The throwback, time-capsule cooking being done at Deluxe (see review) is just the tip of the retro-nouveau iceberg. Adega is serving jumped-up TV dinners in the bar; Troy Guard plans a retro comfort-food menu of roasted lemongrass chicken and mashed potatoes (plus a raw bar) at his new place, which is taking over the old home of Moda; and Brix, which just marked its first anniversary of serving Cherry Creek hipsters white-trash cans of PBR and the kind of simple, mom's-kitchen cuisine that sustained owner Charlie Master through a lifetime spent as a galley brat at the heels of his parents, Mel and Jane Master, is already looking at sites for a possible second location.
And now Frank Bonanno, chef-owner of Luca d'Italia and Mizuna, has joined with new partner Mark Haber (formerly of the Wash Park Grill) to take over the former Rhino Room -- the big, triple-threat space at 1700 Vine Street that has gone through more name changes than the Artist Formerly Known as and Now (I Think) Again Known as Prince. "We're just waiting on the liquor license now," Bonanno told me last week, with the deal contingent on a smooth transfer and no funny business with the city. "The fire inspectors were already in here. We're ready to go."
And go big: Bonanno has designs on not one new restaurant, but three, scheduled for staggered openings over the next twelve months. This will bounce him from being Lord of the Corner at Seventh and Grant (where Luca and Mizuna sit back to back) to king of an empire of five restaurants with five different names, five different crews and five totally different cuisines. The first addition, right up front in the Vine Street building, will be the Milagro Taco Bar.
"You know El Taco de Mexico on Santa Fe?" Bonanno asked. Of course: excellent burritos, brain tacos, menudo on the weekends. El Taco is the best true Mexican in the city, and the ladies who staff the galley there could run circles around just about any pasty-white schoolboy line cook in the city. I wouldn't be much of a critic -- or any kind of gastronaut -- if I hadn't done my time at that counter. "Yeah, well, that's what I want to do," said Bonanno. "Just like that."
Just like that, but a smidge more upscale, he hopes. Bonanno and I both know too many people who've been intimidated out of El Taco by the overwhelming Spanish-only, straight-Tijuana-diner vibe of the place, and he's shooting for a happy medium between gringo accessibility and super-authentic Mexican food cooked by some of his guys from Luca who eat the stuff every day between shifts spent knocking out pappardelle Bolognese, saltimbocca and sopresata. To that end, Bonanno will have tacos only on the left side of the menu -- but a full taco-bar spread, with sides and dressings done in bowls, real Mexico City style. "We'll have a nice big bowl of beans and rice on every table, guacamole, limes," he promised. "Good cheese, too." And that means some import Oaxacan and queso fresco as well as the jack and shredded yellow that Denver's accustomed to.
On the right side of the menu, "simple but really good" entrees, according to Bonanno (not like he was going to say "simple but really sucky"), done with a Rick Bayless kind of flair. (Bayless is a Sunday-afternoon PBS workhorse with his show, Mexico: One Plate at a Time, his cookbooks and his post as exec at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo in Chicago, and he's an excellent choice as inspiration: While he may come off a bit goofy, the man can cook.) Bonanno envisions potato-and-poblano hash and grilled salmon in a chile BBQ sauce. "I want it to be authentic," he explained. "You know, you can't get into the restaurant business to get rich, so you have a vision, and you follow it. And that's what I want my name to mean in this town. Authentic. The real deal. Just like what I do at Luca and Mizuna. And we're gonna kill it with service."
Bonanno and Haber are looking at a March 24 opening. "I would love to get it open March 15, but I just don't know," said Bonanno, who's a sucker for anniversaries. (He and his late partner, Doug Fleischmann, opened Mizuna on March 15, 2001, and Luca on February 15, the birthday of his son, for whom the restaurant was named.) "I've always had good luck with the 15th."
Three months after Milagro opens, the partners hope to unveil Harry's Chophouse in the Rhino space that held the Sugar Lounge. The menu there will be solid, old-school retro -- almost culinary camp -- with oysters Rockefeller, clams casino and a lot of classical sauces (Louie, gribiche, Lyonaise, hollandaise, etc.) that haven't been seen, or at least done well, since the dying days of New York haute cuisine, before the purity of the French canon was forever disrupted by the nouvelle turks.
Proteins, veg and starches will be served in the fashion of the culinary Lego menus at Craft in New York City: one price and choose your poison. When I mentioned Craft (which is Tom Colicchio's backward attempt at removing the artifice and celebrity from fine dining by throwing the burden of choice back on his customers), Bonanno said, "Yeah, exactly. Like Craft, but where it's not all deconstructed, right?" Meaning that customers will still assemble their entrees from separate boards of centers and sides, but a steak will remain a steak, not become a steak foam or a steak essence, and each plate will be what it is -- nothing more and nothing less.
