This time last year, there was a lot of talk about the big man, Bryan Moscatello, and the guys from Adega Restaurant + Wine Bar (1700 Wynkoop Street) trying to clone their phenomenal success at, first, Table 6 (in the former home of the Beehive, at 609 Corona Street), and then at a hotel, of all places. A JW Marriott that had yet to be finished.
Any conversation with someone in the trade would inevitably stray into Adega country. "What are they thinking?" was the most common query, followed closely by "Who do they think they're fooling?" Sure, Moscatello had just been named one of the ten best chefs in the country; Gourmet, Bon Appétit and Food & Wine had all come calling; the moneymen were eager for a taste of their next project; and Table 6 sounded like a can't-miss Adega lite. But Mirepoix? A hotel restaurant whose name hotel guests wouldn't even be able to pronounce?
Most pros have been seduced by the siren song of hotel work at some point in their careers. The money is generally very good, and from the outside, hotel chef looks like a sweet gig. But on the inside? Think menus controlled by some dipshit exec flying a desk at Corporate (which may be in Paris, in NYC or in Amsterdam, while you're sweating through your whites in Dubuque, Dallas or Denver); responsibility for both room service and catering; and the fact that, as chef, your position is far down the chain of command. You're answering to floormen, to hotel managers, to guest services. You're begging pocket change off the food-and-beverage manager for an extra bottle of EVO for the line. You're not a part of the management team, you're just a monkey -- one step up from the dishwashers -- and no one wants to hear anything from you besides how happy the overnight guests are, how many room-service turns you did, and how fiercely you were able to rape the people from the Widget Manufacturers Convention on their catering bill.
Now, that doesn't apply to every hotel job, just 99 percent of them, and we've all been there. Hell, Moscatello himself was there, having come to Denver from a hotel gig in Panama. So after those conversations strayed into Adega territory, they'd lead off into tales of our own misguided forays into the hospitality industry before finishing with the inevitable "I guess that's the end of Adega."
The talk continued into the new year. Liquor-license snafus delayed the debut of Table 6, forcing the Adega crew to take a more arm's-length approach, at least legally, to that restaurant before it could finally open this winter. Still, Moscatello remained intimately engaged with all three ventures -- he'd even signed a contract with the Marriott folks promising that he'd be personally involved in the Cherry Creek restaurant -- and people kept saying he was spreading himself too thin. The late-May grand opening of Mirepoix was less than grand, and chefs who tried the place proclaimed it a failure. When I stopped, I had to agree. It was pretty, yes. And as swank as you'd expect of a high-end hotel restaurant in Cherry Creek. But the kitchen had gone goofy with the showboating: Everything was figs and foams and lola rosa.
But Jesus, what a difference a few months can make. As things stand today, there's no restaurant in Denver quite like Mirepoix (see review, page 57). Having hit its stride in the dining room and survived its first menu change, this restaurant is now a local exemplar of the proper New American cuisine I was talking about when I recently put the boot to Cafe Bisque ("The Shlock of the New," October 21). The kitchen is bringing to the game the kind of love and focus and freaky-smart talent required by that particular culinary label, and I'm more than happy to eat my words of a few months ago. Mirepoix has become the restaurant that no one but Moscatello believed it could be, and he did it in a hotel -- which no one, but no one, thought possible.
So now, if you'll excuse me, I have some phone calls to make. Just as I was quick to leap into the chorus of detractors when Mirepoix looked like a disaster in the making, I want to be the first to start calling everyone else stupid for not seeing what a brilliant idea this place was from the start.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Creek: When Elway's opened to the public on Friday, October 22, it seemed like the rest of Cherry Creek might never be the same. All the old hot spots would go dark as rabid fans and trend-hoppers duked it out in the parking lot over prime seats and reservations. Grown men would beg at the hostess stand and mothers would sell their children -- all for the opportunity to eat a T-bone and bask, however briefly, in the reflected glow of Big John's gigantic teeth.
But not so fast. After dinner at Mirepoix on Saturday, October 23, I strolled through the Creek and checked in on some old haunts to see what kind of hit the neighborhood was taking. And to my surprise, I found that the new steakhouse hadn't scored all the business. Campo de Fiori was loaded; it didn't even have room for me at the bar. Mel's had a mob propping up the long oak and a good dinner shaping up. The Manhattan Grill was down, but I didn't exactly see floormen getting ready to hang themselves. Mao had more tables than I expected -- about a half-dozen early on a Saturday, second turn, which is five more than it deserved. And the Cherry Creek Grill had a mostly full house, although no line that I could see. That could be blamed on the Elway Effect, but it's also possible that people have finally realized there's more to dinner than good architecture and green salads.
