Bite Me

In the September 18, 2003, installment of this column, titled "Luna Eclipse," I detailed the fateful, drunken and calamitous last hours of Flow -- the restaurant in the basement of the Luna Hotel at 1612 Wazee Street then helmed by one of Denver's best young chefs, Duy Pham -- and the history of mistakes that seemed to have this place destined for humiliation from the get-go. That last night was one of those from which legends spring -- and a great story, to boot, what with a narrowly averted fire, people ending up in the hospital, and me accidentally walking out on a good-sized bar tab at Dixons around the corner. It was a magnificent disaster, and a fine time was had by all.

Given all the trouble with Flow (and subsequent snafus when hotel owner John Hamilton tried to resurrect the space as a Thai joint), it's not shocking that Nova, the nouveau fondue and comfort-food restaurant that had been scheduled to open last week in this same, embattled basement location, has been...

Wait for it...delayed! Yes, an all-media party on the books for Tuesday, November 30, was canceled just hours before it was supposed to kick off, leaving dozens of journos and foodies in the lurch, with nowhere to go and no one to bring them free booze. The public opening scheduled for the next night? Put off two weeks. And Nova? Dark, dark, baby.

The rumors immediately began to fly. Granted, given the cursed record of this space, there was a good deal of scandal-mongering going on even before the postponed opening, but once the e-mails went out announcing the cancellations and delays? That's when the stories really started to pile up. I heard gossip about everything from terminal meltdown in the front office to a massive overhaul of kitchen and concept; was told tales of staff revolts, horrible test dinners, and a menu that went from tableside fondue to rotisserie, back to fondue, to fondue plus rotisserie meats, to steak and lobster, to comfort food, to dipping grill, to fondue again (but this time prepared in the kitchen and served as an appetizer), to Indo-Bulgarian fusion (okay, that's a joke), and on and on and on. And then there was the report that the restaurant, if it ever got open, would be carried by twelve-buck signature cocktails at the bar -- another stretch, since Flow, which is now the name of the upstairs lounge and bar, actually has a good $4 martini happy hour running every night and nothing on the drink menu over ten bucks.

The truth of the situation comes somewhere in the middle of all this -- somewhat left of "business as usual," but far from "closed due to Godzilla attack." Yes, a consultant -- West Coast super chef Jody Denton -- was brought in over Thanksgiving to work with chef Sean Lowenthal (late of the nearby Sambuca Jazz Cafe, but also with a lot of foreign work behind him) on retooling the menu. As of last week, it was still being sold as featuring "nouveau fondue" and comfort food, and got a real tryout at a four-day series of "friends and family" dinners that were supposed to work the kinks out of the system.

"I'll tell you, the second night was ugly," says general manager Mike Luther. "The second night and the third night." But luckily, it was ugly in private -- employees and their guests only -- and it was ugly for a reason. "When I was running it, I wanted to give these guys the worst possible scenario to see if they could handle it," he continues. "So I sat the place all at once. I hit them with every order in the room. And, yeah, some people had to wait a long time for their food, but I went around to every table and collected the [comment cards], and I wanted to see what we could do. I'll tell you what, though. I was glad this was a training session."

Luther also came from Sambuca, which at one point tried to contract with Hamilton to provide outside management for the restaurant space but instead wound up giving up a bunch of staffers who're now working directly for him.

Luther's heard a lot of the rumors and has a much simpler explanation for the cancellations. "You guys would have all been guest-cicles," he says, explaining that a part the HVAC guys had been waiting for -- had been expecting to show up last Wednesday -- never did. No part meant no heat. And that meant no opening. Or, at least, not yet.

"Look, we were all disappointed with having to delay this," he adds. "This is the Christmas season. I've got a whole staff down here ready to go, and I understand the situation they're in. They need to be making money." So he and Hamilton and the management at Luna are trying to find the staffers temporary banquet work during the unexpected downtime.

And do they have a date for when Nova will actually open -- with heat? "We do," Luther says. "December 13 we will be open to the public, and you can print that."

I tell him I will but remind him that they've already missed one date. And if they miss a second, there'll be even more rumors of doom and destruction. "I know," he responds. "I've read that piece you wrote about Flow and Duy. I know what we're up against. But that's solid. That is rock-solid, baby."

Rock-solid, huh? Well, whatever you say. And now I know where I'll be come the thirteenth of December: either having myself a nice pot of dark-chocolate fondue and a happy-hour martini, or sitting here at this typer and writing yet another chapter in the long, strange saga of the Luna Hotel.

