Okay, so the James Beard House has had its share of troubles recently. But all scandals and criticism aside, it is a big name -- maybe the big name -- in the industry, and when you say "James Beard," people sit up and listen. Why is it that I found the pizza at The Oven so interesting? Sure, it's damn good pizza (see review, page 57). But then there's the fact that chef/owner Mark Tarbell, a James Beard Award finalist (which is akin to being an Academy Award nominee), is spinning 'za's in Lakewood -- which would be like Bill Murray, after getting his Oscar nod for Lost in Translation, jumping right into a sitcom role opposite a puppet. You know, like Alf. Or Jim Belushi.
In the category of Best Chef Southwest, Tarbell was nominated alongside some real heavyweights -- Robert McGrath from the Roaring Fork (who won), Tim Keating, Bruce Auden and Todd Slossberg of Aspen's Hotel Jerome -- and he's now known as one of the up-and-comers in this time zone. Two years later, I won the Beard Award for restaurant criticism (lovingly called "The Uncle Fester," for its depiction of the bald-headed and somewhat shifty-looking James Beard stamped onto the medal), and I now spend my days showered with French champagne and Iranian caviar.
Okay, that's an exaggeration, but still. Doing anything that gets you associated with James Beard is no small potatoes, even in an industry that's totally jammed up with awards and trophies and "best" lists of everything from best escargot to damned-if-I-know. To be nominated for a Beard is to stand tall among the best in the business, and to be asked to cook at the Beard House is to tread on some of cooking's most hallowed ground -- knowing that you're working with the same pans, the same knives, the same dishes, that were used by Alain Ducasse, Daniel Boulud, Julia Child, you name it.
Last week, four of our best and brightest were doing just that in the Big Apple, as ambassadors of the (really stupidly named) Eat Denver committee. The plan was for these four -- Bryan Moscatello from Adega, Jennifer Jasinski from Rioja, Matt Selby from Vesta Dipping Grill, and Frank Bonanno from Mizuna and Luca d'Italia -- to cram into the very small kitchen at the Beard House and blow away everyone in attendance.
That's four chefs (plus some backup help) assembling a seven-course dinner, plus hors d'oeuvre, in a claustrophobic kitchen with unfamiliar tools, under severe time pressure, working with stock that had to be walked or flown in from Denver, and under orders to kick ass or else? No problem.
In attendance -- along with the usual Beard faithful -- were food and travel writers from Conde Nast, Town & Country, Travel + Leisure, Wine & Spirits and a bunch of other big-money glossies that are apparently in too much of a hurry to spell out the word "and," all wrangled there by Rich Grant of the Metro Denver Convention & Visitors Bureau (ditto), in an attempt to put Denver "on the map" -- or at least in the hands of those folks who decide the fate of an entire city (or the fate of that city's tourism business, anyway) with what they write.
The evening was "magical," Grant reports, with the house packed, wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling, for a good three hours. And while former Westword restaurant critic Elise Cagan covered the event from inside (see City Limits), I stayed home, ate a lot of pizza and got my news from Phyllis Isaacson, director of information services at the Beard House, who attended the dinner and was more than happy to dish.
The corvina, the honey-glazed carrots and crème fraîche whipped potato canneloni, the grilled frisée and epoisses, the artichoke tortellini in artichoke truffle broth -- I tried to pin her down on the best single plate, but Isaacson didn't bite. "It started on a high note," she said, and never came down. "Every one was a winner, you know? There wasn't a weak spot at all."
That wasn't what most diners expected. "I mean, we always used to laugh at it, didn't we?" Isaacson asked. "Denver was the home of veal Oscar." And if you wanted anything approaching edible, the only options were "very fancy, white-glove service. Very Continental. But in the last, what, five or ten years? It's like Denver is really on the map, isn't it?" she asked.
Yes it is, I told her. We ain't just bull testicles and Coors Light, honey. And most of us even know to put on our best pair of overalls when dining out.
But I'm being too harsh, because Isaacson honestly gushed about every single plate that our four champs put up. And if she was a little surprised? Well, then, hooray for lowered expectations. Our team packed the house, turned the tables and sent everyone away with an image of Denver dining that's perhaps a bit more in line with the truth -- more oxtail Rossini with foie gras than beans and wienies, more crème fraîche than creamed corn. So congrats to all four chefs. With every chance to fuck it up, these flyover-staters came through with flying colors.
How the West was fun: This is an exciting time to be working in food in the West. Cooking, serving, writing about it, selling it -- doesn't matter how you're in the game, just as long as you're in it. And for those of you out there eating? These are the best of times.
