Bite Me

Last week, on the day I filed my review of Frasca (see review), chef Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson was on a plane headed for New York City, where Food & Wine magazine was about to name him one of the ten Best New Chefs for 2005.

For Lachlan, for Frasca, for everyone in the house, this is huge. Myriad awards are given each year to deserving chefs and deserving houses, but this prize has particularly stiff requirements. For starters, the competition is nationwide, making for a big pool of contenders. Second, while F&W has spies crawling all over the nation's top restaurant towns (just as I have mine skulking around Denver), a chef still has to make a lot of noise just to get noticed. And third, in order to qualify, a chef cannot have been in an executive position for more than five years. In other words, he (or she) is most likely young in years, and certainly young in terms of career.

While this limit keeps the game fresh -- with young turks coming in each year and old ones being retired in a kitchen version of Logan's Run -- it also forces (or at least encourages) chefs to become brilliant ahead of the curve. It used to be that a chef didn't hit his stride until his early thirties and wasn't considered possessed of any real mastery until he saw forty coming up on the horizon. And after that? Maybe ten good years before the booze, the long hours, the heat and the pressure started taking its toll.

But that was then. Today the pace has accelerated, driven by an influx of dedicated galley professionals (as opposed to the blue-collar accidental geniuses and flaky headcases who used to make up the rank and file of most kitchens) and their need to hit it hard, hit it fast, and succeed while still pretty enough to negotiate a decent Food Network deal. Chefs are getting their first houses at younger and younger ages, with the break-even point (when you're either in a position to make your career, or thinking about leaving the kitchen and getting a job pushing used cars) drawing down toward the near side of thirty rather than après-forty. The Food & Wine award, with its built-in expiration date, illustrates that trend. Rocco DiSpirito picked up his F&W award in 1999, when he was 32 years old. Wylie Dufresne was 31 when he got his in 2001. Grant Achatz was 28.

What F&W is really rewarding is precociousness. The award is a measure of future potential now being demonstrated as youthful brilliance, and the talented Lachlan -- who's all of 29 years old -- couldn't be more deserving. Given that he probably has at least thirty more full-bore years before he starts slowing down, it's a little scary to think what he might be able to accomplish.

So good for Lachlan, good for Frasca and good for us, too, because this makes three -- count 'em, three -- F&W award winners working in the Denver/Boulder area. Bryan Moscatello took the prize in 2003, at the ripe old age of 34, when Adega's was the only kitchen he had to worry about. In 1999, a year before his thirtieth birthday, James Mazzio (who trained under another F&W winner, Charles Dale was the golden boy.

And the F&W honor isn't Frasca's only good news. At about the same time Lachlan got the top-secret word to book a flight to NYC, barman and grape-pusher Nate Ready (the guy behind the bar who doesn't look old enough to drink) learned that he'd passed the first two parts of his Master Sommelier exam, nailing both the straight book-learnin' and the practical tasting sections. He's still got to score high on the final portion of the test -- service -- but he's already making plans to take it either later this year in London or next year in San Francisco.

There are only about a hundred Masters in the world, with sixty-some working in this country -- and Bobby Stuckey, Frasca's wine director, is one of them. So when Ready passes, Frasca may be the only restaurant in the United States (and maybe the world) that can boast two Master Sommeliers on staff. Does a place need two? No. But still, how cool would that be?

Like Stuckey and Mackinnon-Patterson, Ready is also a veteran of the French Laundry. So that means Frasca can now lay claim to a James Beard Award-winning sommelier and floorman (Stuckey was at the Laundry when it picked up a second Beard award for Outstanding Restaurant Service); a chef crowned by those party animals over at F&W as one of the ten best whippersnappers in the country; a total of four Laundry veterans on its opening staff, since pastry chef Brendan Sodikoff is a Thomas Keller alum, too (he also makes the only dessert in town worth a $21 price tag: a spread of handmade, filled Valrhona chocolates that are so good you may want to sell a couple of pints of blood if you can't raise the scratch any other way); one Master Sommelier on the floor; and one more in the making.  

And, oh, yes, Westword's Best New Restaurant award from the Best of Denver 2005. All things considered, that may seem like small potatoes, but at least I can say I ate at Frasca before it was so cool.

Food fight: All dedicated gastronauts interested in the history of food -- both overt and covert -- should grab a copy of the just-released Last Chance to Eat: The Fate of Taste in a Fast Food World, by Gina Mallet. In last week's column, I talked a bit about the battle for the soul of classical cuisine, and how I'd come to Denver wanting to fight the good fight in a city where I felt I could make a difference. In this war, I'm basically a buck private -- matured a little in combat (notice that I'm not making any jokes about my privates here), but still a street-fighting punk at heart, causing trouble locally and relying on people like Mallet -- a Canadian food writer and former theater critic -- to take care of the rest of the world.