At Brix, owner Charlie Master told me that he'd had his best night ever the night before -- the night of Elway's grand opening -- and had a wait this night. We talked about Mirepoix a bit, and then I tried to sell him on the merits of opening Brix in the morning just so he could serve hair-of-the-dog Del Maguey mezcal shooters with tomato-water sangrita. Not enough people in this town use tomato water; it's one of those culinary classics that gets overlooked in favor of foams and emulsions and sculpted tuiles.
The problem with Brix opening for breakfast, though, is that Charlie would have to be awake for breakfast and working the floor. And that's not likely to happen any time soon.
While I was out wandering, I also picked up some great news: Ian Kleinman, chef at Go Fish Grille (formerly Indigo) is a daddy all over again. He and wife Melissa just brought home brand-new daughter Ryan Nicole to join big sis Taylor Sage. The new dad seems a bit blown out, but mother and daughter are doing fine. And then Kleinman hit me with the bad news: He's actually not the chef at Go Fish anymore, and was just helping out this Saturday night because Go Fish was overbooked. Owner Larry Herz knew he was going, Kleinman says, and the parting was amicable. "But I don't know if he expected it was coming so quickly," he adds.
Kleinman thinks that Go Fish -- with its Craft-esque protein/starch/veg menu arrangement and simple, straightforward preparations -- doesn't need a chef so much as a kitchen manager, someone who can boss the line and make sure everything that needs to be done is getting done. And in that vein, his spot has already been filled by Randy Forsythe, his former prep cook and a veteran of the McCormick's kitchen.
As for Kleinman, he already has a new gig lined up. Actually, an old gig. He's heading back to Golden and what had been the Hilltop Cafe, where he'd been working a couple of years back before moving on to Indigo and Go Fish. Michael Chen was on the lookout for a spot for a sushi bar when someone hipped him to the empty Hilltop space (former owner J. Allen Adams let the place go in favor of opening the Bridgewater Grill in the Golden Hotel with most of the old Hilltop crew); once he bought the old house at 1518 Washington Avenue, Chen started looking for a chef. That's when someone else hipped him to Kleinman, laboring in the Creek but itching for a change.
"It's exactly like going home," Kleinman says of his return to Golden. "You know, every day since I left, I've wondered why I left. So, yeah, I'm excited."
The new place with the old chef will be called the Hilltop Bistro, and in the kitchen, Kleinman will return to cooking, in his words, "simple, progressive bistro food." That means almond-mint chicken wrapped in phyllo, mushrooms three ways -- smoked, garlic-stuffed and in a baklava. You know, simple. "Okay," Kleinman admits. "Not exactly French bistro."
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The Hilltop Bistro will open without a liquor license on November 8; Chen hopes the booze permits will come through by the first of December. And with Kleinman's two girls knocking around the kitchen, it's a fair bet that in twenty years or so, Denver will have another generation of chefs to contend with.
Leftovers: A number of Denver institutions are giving up the ghost. The 15th Street Tavern closed this past weekend; Don's Club Tavern will shut down before the end of the month (unless, as she suggested in a message to me last week, the widow of longtime owner Don Aymami changes her mind about selling the place). And the Chili Pepper -- a place with great views (its 2150 Bryant Street address is perched above I-25, overlooking downtown), highly suspect Mexican food and strolling mariachis -- is gone as well. Replacing it is the Castaway Restaurant, with the same address, the same owners and the same view, but a new menu of steaks and seafood, and no more guitar slingers to liven up the night. And right next door, what had been Baby Doe's Matchless Mine -- a place with great views, highly suspect American food and no mariachis to atone for that sin -- is now the Castaway Banquet Facility, fully prepared to handle all of your special-event needs. According to management, plans are already under way to hook the two buildings together physically, just as they've been hooked together financially all these years.
And finally, while Food & Wine's Best New Chef award may have done wonders for Moscatello and Adega, it wasn't enough to save James Mazzio 's latest venture. Mazzio, who took the prize in 1999 for his work at Boulder's late, lamented Triana (its space at 1039 Pearl Street is now occupied by the Kitchen), recently closed The Restaurant at Chefjam and the catering company of the same name. Calls to the chef's former showcase kitchen are now being answered by a voice that says you've reached "The Lodge Catering, formerly Chefjam," and the Chefjam website is out of commission.