North comes to Cherry Creek North (190 Clayton Lane, to be precise) this week, brought to us by the folks at Bloom at FlatIron Crossing (already part of a three-restaurant mini-chain out of Tucson), in a space where executive chef Christopher Christiano and the owners can extend their reach beyond the New American/pan-Asian fusion fare that's been wowing mall-walkers for the past five years. With a public opening scheduled for February 28, general manager Michael Wilcox and chef de cuisine DJ Nagel (both Bloom veterans now in permanent posts in Cherry Creek) will be showing off their Italian chops, concentrating on the casual cuisine of Northern Italy, with proteins and seasonal veggies stealing the spotlight from the more traditional pastas and heavy sauces.
When I got Wilcox on the phone last week -- catching him smack in the middle of a training lunch -- and asked how he and his crew of nouveau Creekers plan to set themselves apart from the competition (namely, Mirepoix, just a hop, skip and a jump away at 150 Clayton Lane), he fell back on the company line, saying, "We'll be very similar to Bloom, offering the same standard of service, the same quality of food, with good prices and excellent wine."
And, okay, sure, he's a busy guy in the process of training a staff and getting his new kitchen settled in, but I was hoping for something a little more, I don't know...bloodthirsty than that.
Something like the nasty talk currently making its second round of the scene that claims Mirepoix is being booted by the good people at Marriott to make room for a wholly new, hotel-run restaurant. The story is one of those scurrilous bits of twaddle that's passed around from chef to bartender to cook like a secondhand Honda Civic and -- like all the best rumors -- simply refuses to die.
When I got Susan Stiff, the Marriott's press wrangler, on the horn to try and run this thing down once and for all, she'd just gotten back from a quick stroll down to North. "It's lovely," she told me. "It looks like it's going to be a really great spot."
I asked straight-up whether she or any of the other Marriott executives were looking at putting the boot to the restaurant put in place by Bryan Moscatello and the boys from Adega last year, and she laughed right at me. "The last time I heard that one was over Christmas," she said. "But, no. I understand that we've had some problems with the food and with the service in the past, but [owner] Charlie Biederman is very committed to Bryan and to Mirepoix. I mean, first of all, how could we close the place? If we were to operate without a breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant, we'd lose our Marriott flag. So we couldn't do that. And look, let me quote Charlie to you. He says that he spent forty million dollars on this hotel, so he can't afford for Mirepoix not to be great."
Meanwhile, over at Adega, there's a true shakeup going on. Champion sommelier/ wine director/director of operations Chris Farnum is headed east and bidding a fond farewell to the Mile High City. Farnum has been there from the start, from the day the Adega gang broke ground at the 1700 Wynkoop Street space that's forever altered Denver's fine-dining landscape. The adega wine-storage room that both defined the joint and gave it its name has been his baby for almost three years, but any day now, he'll hit the road for Chicago and a position as operations director with Chipotle.
Yes, Chipotle, the homegrown burrito chain that's now in league with McDonald's. When I pointed out that the burrito joints don't serve wine, he, too, laughed right at me (that happens a lot) and said, "Wine will be a hobby, just not my profession anymore."
Farnum will be "working for the Chipotle family," in his words, on founder and owner Steve Ells's side of things, not Mickey D's. "What he really wants me to do is get the right people into the right places," he said of Ells. And after years of fourteen-hour days and six-day weeks overseeing the wine rooms and floors at both Adega and Mirepoix, Farnum is ready for a shirt-and-tie gig that will allow him to spend more time with his wife and fourteen-month-old kid. "This will give me the ability to balance my career and my family," he added -- a tough high-wire act for anyone in the restaurant game.
Figuring that since he was on his way out the door anyhow and would have no reason to be anything but honest, I asked Farnum about the Mirepoix rumor, too. Not surprisingly, he laughed right at me. "That again?" he asked. "Look. That's totally not true. We talk every day, and I've never heard anything like that. Are they [the Marriott management] happy? I know they're very happy with Bryan. I know they're happy with the food. We have the same problems we always had."
Namely, translating Bryan's food and menus into a format that both hotel guests and local Creekers will enjoy.
"I've always said, this has to be a destination restaurant," continued Farnum. "I mean, you look around Cherry Creek, and what do you have? There's North going in, and Bob's and Elway's, and steak and steak and steak and steak. Why would you want to blend into Cherry Creek, right? Why would anyone want to be another Cherry Creek Grill?"
According to Maureen Poschman, who handles PR for Adega, Farnum's successor hasn't yet been chosen. "We're talking to some very good people," she says, "but this is not a quick process." And Farnum's leaving behind some pretty big shoes to fill.
