From the moment it opened last year, Moda Ristorante & Lounge seemed lovely, friendly, oh-so-well situated...and doomed. Although the restaurant was holding up the corner of the chic Beauvallon complex at Tenth Avenue and Lincoln Street, my meals there always landed smack in the middle of Dullsville. I never reviewed the place because I had nothing to say about it, good or bad, and though the back-room lounge was a beautiful space, it was crippled by a giant picture window that looked out on nothing more thrilling than the Gart Sports Castle parking lot and the roof of the Westword offices across the street.
As a matter of fact, I went into Moda a few times with the idea of having lunch, but changed my mind when I spotted the guy with the hot-dog cart over on Broadway. It's not a good sign for any restaurant when a critic chooses a dirty-water dog over your lunch special.
But now there's new hope for Moda. Jim "The Checkbook" Sullivan, the fellow who already brought us Mao Asian Bistro and reportedly made a big bid for the nearby spot at 250 Josephine Street while it was being transformed from Indigo to Go Fish Grille, will take over the space come March 1 and will bring in chef Troy Guard, who happens to be married to Mao boss Leigh Sullivan, Jim's daughter. Guard's jumping ship from his post as chef de cuisine to Richard Sandoval at Zengo -- a position he held longer than any of Sandoval's other chefs in a seven-restaurant empire.
"I ran this place like it was mine, like it was my baby," Guard says, and he's not joking. For the first few months at Zengo (which celebrated its first anniversary earlier this month), he worked straight through, day and night, without a day off, and he was never far from the line. And yet he never got much credit for all that work, with most of the press and most of the kudos (mine not included) going to Sandoval. A controlling boss who's tight with his menus and his houses is a common complaint among veterans of Sandoval ventures, and high-quality chefs tend to chafe in such situations. "You know, I'm not like Mr. Ego or anything," Guard adds, "but it would have been nice to get a pat on the back."
Anyway, what with dad-in-law coming up with the green and a big-hat position across town, Guard decided (wisely) that it was time to move on. And while the new concept that will be introduced into the old Moda isn't set in stone, Guard already knows what he'll be cooking there. "Retro-pop," he explains. "Kind of a nouveau, hip, eclectic American bistro, but with a twist."
Since that covers just about every possible permutation a restaurant can take, could he be a little more specific?
"Yeah," he says. "I think you know about me and my food pretty well. You know that I've done mostly Asian, and now a little Latino. So I'm looking at doing comfort foods, things like maybe an American meatloaf with a Japanese mushroom gravy, or a really good roasted chicken, but with lemongrass." Guard's also thinking about a raw bar, a sushi menu, and finding someone good to handle the front of the house while he's in the kitchen trying (again) to blow the socks off Denver's gastronauts.
"I'm 33," he says. "And now I've got the opportunity to do my own thing. I can't let that pass me by. I think I can bring a lot to the table."
It's always darkest before the dawn: On January 22, Sean Kelly temporarily closed Somethin' Else, his eight-table wonder at 1313 East Sixth Avenue (the former home of Clair de Lune) for a long-awaited remodel and overhaul that will expand the Mediterranean tapas restaurant laterally into the former Two Boys bakery space next door. When Kelly signed the lease on that spot late last year, he hoped to have the expansion done this month, or even "late January, if we're lucky."
Now Kelly says it will be several weeks before Somethin' Else reopens. When it does, though, it will have double the number of seats for those who crave the fried baby artichoke hearts and addictive, paprika-heavy patatas bravas being cooked up by Kelly's C de C Seth Black. Somethin' Else will also have a proper bar, new bathrooms and some breathing room for the staff.
Manna Bakery has been dark since the holidays, but at least the voice mail for the Littleton shop has been updated with this slightly hopeful message: "Manna Bakery will reopen in late February with the same quality cakes and a new line of pastry products, deli sandwiches, and hot breakfast and lunch specials." Keep your fingers crossed. Meanwhile, California Bakery, the odd little bakery-slash-pizza joint in the Russian Plaza at Leetsdale and Oneida, is still servicing the local expat community, fattening up the babushkas with deadly good zabaglione napoleons, dark Slavic breads and red-sauce pizzas that now come with a guarantee that they won't cause heartburn (an unusual claim, but a true one, as far as I've been able to tell). Where else in town can you get a kid's Shrek birthday cake with "Happy Birthday Timmy" written in Cyrillic?
Eat me: If the NBA All-Star game doesn't put us on the big-league map, how about Denver Restaurant Week?
