Bite Me

I spent quite a bit of time on the blower last week with Greg Goldfogel from Ristorante Amore (see review), and although a good portion of our conversations centered on gnocchi, that wasn't all we talked about. We discussed Amore's expansion, which was in progress just on the other side of the wall during my review meals there and which Goldfogel couldn't help but show off to anyone who asked -- taking friends and regulars away from their dinners and out through the patio to show them the new bar, the empty spaces where the tables would be, describing seats and doorways that weren't there yet, like a man talking about a dream he remembers so well that he can't understand why everyone can't see it.

We talked about the guys laboring in Amore's cubbyhole kitchen -- John Smilanic-Beneventi and Matt Anderson, who've been with Goldfogel from the start -- and why I hadn't known anything about John. "You know, I'm not surprised at all that you didn't hear about him," Goldfogel said. "He's shy. No, more like he's just totally ego-free."

Which means no PR agent, no middle-of-the-night phone calls to Bite Me World HQ to tell me about the new tuna crème brûlée on his menu or the produce guy who screwed him on a COD order -- the sort of contact I have with many of the chefs in town. What's more, Chef Hyphen doesn't compete, doesn't guest-chef in other kitchens, doesn't pimp for the Popcorn Advisory Board or the Cranberry Defense League. Pretty much, the man just cooks -- which, if I'm not mistaken, is what a chef is supposed to do. How charmingly old-fashioned.

Later, when I got Goldfogel back on the phone and admitted that I'd been through his restaurant a few times and enjoyed my meals there, he replied: "You know what John's going to say when I tell him you liked the food? He's gonna say, 'That's great. Now, what's next?' That's the kind of guy he is. Me, I'm standing out here on the sidewalk jumping up and down, but John just wants to cook."

And according to Amore's owner, sous chef Anderson is the same way. When Goldfogel praises him, Anderson will always reply: "Stop telling me what I'm doing right. Tell me what I'm doing wrong." So not only do I like these guys for their cooking, but I like them for their attitude. Talent and humility is a wicked combination for any chef, and it's one in short supply.

Goldfogel and I also talked a bit about his past and how it had led him down a crooked path into the restaurant business. I've now reviewed two restaurants in a row that were opened by civilians and steered toward success by total industry rookies. Last week it was Brooks Smokehouse Bar-B-Que, operated by a former carpet installer ("Only in America," January 20); this week, Amore, started by a former management trainer and corporate team-building specialist. It used to be a nearly iron-clad dictum of the industry that amateur operators -- guys on their first or even second ventures into food service -- were written off as casualties the minute they opened, seemingly destined for an inevitable and ugly failure. Civilian owners (and worse, civilian chefs) were the red-shirted ensigns of the restaurant game, doomed to a quick death. And yet Brooks has been around for six months and is looking at growing. At fourteen months, Amore has already expanded.

Meanwhile, we keep losing pro houses so fast it's like bankruptcy has become the new fad. Cielo and Brasserie Rouge? Run by veterans, closed by veterans. Rhino Room? Same deal, and now rumors are running hot and heavy that a couple of more seasoned hands are itching to get into that space at 17th Avenue and Vine Street. Jack's on Steele? Don't get me started. The list of houses we've lost in the last year is as long and dignified as the resumés of those who opened them in the first place, and yet when I try to walk into Amore on a Thursday night, off-peak? Sorry, pal. All full up.

Leftovers: My recent fun at Brooks Smokehouse got me to thinking about MG's Barbecue & Grill, which I'd loved from my first bite of the Filipino "aristocrat barbecue" being done by owner, cook and counter person Mary Grace Roaquin ("Get a 'Cue," May 20, 2004). Although the food floored me -- fantastic barbecue and amazing fried yucca sticks -- I was tickled by the mere idea of Filipino 'cue, since there's really no such thing. Sure, there are Filipinos who barbecue, just as there are people who barbecue everywhere in the civilized world (my measure of "civilized" being exactly that -- whether or not people know how to barbecue), but there's no habit of barbecue in the Philippines. It took one woman, a tiny strip-mall joint at 6920 South Jordan Road in Englewood, and a whole lotta talent to make up for this lack of an entire culinary tradition. But now it looks like the noble experiment is over, because when I called, all I got was the old "Sorry. The number you have dialed is no longer in service..."

Also gone is Oodles, at 1529 South Pearl Street. "Every week, I think, someone was calling me up and asking if I was interested in selling the place," says Sue Smith, the happy ex-owner of Oodles and still the owner of Viaggio and New Orient, two restaurants within spitting distance of each other on Iliff Avenue in Aurora. By late last year, Smith was interested, and she unloaded the Oodles space effective December 31. The proud new owner is Steve Whited, who's coming to Denver from the award-winning Summer House restaurant in Nantucket. According to Smith, he plans to keep the place dark for about three months while he remodels, then will reopen in early May. And the food? I've heard New American. I've heard oyster bar. I've heard seafood (cooked, presumably, unlike most offerings at the nearby Sushi Den). But I haven't heard back from Whited himself, so I can't tell you for sure.

Executive chef Bryan Moscatello (Adega and Mirepoix) recently announced Thomas Baranoucky as his new chef de cuisine and Gabe Balenzuela as executive sous at Mirepoix. Both guys have been with the restaurant since the start, suffering through a rough opening and some hard ink. But they recovered like champs, and this is the payoff. The new postings will also give Moscatello a bit more freedom to move back and forth between the two houses.

Joel Holland did three or four months as one of Moscatello's underbosses before running off to Hawaii. When that venture failed, he returned to Denver and helped open the hot Swimclub 32 in Highland. But now he's left Swimclub, too. "Once the menu got laminated," he says, "I knew the owners had things the way they wanted. After that, it just sort of started to become a box."

Holland is a creative guy, a fan of the ever-changing, purveyor-driven menu, and seeing his menu written in stone like that was enough to chill his plans for sticking around. Now he's trying to put together some catering and party-chef gigs while he waits on a spot to call his own. "I'm looking for like a twenty-, thirty-seat place," he says. Something small where he can do his own thing without having to worry over the plans of owners, bosses and backers.

Holland's been replaced by Chris Dougherty, who was working sous to Brasserie Rouge chef John Broening when he got the tap from Holland to get into the swim at Swimclub. Now he's the top toque there, still cooking off that laminated menu Holland designed.

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