Simple pleasures: Last week saw the soft opening of The Oven, the first of two restaurants being brought to the area -- the new Belmar development in Lakewood, to be specific -- by Mark Tarbell, a nominee for last year's James Beard awards in the category of Best Chef Southwest.

The Oven is Mark's second restaurant, and I got him on the blower at Tarbell's, his namesake spot in Phoenix, to talk about his expansion into the Colorado market.

"It's a very simple place," Tarbell said of the Oven, "a neighborhood pizza joint for adults." A straightforward menu of eight or ten pizzas, a couple apps and salads, and not much else -- what could be more simple? But the simplicity is deceptive, because behind this uncomplicated board is a very hands-on, ingredient-conscious chef who's the embodiment of that old saw about simple not having to be plain.

All the product in the Oven's kitchen is natural, organic and locally sourced when possible. The cooks make their own dough every day, their own uncomplicated veggie red sauce, their own barbecue sauce spiced with molasses and cumin for the barbecued-chicken pizza. The tapenade is hand-ground with a mortar and pestle. According to Wendy Aiello, the PR person handling the move into Belmar, Tarbell even built his own wood-fired pizza ovens by hand.

Why? Because when you want something done right, you do it right and you do it yourself. That's just the way a good chef's brain works. And even without that Beard nom (or the Best Restaurant award from Food & Wine, or the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, or the bumps from Esquire, Bon Appetit and Travel + Leisure), I know Tarbell is a good chef, because I had the chance to sample his cuisine during a turn through Phoenix a couple of years ago.

Like Tarbell's, the Oven is a cleanly designed space -- rustic, comfy and elegant in an understated way. The tables and counters are teak, the doors weathered, the wood for the ovens kept in a twelve-foot-high bin that's integrated into the decor. All of this has been done purposefully, to make people feel at ease while nibbling on their made-to-order fresh mozzarella (just minutes out of the brine and still spreadable) and trying to decide between a high-end margherita pizza or the seasonal special (currently a sopressa-and-caramelized-onion pie with black and green olives).

"We didn't want to make these pizzas intimidating or uncomfortable or unapproachable, you know?" Tarbell said. "We're just trying something and hoping that it works."

And soon Tarbell will be trying something else when he opens Home, another casual, comfortable, neighborhood space in Belmar featuring a lot of his mom's recipes and comfort-food faves. When I asked if there's a date for the opening, he said nothing's written in stone. "Look, we're just getting into the season here at Tarbell's," he added. "We just want to make sure we get this thing right first."

It looks like he's well on his way.

It's a small world after all: There's news this week from Mizuna, courtesy of Jacqueline Bonanno, wife of Frank Bonanno, chef-owner of both Mizuna and Luca d'Italia. Chris Gregory, who's currently running the front at Mirepoix, is coming on board as the French-Mediterranean restaurant's new floor manager. Gregory met Bonanno and his late partner, Doug Fleischmann (who was tragically killed in a car accident last year), while the three were all working at Mel's, the Cherry Creek hotspot that's trained so many of Denver's top food-industry pros that it's hard to count. (And in just ten years, too: Mel's celebrated a decade in the business last month.)

Meanwhile, Matt McClung -- another Mel's alum, one who was on that fateful wine tour through Paris where Frank and Jacqueline decided to tie the knot -- will be returning to Mel's, taking over the floor-management spot being vacated by Marco Colantonio.

Also, Robert McCarthy -- a former Mel's patissier who moved on to work for Goose Sorenson at Solera and the Ivy Cafe --has moved on again to start his own company, the Red Elk Bakery. He plans to provide high-quality, creative, professional desserts for all those smaller houses without the means to keep a full-time patissier on board. This is a brilliant idea, and my fervent hope for the New Year is that I'll never again end a fine meal at a good restaurant with another slice of frozen Sysco caramel turtle pie, or flan mixed up from powder, or week-old crème brûlée, or sorbet from King Soopers, get the picture. McCarthy is an excellent pastry chef, and his new venture has the potential to do wonders for last courses at restaurants all over town.

Leftovers: Good news from Parisi, which makes the best prosciutto pizza west of the Mississippi. According to manager Matt Berger, business has been so good at the new Tennyson Street location that the Parisi family has decided to make the long summer hours (11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Monday through Saturday) permanent. Along with the extended hours comes a new beer-and-wine license, so Parisi is now stocking a cellar full of Tuscan wines to round out its authentic Italian street-cafe menu.


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