifting around their dining rooms soaking up the compliments that should go to their crews. The Kurtz-ian corporate chefs so far gone from what are ostensibly their kitchens that to get to them when something goes finally, terribly awry requires a swift-boat trip up the Nung River and then, almost always, some ritual sacrifice on the steps of the temple. These are the black hats. Lucky for me, I get to spend most of my time dealing with the good guys.
Leftovers: The Pinnacle Club, currently occupying the top two floors of the Qwest Tower, is going dark. As of January 2, the club and hoity-toity banquet space will be no more. For a whole generation of brides and businessmen, this is the end of an era.
Opened in 1948 as the Denver Petroleum Club in the old Albany Hotel, then moving shortly after that to a building at 16th and Broadway, then over to 17th Avenue, this private enclave has existed on the Denver restaurant scene since before there was any such thing. It was members-only, and for all I know, there might have been secret handshakes and bizarre petroleum-related hazing rituals for new members. And while I can't claim any personal relationship with the place, it was the site of one of the more infamous fake Jason Sheehan sightings, as reported in this space on July 31, 2003.
But in just a few months, the floors will be cleared, the fixtures and equipment sold off to cover the debt run up during the club's troubles with bankruptcy, reorganization and, now, liquidization. It was the initial bankruptcy filing back in January that led to this fiduciary impasse -- news of financial woes put a stranglehold on banquet reservations and new membership, worries about the club's future caused old members to abandon ship -- and now the fifty-year-old business will be no more. Another Denver institution down the tubes.
Pinnacle's board and management are trying to make this death as painless as possible. "Through the end of the year, our employees will continue to have a place to work, brides will continue to be able to hold their wedding receptions at the club, and members will continue to have the full use and benefit of our facilities," says president Michael Schranz. "The board's decision to continue operations through the end of the year is a reflection of our commitment to our members, our employees, and our patrons."
It's not much of a eulogy, but it's better than nothing.
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Meanwhile, there's a new Pinnacle coming to town -- this one a dinner theater that will occupy the space at the corner of Wadsworth Boulevard and West Bowles Avenue in Littleton that was the Ascot Dinner Theatre. The Pinnacle Dinner Theatre will be able to seat 500, have a board of fare prepared by an as-yet-unnamed executive chef turning out classic crown roasts and beef Wellingtons, and will debut in November with Winnie the Pooh's Holiday Tail. The grand-opening date, which coincides with the opening of Pinnacle's second production, Nuncrackers, will be November 18.
Yeah, there's nothing like sucking down hot-box beef Welly and watching a bunch of adults prance around in Winnie the Pooh costumes for starting your holiday off right. Makes me hope this Pinnacle has a very well-stocked bar.
Finally, Fat Daddy is back in business. The little late-night eatery at 12 East 11th Avenue that was closed by the March 2003 blizzard has been up and running again for about a month. Daddy has a new concept, new blood in the kitchen, and those same long hours (until 4 a.m. on Thursday, Friday and Saturday) that everyone thought were such a great addition to local nightlife until the joint was buried by the snow and everyone went back to sobering up at Pete's Kitchen or Breakfast King.
Gone are most of the down-home Southern touches that had been brought to Daddy by former Diced Onions chef Daniel Young, who's now over at the Denver Press Club. No more mac and cheese, for example, and no more greens. But these subtractions have been balanced by the addition of Greek diner faves -- gyros, baklava and such -- brought in by the husband-and-wife kitchen duo of Ava and Jimmy Lemonidis. Daddy is now an extended-family thing, with Jimmy doing the kitchen grunt work and Ava handling desserts, while son Thanos is on the floor working as manager.