Eighty-three local restaurants are participating in the event, which runs from February 26 through March 4. They each paid $250 to be included in the deal, which involves offering special prix fixe menus meant to showcase the best that Denver has to offer. It's a step in the right direction, sure. But only a step. Organized by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Eat Denver committee -- which is made up of "all the usual suspects," according to the bureau's Jill Strunk, including consultants, chefs, owners and PR flacks -- the week is really a coming-out party for the Mile High City's new culinary publicity push.
"Our sole purpose is to elevate the dining scene in Denver," says Strunk. And they're starting by elevating it with the folks at home, who'll benefit most from the promotion. For $52.80 (for two), you can dine on apple-marinated beef shoulder with blue-cheese béchamel at Adega; trout amandine with caviar and potato croquette at Bistro Vendome; veal with Grand Marnier sauce and herbed polenta at the new, improved Three Sons; freshwater bass over wasabi gnocchi at Mao -- the list goes on and on. Even Bastien's is getting in on the action, putting its sugar steaks and skillet pies up against Elway's New York strip. Talk about the old West versus the new.
Most houses are offering three courses for the price, with a couple of choices in each course. Some have wine specials, and all of them are also cooking their standard menus throughout the festivities. So all you, the dining public, need do is walk in, ask for the Restaurant Week special and enjoy. Also on tap for the week are TV cooking demonstrations by local chefs, a lot of fawning praise for our hardworking guys and girls in white who are going to get bent over the cutting board and screwed if this thing goes half as well as the Eat Denver folks are hoping, and a contest for coming up with a new recipe for the Denver omelette. My suggestion? A tall glass of Coors spiked with a raw egg and topped with a sprinkle of cilantro. What's more hometown than that? For more details on participating restaurants and menus, go to www.denver.org.
Once Restaurant Week is over and done, step two in the Eat Denver plan for Total Culinary World Domination is to send four of our best white-jackets -- Frank Bonanno, Jennifer Jasinski, Matt Selby and Bryan Moscatello -- off to the Big Apple to cook a four-way showcase dinner at the James Beard House. The hope is that the big-city food press will become so enthralled with the talents of us overall-wearin' yokels that they'll immediately book themselves passage on the first flight out of JFK and come drop some of that New York expense-account money out here in the boonies before returning home to write odes to the wonders of our town's mad galley skillz.
And you know what? With this lineup of chefs (which, to be honest, I had a hand in choosing, along with my colleague critics at the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News), it could work. At least the city can't be accused of never doing anything to help our guys get to the national level.
The Colorado Beard House dinner is scheduled for May, provided the Beard organization hasn't totally crumbled under the weight of its own growing scandal by then. And while I have no particular love for the way the House has handled itself over the years (essentially becoming a clubby little culinary tree fort for the East Coast-West Coast big money movers and growing fat on its own hubris), I wish the four musketeers nothing but luck and sharp knives.
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Leftovers: Although it's been open for several years, Aztec Sol finally got around to throwing an opening bash last week. This joint is as close as you're going to get to Mexico without actually going there (in fact, you only have to go to 2219 West 32nd Avenue), with its easily hosed-down cement floors, easily thrown-down authentic fare (including two kinds of "pork lining" tacos), and more than 200 kinds of tequila poured by owner/tender Jose Lara. His knowledge of tequila is in his bones; his family still makes the stuff in Jalisco, although not in large enough batches that Lara can serve it in Denver.... Just down the street, at 2257 West 32nd, there's more south-of-the-border flavor at Rincon Tropical. After doing business on East Colfax for a decade, Sylvia and Jose Calderon closed their restaurant there in December and moved to west Denver, where they're now serving Salvadoran fare six days a week. (On Sunday, they rest.)
Finally, good news for night owls. Capone's Hideaway -- a Chicago-style, Northern Italian eatery -- should open near the end of this month at 5 East Ellsworth Avenue. And once it does open, the place will damn near never close. Chef Mike Mastro and owner Jack Mastro (Mike's dad) are planning on daily service seven days a week, with lunches starting at 11 a.m. and dinner hours stretching out to 2 a.m. on weeknights, 4 a.m. on weekends. "Like a late-night speakeasy spot," says Mike. "There's nothing else like that in the neighborhood."
Mike is a veteran of the Las Vegas scene, where the action never stops, and he feels that one of the (many) things Denver lacks is a place for insomniacs to eat pasta. To that end, he's putting together a menu that's "anything from a meatball sub to shrimp scampi," available at all hours, served in a space that will feature an open kitchen, a non-smoking dining room, a smoker-friendly bar stocked with premium single-malts and top-shelf cognac, a cigar humidor and, in Mike's words, "four-star food at a two-star price."