Finally, nine months after Harry's makes its debut, there'll be another opening on Vine Street -- an as-yet-unnamed Spanish wine bar. "But, like, a real Spanish wine bar," Bonanno said, with casual, good wines, lots of bar seating and actual Spanish tapas: some cured meats, a little bit of fish, a few olives. Again, the real deal.
And after that? Fame, fortune and glory, baby. Since Bonanno is already notorious for vacations spent cooking stages at friends' restaurants around the country, and for pulling long days and longer nights at his own two houses when he's at home (he'd just gotten off a galley shift when I talked to him, cooking the dinner service to cover for one of his longtime guys who'd blown out his knee playing a pick-up game of soccer with the Mexican line crew), he'll have to invent a time machine just so he can be in five places at once.
But I wouldn't expect anything less from Bonanno.
Someone's in the kitchen with Kelly: The new, improved and, more to the point, expanded Somethin' Else finally reopened on February 18. But after all the anticipation, people weren't exactly beating down the doors -- because that happened to be the same day the Denver Police Department pulled out all the stops in the hunt for rapist Brent J. Brents. "The paper came down off the windows on Friday, but we only did about twenty covers," Sean Kelly told me. "Mostly people from the neighborhood who walked here."
A helicopter hovered about 200 feet above the roof the entire night. "Seriously, it was like being in a war zone," Kelly said. "But really, that's kind of what we wanted for the first night."
Which isn't to say he wanted airborne police surveillance and a rapist on the loose, but rather the easy crowds that such drama provided. The restaurant did no test dinners, held no private parties, nothing like that. So this accidental One Night in Beirut-themed opening gave the staff a chance to get used to their expanded surroundings and the guys on the line an opportunity to see how the new kitchen arrangements would work. (Now that there's more space, Kelly's back in that kitchen, doing some desserts before service and some supervising and training during shifts.)
The next night, after Brents was captured, they got hammered. "Eighty covers," Kelly reported. "That's the most we've ever done on any night before the expansion. And it was good, because we really got tested."
And they performed well, Kelly said. With Somethin' Else's expansion into the space next door formerly occupied by a bakery, he got twice as many tables on the floor (meaning twice as many orders coming onto the line), but he also got a second kitchen that connects to the original shoebox galley through a narrow hallway. The new space gives the crew a bit more prep room and another stove and oven.
The only part of the original enlargement plan that fell through was the addition of a proper bar. "There just wasn't time to build one," Kelly explained. Instead, there's now a community table in the middle of the new, left-hand dining room where customers can order, eat or drink while waiting for an individual table to open up. No bar doesn't mean no drinks, though: Kelly's floor crew is now offering a limited cocktail menu that should loosen people up enough to handle the communal seating. "They can have a mojito, maybe a glass of Patrón if that's what they need," Kelly said. "And at first, people are really questionable about sitting there. They think, 'Oh, I don't want to have to sit and talk with a bunch of other people.' But once the room fills up, everyone is there, passing plates back and forth and having a good time."
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On the third night of service, the bigger, better Somethin' Else moved sixty through the house -- nothing to sneeze at on a Tuesday night -- and for the first time in a long time, Kelly sounded happy, rather than apprehensive, when talking about the future. "It's good," he said. "I'm glad, because I'll be able to get back into the kitchen some more. I think desserts are going to be big, so maybe I'll do some baking in the morning. Yeah, man, everything's good."
Leftovers: Local-guy-made-good James Mazzio (late of Triana, which is now the Kitchen, and even more lately of ChefJam Supper Club) has landed behind the burners at Rezzo, at 211 North Public Road in Lafayette. He's doing family Italian, simple Italian, trying to "return it to what it always should've been," he says of the restaurant. "Just a good neighborhood place."
He's on the lookout for other opportunities, too, and has "been talking to some guys," he says. "I'm sure I'm going to be around for a few more months yet. But ultimately, you know, I'd love to find something that's here. Something down in Denver."
Right now, though, Mazzio is making a broad play -- looking for investors in case he finds a space he likes where he can do his own thing, talking to out-of-town houses, checking out other in-town options. "What I want is to be in bed with some people who are in the restaurant industry," he says. "Period." Which means no vanity houses, no rookies, nothing shaky -- because he's had enough of shaky after seeing at least three of his former homes close over the past few years. "But you know how it is," he adds. "Sometimes those people are few and far between."