Me happy in a vegetarian restaurant (see review) is weird, but how's this for mind-blowing: me fucking ecstatic in a full-on vegan bakery.
I have spent years walking the earth like Caine in the old Kung Fu series, roving around the countryside in disreputable pants and indulging my every culinary whim. In these travels, I have learned two gustatory truths. One, no matter what it is or how bad it sounds, if the cabbies, truckers and/or prostitutes are eating it, you should order it, too. And two, vegan bakeries suck.
I know -- that's not much to have learned in the course of all that wandering, but the restaurant world is a weird place, and not many of its truths are absolutely immutable. But at least I had two pole stars by which to navigate: Order what the whores eat, and never buy a vegan cupcake. Now, though, I'm not so sure.
The bakery at WaterCourse opened about six months ago to peals of bitter laughter from the baking community. Around town, bakeries and patisseries and boulangeries were closing so fast that it seemed like the commercial leasing agents handling the spaces should have given out tax-seizure paperwork with every contract they signed. So for someone to come into that climate and try to run a bakery operating without butter, without cream, without eggs or milk chocolate or any of that good stuff that any sane person would consider absolutely vital in the baking process? That was just nuts. Most pros wouldn't have given owner Dan Landes better than 20 percent odds of making it past three months; I would have put it at about 10.
But then, no one was factoring in the brilliance of European-trained baker, cook and patissière Deanna Scimio. After six months in France and six years of cooking and baking in Vail, she moved to Denver about a year ago, right into an apartment across 13th Avenue from WaterCourse. The way the story goes, she'd come in one day looking for a cup of tea to cure a miserable cold and ended up walking out with a job as Landes's baker.
For six months, she worked in the 24-hour kitchen at WaterCourse -- coming in at ten o'clock after the restaurant hot line had shut down and baking all night to be ready for the breakfast and prep crews when they came in the next morning. And when the production bakery opened next door at 214 East 13th, she moved in and started baking during the days, too.
I got to meet her there last week. While walking into most vegan bakeries is like stepping into a gross, humid cloud filled with the bittersweet stink of wheat germ and failure, entering Scimio's was like stepping into heaven. It smelled impossibly like butter and sugar and cream -- three things a vegan bakery is absolutely not allowed to use. There was flour everywhere, ovens wrinkling the air above them with their heat, a selection of pastries and cakes laid out on the one clear bit of counter space in the place (they'd known I was coming), and in the middle of it all, Scimio -- sweaty, oven-burned and dusted in flour, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, as foul-mouthed and opinionated as any cook I'd ever met, and an absolute genius.
I tasted a Boston cream pie, totally vegan, and was amazed. She'd managed to inflate the cream filling using no cream, no eggs, nothing for lightness at all. Her secret? Cider vinegar and baking soda cooked in the oven. "Just like making a volcano when you were a kid," she explained.
Although I wasn't crazy about a vegan peach-and-berry pie topped with granola, I probably wouldn't have ordered a peach-and-berry pie from a non-vegan bakery, either. But a chocolate-mousse tart in a perfect shell, topped with shaved chocolate and raspberries, was a dream -- the dough made with vegan shortening (which has to be worked like crazy to make it act like real shortening and give the dough its tender flakiness), the mousse with a clean, dark Belgian Callebaut chocolate that contains no animal products. "You'd be amazed at how many of the great chocolates have all this shit in them," Scimio told me. "But this," she said, patting a giant block of Callebaut, with a gleam in her eye like she was talking cocaine with Pablo Escobar, "is pure."
We had cookies. We had cake. We talked about using cornstarch and lemon juice blasted in the oven to fake the texture of proper lemon curd without any eggs, and how everything Scimio does is about trial and error and incessant tinkering. "I've fucked these things up so many times," she laughed, then stopped, then was serious. She told me how she would test recipes over and over until she could bring every element -- the flavor, the texture, the moisture, what have you -- into line with the classical pastry work she knows so well. She's an obsessive. A perfectionist. "There's a method for everything," she said. A true classicist at heart. "And it's just about finding a way to make that method work here. I like the challenge."
When I asked if she was a vegan, she laughed.
"Hell, no," she said.
The one thing we didn't try were brownies, because Scimio has yet to come up with a brownie recipe that doesn't taste like crap. "It's all about covering up that taste," Scimio said, wrinkling her nose (with "that taste" being anything that doesn't taste like a brownie should taste).
