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Bite Me

Hey, fat man. You've got some explaining to do.

I was just looking over last year's letter to you, and I realized that I got nothing I asked for. Zip. Zilch. Not one Christmas wish fulfilled, not one humble request granted. What's that all about? It's not like I was a bad kid (at least, I wasn't any worse than usual), so why did I get screwed out of all the loot? I ate my vegetables. I remembered to wash behind my ears. I was kind to children and to old people and any animals that I wasn't having for dinner.

Seriously, what did I do to piss you off?

Is it the smoking? Well, I'm trying to quit; it's just not going very well. Was it my extracurricular letter writing that got your holiday undies in a twist? My anonymous campaign of correspondence against the glossy food press and all their foul ilk? I knew that was going to come back and bite me in the ass.

But, okay, in my defense? I was kidding when I threatened to light myself on fire in front of the Gourmet offices if the magazine didn't quit giving all that ink to Ferran Adria. I was just sick of reading about what a genius he is for serving tomato jerky and avocado foam to the food tourists at El Bulli. And challenging Esquire's editor to a duel? I thought that was very gentlemanly. I mean, the magazine's food section is one page, for God's sake! Esquire devotes more space to how to tie a perfect Windsor knot than it does to how to properly grill a steak -- undoubtedly one of mankind's highest arts -- and I'm supposed to just let that go? This is my business, and I take it very seriously, so I don't think it was out of line for me to go after the New York Times for trying to get Jay McInerney into their top critic's spot. (What is this, 1987? Hasn't anyone over there read a book in the last twenty years?) Besides, the Times didn't get him, so I'm counting that a victory. And when I told the Food Network I was going to rent a dump truck, pack it with rotting foie gras and rabid wolverines, then unload the contents on the cable channel's offices if I had to watch one more half-hour special on how saltwater taffy is made? Well, it was late and I was drunk, so blame that one on the good people at Bushmills.

I know you're a busy guy, Santa, what with those off-the-book elves to wrangle and the PETA crowd getting all in your face about reindeer abuse. And I also know that last year's requests -- although entirely selfless and made only with the good of the entire food community in mind -- were big-ticket: an end to the scourge of chain restaurants, to food served in martini glasses and to the Atkins diet; the resurrection of my favorite old haunts; a cavalry charge of business for some of the good guys in town who were struggling, and punishment for those doing wrong. Still, I asked you to throw a little holiday juju at Clair de Lune, Indigo, Vega and that Korean BBQ place by my house, and what happened? They all closed. I asked for a Denver outpost of the Cream Puffery, and the original in Boulder closed instead. This is beginning to look like some kind of Silent Night vendetta, big guy, because every year when that goddamn pretty boy Bobby Flay hangs up his double-starch apron and beds down on Christmas Eve, he does so with a smile, knowing that he'll wake up the next morning with a big, fat publishing contract for another asinine barbecue book in his stocking. What's he got on you, Santa? Naughty pictures of the missus in bed with Blitzen?

Because I'm still a kid at heart and believe in the spirit of Christmas, though, I'm giving this another shot. This year, I'm keeping my wishes more focused, my requests small. I'm just asking for a couple of little things that I think would improve the restaurant scene, both nationally and here in Denver, and bring joy to my fellow grubniks everywhere. To wit:

1) The chain-restaurant thing. Last year I asked you to make them all disappear, Santa, and I realize now that this was perhaps beyond your purview as a right jolly old elf and the bringer of joy and niceness to all good boys and girls. Also, I have to admit that some of these places gave a start to a lot of the cooks in town whose work I now admire. Goose Sorenson at Solera worked for Bennigan's. Jennifer Jasinski did time at Taco Bell. And back in the day, even yours truly had a gig rolling omelettes for Perkins.

So if you can't make them go away altogether, how's this for a compromise? For everybody out there on the chain gang -- from the chairman of the board at Brinker International, which owns Maggiano's, to the lowliest Olive Garden line cook -- I wish a copy of the Il Fornaio Pasta Book planted under their tree. Il Fornaio (see review) is a chain, too, but somehow it does fine work while still turning a profit, crushing the competition, running local restaurants out of business and doing all those other things that the interstate mega-food conglomerates promise their investors. Filled with recipes from Il Fornaio's chef-partners' menus, it shows what a chain eatery is capable of when the company respects the ideal of having a real chef in the kitchen. Proletarian dining doesn't have to be all Riblets and fried cheese, Santa. Sometimes it can be fresh bread and involtini di melanzane, too.

2) Less valet service and more plain parking. Why? Because if I had a nice car (which I don't), I wouldn't want some pimply nineteen-year-old red-jacket climbing in and getting his goat stink all over the upholstery, and if I had a crappy car (which I do), I don't want that same nineteen-year-old laughing at me behind my back for driving a car all cluttered with Gourmet back issues and review copies of Bobby Flay's Boy Meets Grill around on a doughnut spare. Sneak one of your elves onto the planning board and Kris Kringle us a couple of new downtown parking garages.