I'm happy to say that Mallet seems to have things well in hand. She's like Patton, or Nelson at Trafalgar, and Last Chance to Eat is her war diary, a painstakingly researched record of every movement on every front in a campaign that's been fought since the end of World War II. The book is arranged simply: five chapters detailing the culinary history and modern fate of a quintet of essential food categories, from milk and bacteria to eggs, garden vegetables and fish. Within this structure, though, Mallet wanders far afield, drawing on her own life as a child in post-war England and France, visiting with commercial fishermen in New England, haunting sushi bars and butcher's counters -- all in the service of putting to paper a true story of the often bizarre way humans and governments have come to look at the food supply.

Here's a brief glimpse from the fish chapter: "Out on the high seas, the fish equivalent of a world war was going on. Just as [Frank] Buckland had foreseen a century before, the oceans were emptying. As the fish began to disappear, they became more valuable, and nations fought over them. No one talked conservation. The nations that could, extended their borders two hundred miles into the sea and subsidized ever larger fleets. Clashes became frequent because wild fish refused to keep to their boundaries. Why should they? The sea was theirs. Countries tried to claim as theirs the fish that spawned in their waters, but they had no control over fish that moved of their own accord...[and] in the 1980s, Russian factory ships appeared in New England waters and emptied fisheries at a rapid pace. Today, the greatest threat to fish are the pirate ships, which slip under the radar and fish where and when they choose. SMERSH, James Bond's evil antagonist, is running the oceans: I envisage the typical pirate ship like the one in the Bond movie where the bow opens up like a jaw and gobbles everything in sight."

Mallet talks about everything from mad cow disease to how badly most civilized butters suck to the hypocrisy of the FDA in working to ban raw milk and cave-ripened cheese around the world at the behest of the American diary industry while labeling "generally recognized as safe" the sodium-tri-polyphosphate (an active ingredient in industrial carpet cleaners and paint strippers) used to preserve and bulk out scallops. She's fearless in her condemnations and shameless in her loves, and has put together a book that should rightly take its place alongside The Jungle, Fast Food Nation and all the other food-fight classics.

Leftovers: Colorado's chain invasion continues with the opening of Tin Star at 5332 Denver Tech Center Boulevard in Greenwood Village. Colorado is the seventh state to boast a Tin Star franchise; the company, which started in Dallas in 1999, is operated by Rich Hicks and Michael Mabry, both formerly of restaurant giant Brinker International. The Tin Star menu is Tex-Mex with all the soul of a souvenir sombrero, including all the usual suspects -- baby-back ribs, poblano chicken -- and such daring departures as bleu-cheese cheeseburger tacos.

Brix is hardly a chain -- its second outpost has yet to open -- but Brix LoDo has already hit a snag. The problem is that this second location, at 22nd and Market streets, isn't in LoDo, but the Ballpark neighborhood, whose neighborhood association has petitioned partners Charlie Master and Chuck Cattaneo to work the word "ballpark" somewhere into the name.  

"But that's just not going to happen," says Master. "I mean, she was really sweet about asking, and I'd love to help them market their area, but have they seen the restaurant? It's not a sports bar, and I don't want it to have anything to do with sports, you know?"

Still, geography can be a bitch, so Master and Cattaneo have settled (for now, anyway) on calling their new place Brix Downtown.

We already knew the chef -- Troy Guard -- and name -- Nine75 - for Moda's replacement at 975 Lincoln Street. Now we have a projected opening date, too. Leigh Sullivan, Guard's wife and the daughter of Jim Sullivan, who's bankrolling the new joint, is handling the marketing for both Nine75 and her father's other big-money undertaking: Mao in Cherry Creek. She says they're looking at a public opening for Nine75 on May 13. Yes, that's Friday the 13th.

Two blocks down Lincoln, Le Central is getting into the small-plates, small-portions and small-glasses-of-wine (think the tajuts at Frasca) game with a killer deal. For ten bucks, the house will serve a five-wine flight of three-ounce pours with any main course, cracking bottles like a 2002 Graves, Château Ducasse white and the '99 Château des Gavelles (Coteaux d'Aix en Provence) for the pleasure of those grape-juice connoisseurs looking to take a long liquid lunch. Le Central is also continuing its Monday and Tuesday lobster lunches and dinners, when $22.95 gets you a three-course prix fixe centered around different preparations of Maine lobster.

Adega is jumping into small plates as well, with a menu launched mid-March that breaks down into three pages -- meat, fish and vegetarian -- and offers tapas-sized portions of chef Moscatello's globe-trotting cuisine. Entree sizes are still available (essentially by doubling the order), but this radical departure from the standard, classic main-room menu was a very deliberate move on Moscatello's part. He believes (and I agree) that the best way for people to dine is to taste a lot of different things -- to take a tour, as it were, through the entire menu. So now, rather than sitting down to a standard app-entree-dessert progression, Adega diners can wander through the kitchen's offerings and come out on the other side feeling like they've really tasted a lot.

And spent a lot, as well.

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