I hope he also leaves a note for the new guy telling him not to believe everything he hears.
Adult Swim: "This is us. This is our life. This is what we do," said Chris Golub, owner (along with partner Grant Gingerich) of Swimclub32, when he called last week to talk about my love/hate review ("Girl Trouble," February 17). He wanted the names and addresses of everyone I'd dined with who was in any way unsatisfied with their meals, so that he could send them gift certificates.
Of course, like the bush-league Woodward and/or Bernstein I am, I wasn't going to give up my compatriots -- my culinary Deep Throats -- so easily. Besides, I don't accept gift certificates, and that means the people I've already bought meals for don't, either. So I explained to Golub that those unfortunate souls I've roped into eating with me over the years understand that not every meal in the course of our menu-tripping is going to be fantastic. In fact, the experience is often disappointing, sometimes dangerous, and only very, very rarely a four-star, rip-roaring success. Hell, if every restaurant in town were perfect -- if they put out stellar plates in ideal surroundings and showered my guests and me with bonbons and champagne seven nights a week -- my job would be pretty goddamn boring.
And I would be friggin' huge.
So no, I told Golub, it was a nice offer, but really unnecessary. The culinary commandos who form my rank and file here at Bite Me HQ know that they're putting their appetites and their waistlines on the line every time we step out on the town, and honestly, there was nothing we were served at Swimclub that even approached the limit I set for a plate being so bad I wouldn't try it again.
"We just don't want anyone to leave disappointed," Golub said. "That's just the way we roll. You know, they say every restaurant is a learning experience, and in the last eight months we've learned a lot."
To that end, Swimclub will be changing a bit. For starters, the recipe for the house's ropa vieja -- the weakest item on its short and sweet globe-trotting tapas menu, a dish I'd described as "such a disaster it needed orange cones and police tape" -- has already been changed up. "Obviously, when a chef sees something like your review, he goes a little nuts," Golub said of chef Chris Dougherty. "But we told him to calm down. That it was a good critique by a pro who obviously knows his stuff. And that we could use it."
The beef used for the rock-cooked Kobe (Swimclub's signature dish) had originally come from Snake River Ranch, but that's now been switched out in favor of homegrown Niman Ranch beef that the house is getting custom-cut by the butchers at Marczyk Fine Foods -- a move that can't help but improve the quality. "We had to do something," Golub explained. "Those fucking river stones were such a bitch to get."
Come mid-March, the hobbit-sized Swimclub kitchen will roll out a new spring menu under the direction of chef Dougherty -- the first board that will be entirely his. And Golub and Gingerich, both veterans of the Veuve Clicquot cellars, will enjoy a big bump for their wine and sake programs with a spread in the April issue of Wine & Spirits magazine. Finally -- and this may be the biggest news -- Swimclub (3628 West 32nd Avenue) will get a proper sign. The partners "decided last month to install a sign for the same reason you mentioned," Golub said. "Peeps were getting pissed!" It was never their intention to come off as being too cool for signage, he explained; they just wanted to keep the place small, understated and neighborhoody. The sign is going through the city-approval process right now and should be up sometime next month.
Leftovers: There's already a new body on the line at Zengo, Richard Sandoval's Latino-Asian clubhouse at 161 Little Raven Street. John Calloway -- the great chef late of the former Hilltop Grill and a buddy of Troy Guard, who's leaving Zengo for a job at the restaurant that will take over Moda's space next month -- has stepped up. Sandoval also has former Jean-George Vongerichten protegé Alan Yu coming in off a stint at 66 in New York, but he won't arrive at Zengo until sometime in March. In the meantime, Calloway said that the kitchen is still Troy's until the day he leaves but that he'll be behind the burners, holding down the fort between Guard's departure and Yu's arrival -- and maybe beyond that, too. It's up in the air who will finally end up where: Sandoval has a new Zengo opening in Washington, D.C., and it, too, will need a chef soon. Calloway seems to think that he'll be staying local while Yu makes a quick turnaround for D.C. after some trial-by-fire time here in Denver, but at this point, nothing is certain.
Which is, of course, a lesson that every man, woman and child in the restaurant industry should already know by heart. It's certainly one that's been learned the hard way by crews at the Tom Tom Room, Intrigue, Intrigue Bakery and Le Delice -- all of which went the way of the dodo this past week. And while no one knows for sure what happens in the restaurant afterlife, there is a second chance for some locations. Last month, Zaidy's returned downtown, opening in the failed Max Burgerworks space at 1512 Lawrence Street. And the Minturn Saloon was reborn last week at 846 Broadway after being down for a month of repairs and remodeling.
Better luck this time, guys.
190 Clayton Lane
Denver, CO 80206
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.