Three years ago, Denver was on a tear, with hot-shit chefs doing amazing things and stellar joints opening (and closing) every week. It seemed that everywhere I looked, someone was doing something brilliant with a sturgeon or a dumpling, and every phone call that came in to the desk here at Bite Me World HQ was from some wild-eyed, 29-year-old former hash-slinger who'd just opened his first restaurant and was doing something even more brilliant with his dumplings and sturgeon than the guy who'd opened next door the week before.
And then, of course, it all fell apart. The money dried up, and the diners vanished.
In the long view, the time Denver spent at the bottom of this restaurant oscillation was minimal -- two seasons, maybe three -- but let me tell you: It never seems fast when it's your restaurant that's hemorrhaging cash and your door that the collectors are pounding on. Still, the smart money persisted, talent survived, and now most of those old addresses are back in business.
Last Friday, for example, Nine75 opened in the former home of Moda, at 975 Lincoln Street. Test dinners earlier in the week had drawn in a bunch of Denver Nuggets as well as Lenny Kravitz, who stopped by for cocktails after dinner at Mao. According to chef Troy Guard, they put about one turn through the ninety-seat dining room each test night and didn't burn the place down.
"I do like how everything turned out," Guard says. "You know, everything's not perfect yet, but each night we'll get a little better."
Nine75 is running with a jumped-up comfort-food menu that borrows a trick or two from Guard's former post as chef de cuisine at Zengo. There's a raw bar, Kobe beef sliders, a small-plates menu, lobster tacos, cotton candy for dessert, and exhortations that all the food offered is meant for sharing and passing between friends.
And Guard tells me that he and owner-slash-father-in-law Jim Sullivan (who also owns Mao and the recently opened Emogene) are already talking about a new Asian restaurant sometime in the future.
Around the corner from Mao, the JW Marriott is rolling out a new and improved Mirepoix this week. Newly minted executive chef Thomas Baranoucky (who trained under former exec Brian Moscatello) is in command of the troops, and officially started showcasing his new menus and skills on May 18. (I'm reserving further judgment until the first convention passes through the place and I see whether or not I can get a table.)
And we've got more good eats and good times coming from Mark Tarbell and Brian Cauley, general manager at the Oven. They're looking at November 1 as the very tentative opening date for Home, which will be going in at the corner of Alaska Drive and Teller Street in Lakewood's Belmar complex. "But you know how it is with restaurants," cautions Cauley. "November 1 is a long way off."
The menu at Home will be "rooted in comfort food," he says, and upscale-casual -- meaning white linens, an extensive wine list and handcrafted food scarfed down by guys in flip-flops and T-shirts. Tarbell will essentially cram together the best of Tarbell's (his award-winning Phoenix home base) and Barmouche (a second Phoenix restaurant that he and Cauley closed before opening the Oven) in one space, offering mac-and-cheese, veal meatloaf, certified Angus pot roast, and spaghetti and meatballs, all executed with the kind of skill that's made the Oven a downscale sensation.
But still, why is a guy with a James Beard Award nomination, best-restaurant nods from the glossy-press commandos, and countless kudos, medals and accolades hanging out in Belmar, flipping pizzas? Because he wants to. Because he wants to cook food that people want to eat.
"Everybody who works at this company is very casual," Cauley explains. No matter what kind of place the company decides to open, the key is to "take the ideas and philosophies that back up fine dining -- any kind of fine dining -- and bring that into your business."
Which is good advice for anyone looking to get in at the bottom of this newest upswing in food and attitudes, and really the only rational advice to give any restaurateur: Do the best you can with every table, all the time.
Do that, and maybe you'll be around long enough to complain the next time the scene takes a nosedive.
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Leftovers: Double props for Jennifer Jasinski this week. First, there was the Beard House thing; now her smilin' mug is in the "Top Tables" section of the June Bon Appétit. She's in the mix (obviously) for her work at Rioja, but the bar gets a bump, too, with its pomeginger cocktail named the best drink in Denver.
Tarbell and Cauley earn the next slot with the Oven, their "modern-day pizza parlor," and one of the desserts I didn't mention in my review, a homemade cinnamon doughnut with chocolate-espresso mousse. And Frasca rounds out the section, getting nods for both Bobby Stuckey's grape juice and Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson's grub.
Up in the hills (and far from the glare of the foodie spotlight), the Tivoli Deer in Kittredge has been sold to Dave Rodriguez, who's opened the Black Hat Cattle Company in the space, replacing Scandinavian fare with steaks. Also in Kittredge, the creekside spot that was once Dick's Hickory Dock is now Flaming River, with an emphasis on Mexican food rather than barbecue. And Cafe Prague has left Georgetown but reopened in Morrison. The reason for the move? "Business," says owner Thomas Stibral. "It was hard to survive with business only four months out of the year." But that hasn't stopped some of the old Cafe Prague crew from trying to make a go of things in Georgetown; the old space is now up and running as the New Prague Restaurant.