3) No more fusion, no more New American, and no more labels in general, okay? No more Indo-Bulgarian comfort food. No more truffled french fries or inside-out deconstructionist ravioli. Santa, send the foodies who thrive on this kind of obsessive naming and categorization a gift certificate to Mirepoix, so they can see how an artistic grilled cheese sandwich and a perfect asparagus-and-prosciutto napoleon can exist on the same menu without igniting some kind of culinary race war over how to label the cuisine and which ethnic tradition inspired the chef. Good food is good food, and that should be label enough.

And while you're at it, how about an understanding that presumed eco-friendliness (like wind-powered kitchens and biodiesel fryer oil and beef carved only from cows that volunteer to go to the slaughterhouse) does not equal fine cuisine? They're not automatically mutually inclusive concepts, and if the steak or cheeseburger is good enough (like the double-meat, double-cheese burger at Bud's Bar in Sedalia or the dry-aged T-bones at the Capital Grille), I don't care if Bessie the Cow was put down with a nail gun. Just pass the salt and shut up about it. I'm all for hormone-free meats and artisan cheeses and local produce, but only when all that goodness actually tastes better than the stuff the place next door is getting off the back of the delivery truck. In short, Santa, how 'bout making reservations for the guys at The Kitchen in Boulder to have dinner at Sunflower, just down the street? You never know -- they might learn a thing or two.

Oh, yeah, and for all those restaurant owners still crowing about their twenty-dollar-an-ounce Kobe beef? Send them EACH a case of grass-fed American prime strip steaks straight from the Kansas City stockyards and let them taste the error of their ways. If money is a problem, bill it to the people over at Esquire.

4) It's time to get back to the basics. Sure, give my brothers and sisters in white spice racks for Christmas -- but make sure those racks have space enough for only five or six bottles of fresh herbs, so that cooks will be forced to choose between having simple cracked black pepper available or putting lemongrass in everything; between having a good-quality nutmeg close at hand or trading it out so they can smear Chinese five-spice powder over a leg of duck confit. Trust me on this, big man. By taking away their bottles of curry and special Black Sea salt and huitlacoche corn smut -- or at least making them choose between one of those and, say, fresh thyme -- you'll be doing both them and the dining public a great service.

All Chinese restaurants should serve free fortune cookies at the end of the meal. No more of this savory sorbet or, worse, charging me to learn that I am a very talented, creative man. I already knew that, and the only cookie I want reinforcing my egotism is one I get for free. At Mexican restaurants, the chips and salsa should be free, too, and all bars should go back to putting little paper umbrellas in their rum drinks, because that's the kind of kitsch I like. Also, if a restaurant is going to serve ceviche (and I'm talking specifically about Zengo here), that ceviche should come with chips, not chopsticks, and include corn nuts -- because otherwise, it's not really ceviche, is it? No, it's fish in lime juice. So, Santa, how about giving Richard Sandoval (owner of Zengo and a New Yorker, to boot) the address of one of those really good Argentine storefront joints in Brooklyn, where they serve the stuff in paper cups to all the cabbies?

5) If it's not too much trouble, Santa, could you do something about the charcuterie situation here in Denver? Brasserie Rouge was the one place you could count on for good, fresh, artisan forcemeats, galantines and pâtés, and now it's gone. Yes, there may be garde-manger items on menus all over town, but there's no restaurant with a dedicated charcuterie station -- and that's just not right. Of course, to have the best kind of charcuterie, we'd also need some more really good butchers. And if we had more really good butchers, it would only make sense to have a daily pros-only market where they could show off the best of their wares. And once the butchers move in, we'd have to make space for the fresh-produce sellers and the fish guys and the cheese makers...

6) Finally, as stocking stuffers, how about a job for John Calloway, ex of the Hilltop Cafe? How about more work for patissier Robert McCarthy, who's running the Red Elk Bakery to provide professional desserts for those kitchens that can't afford their own pastry departments? I'd like to see Duy Pham come back from his mountain exile and find a place to settle down here in Denver. And for Sean Yontz, ex of Vega and now a consultant wandering the restaurant landscape like Caine in the old Kung Fu series, how about two brand-new turntables so that he can practice his DJ act? After his performance at La Rumba last month, I hear he could make a few bucks working the wedding and bar-mitzvah circuit.

I'd like luck for Sean Kelly when he expands Somethin' Else after the first of the year, and two weeks' vacation for Jennifer Jasinski now that she's got Rioja going, and a lump of coal for the waitress at the Denver Diner who threw my punk ass out for hogging one of her tables too long while writing this list. That's twice I've been booted from that place.

Anyway, Santa, thanks in advance. And a Merry Christmas to you, too.