t Kim Ba (see review), owner Ba Forde has served a very traditional version of her family's native cuisine for almost two decades. For a time, her sister was doing much the same thing as one of the original partners at T-Wa Inn (555 South Federal Boulevard). But T-Wa has changed hands several times in recent years, with the partners selling to chef Tuan Lam, Lam selling to Vinny Tian (a former partner at King's Land Seafood, another Asian family business), and Lam then picking the space back up about a year later when it looked like the joint was about to go into a death spiral. In the meantime, the original partners went on to open other restaurants, while bastard offspring have sprouted all over the city -- with none of them having any official relation (in blood or money) to the 21-year-old T-Wa itself, according to Wa Lam, Tuan's brother.
One of these, T-Wa Vietnamese (6882 South Yosemite in Littleton), closed in February, going out in a blaze of spring rolls and fish sauce, cooking right up until the last minute before the new tenants moved in. And they are Yume Tran and Jeff Nghiem, husband-and-wife owners of Indochine in Parker, who've named their new place Sapa (pronounced "Shapa"). The combo Viet-Thai joint, which celebrates its grand opening on April 15, has a kitchen staffed by both Thai and Vietnamese cooks, each bringing their own cultural spin to dishes like tiger prawns over garlic noodles served with parmesan cheese, and red-curry seafood stew done Phuket style, sautéed with kaffir lime leaves.
Sapa (the restaurant) is named after Sapa (the region) in Vietnam -- a valley squeezed up against the Chinese border. And since Tran and Nghiem wanted a dining experience that would evoke a sense of place, they designed most of the space themselves -- bringing in artwork, furniture and place settings from Vietnam and Thailand -- and created a menu that features a balance of traditional cuisines from both countries.
Yeah, sushi. This is where things get weird and interrelated all over again. If you want to get technical, Sapa is really a Viet-Thai-Japanese restaurant, since sushi-bar items have a spot on the menu next to noodle bowls and curries. Why? Because Yume Tran is the sister of Linh Tran, who owns Sushi Han in Writer Square, at 15th and Larimer streets. And the family's deep and abiding fondness for raw fish and its big stock of seafood recipes will now be showcased at Sapa, too.
Will this cross-cultural amalgamation play down in Littleton? The owners think it will -- and they could be right. After all, Indochine has done very well over the years, so they're not exactly rookies. They've also put a lot of time and effort into making the place just right for their vision of Sapa. "They want to make this more than just the food," says Lauri Harrison, who's handling PR for the launch. "When you come here, you're going to feel like you're stepping into Vietnam."
Or, more accurately, like you're stepping into a Vietnamese sushi bar.
Something's fishy: I'm not sure what it is with Denver and sushi (okay, I do know what it is: a tradition of Japanese dining that dates back to the 1940s and is now in its third generation of producing well-trained cooks and start-up houses), but sometimes it seems like every time I blink, a half-dozen sushi joints open, close or change owners.
To wit: Sushi Basho, at 2188 South Colorado Boulevard -- famous (at least a little) for its buck-a-roll sushi, all day, every day -- is now Blue Moon Asian. Yes, the bar still dishes up the tekka maki and uni rolls. Yes, it still has a $1-per-piece, day-long menu. But now the kitchen is also doing Japanese tempura, Vietnamese rice bowls and Thai curries. Which could mean the Tokyo-Saigon-Phuket fusion idea being worked up by Sapa isn't so much goofy as a blossoming trend.
We've also got fish on the menu at Hilltop Bistro in Golden. When Michael Chen (formerly of La Chine in the Tech Center and a bunch of smaller Asian spots in Aurora) picked up the space that used to house Hilltop Cafe, he also picked up Ian Kleinman, Hilltop Cafe's former sous and soup specialist, to run the kitchen. Kleinman immediately set out to transform the spot into an old-school continental bistro with a straight Euro menu and deli -- which was a far cry from the New American cuisine he'd been pimping through Indigo and (arguably) Indigo's successor at 250 Josephine Street, Go Fish Grille -- and it looked like he was on the verge of disproving Thomas Wolfe's old saw about how you can't go home again.
But as it turned out, Kleinman was back at Hilltop only briefly and made his exit last month -- taking his wife, who'd been baking in the deli there, along with him. Or vice versa, depending on who's telling the story.
Now the kitchen is being run by Kleinman's former sous chefs, and Hilltop is offering sashimi and tuna-roll specials alongside the menu that Kleinman put in place. Chen tells me that these aren't (yet) part of the normal board, just something that's being done on the side. But come summer, he plans to expand the house's sushi offerings -- and also expand the restaurant's deck, in hopes of attracting day-tripping flatlanders looking for that double-shot freak-culture hit of coq au vin and toro, or miso soup and frites.
Leftovers: So what's up with Kleinman? First there was Indigo, smart but tragically flawed. Then there was Go Fish, cooking down to the public that never came to Indigo -- and making a mint doing it. And there was the Look Homeward, Angel trip at Hilltop, which, before it blew up, added Kleinman's name to the ever-increasing rank of local chefs who are fed up with smarty-pants nouveau-whatever cookery and looking for a return (but not a retreat) to the classics. "Advancing to the rear," as the military says. Family Values cuisine.
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That made for three houses (in two addresses) in a year for Kleinman, and now he's found a fourth. This time, he's doing the Wonder Twins thing, joining forces with Troy Guard at Nine75 (Moda's replacement at 975 Lincoln Street, now set to open on May 13), where Guard and his brigade are in full-on comfort mode -- advancing like hell to the rear and building a restaurant around the notion that the last thing smart diners want these days is a foam, a détruit menu of poignant culinary diversions or anything wrapped in anything with arugula in it. Kleinman should fit in just fine.
Meanwhile, Mao -- the original outpost of the Jim Sullivan restaurant empire -- also has some new meat on the floor. George Eder, former Capital Grille manager and a serious top-level veteran ops guy, has come on as director of operations and will soon oversee all of Sullivan's restaurants.
And by all, I mean two, right? Wrong. In a couple of weeks, Sullivan will open Emogene, a small cafe/patisserie next to Mao, at 201 Columbine Street. Syd Berkowitz -- one of the best pastry guys in town (not that he's had a chance to show it, having recently served the bulk of his time at the Fourth Story and in Mao's dessert department) -- has been tapped to run that kitchen, and I can't wait to see what he does. And Big Jim is already looking at properties in Belmar for a second Emogene outpost, despite the fact that the first hasn't even hung out its shingle.
I'll say one thing for Sullivan: The man can move.