"We'd rather just not serve it than serve a bad one," Landes explained. "And it's not like you can say, ŒOh, it's vegan,' like that's an excuse. It's either good or it's not good, and we're not going to sell something that isn't good."
That's an admirable attitude. Because every other vegan bakery I've tried seems happy with being good enough. Say you're a vegan and you want a chocolate chip cookie. You go to the co-op or the health-food store or the hemp wholesaler, and you buy a chocolate chip cookie and it tastes like crap: like cardboard, dirt and carob. You're okay with that, though, because you're a vegan, so pretty much everything you eat tastes like one or all of those things. But then you go somewhere else -- like to a new co-op or a new health-food store -- and you buy another chocolate chip cookie that tastes 1 percent better than the totally awful one you had yesterday. You're thrilled. It's the best chocolate chip cookie you've ever had, because it's slightly less awful than every other chocolate chip cookie you've ever tasted. To be just a little bit less terrible than the competition -- that's the business model most vegan bakeries follow.
Not this one, though. Deanna Scimio is the Ferran Adria of vegan bakers, a wild talent the industry never saw coming. But now she's turned all that on its ear. The cakes that come from her hands and the hands of her crew taste like cakes. The scones taste like scones. The wheat-free spelt flour molasses and ginger cookies like molasses, ginger and sugar, not like spelt, not like anything healthy at all. They just taste good. And for me to say that about a spelt cookie? That's saying something.
"You've got to love it," Scimio explained, meaning the food, meaning the life and the challenge and the process that made it. "And if you don't love it, don't do it. But I do love it, so I'm not going anywhere."
Leftovers: I know I talk a lot about the life-or-death importance of every little thing that goes on in a kitchen -- the heat, the stress, the pressure of performing flawlessly night after night after night. But once in a while, the ridiculousness of it all is brought home by the worst kind of news. This past Monday, Richard Ruiz -- the new chef at Le Central (112 East Eighth Avenue) who was just hired by Robert Tournier -- died of an apparent heart attack. Formerly of the Brown Palace and a seven-year veteran of La Petite Maison in Florida (he'd moved to Colorado so his daughter could pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic ice skater), Ruiz had only been in his post for three weeks.
"He was a great guy," Tournier told me when I got him on the phone Tuesday. "He was a great chef and a great guy."
Ruiz had been commuting every day from Colorado Springs to central Denver. According to Tournier, he was working in the kitchen Monday afternoon -- doing prep and desserts for dinner service -- when he started feeling poorly. He stepped outside for some fresh air, and was found at the bottom of the steps soon after by someone driving past the restaurant. "It looked like he was asleep," Tournier said. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. Ruiz was 44 years old.
Le Central will remain open, and Tournier assured me that nothing would change, that service would continue in the face of this loss. "It's the business, you know?" he said. "It's restaurants. You have to keep working."
And the sad thing is, he's absolutely right. Despite having one less star on the marquee tonight, the show must go on.
Eric Roeder, who runs another great French restaurant, Bistro Vendome (1424 Larimer Street), has a new venture in the works -- sort of. He's designed the menu for 5 Degrees -- opening July 8 just around the corner from Vendome at 1475 Lawrence Street, in the former Blue 67 space -- that will be executed by Griff Sickendick, Roeder's right-hand man since their days back at Micole. The new place is being positioned as a restaurant (until 11 p.m., when it goes all clubby martini lounge) with a somewhat innovative "five forks" menu, scaled so that five friends sitting around a table can order one plate and each get a forkful.
Over at 16911 East Quincy Avenue in Aurora, one of my favorite neighborhood strip-mall sushi joints has changed identities. Kassai Sushi (a former Best of Denver winner) is now Hana Sushi -- so identified by large white scrawls on the windows. And while the big, green Kassai Sushi sign still hangs above the place and the kitchen still cooks from Kassai Sushi menus, all of that is changing, as well. Another week or so, according to management, and the transformation will be complete.
Arada Ethiopian Restaurant has moved from its original home at 3504 East Colfax Avenue, and this week reopened in the former Cracked Pepper spot at 750 Santa Fe Drive. Jack-n-Grill is adding a sibling, which opens July 9 in the old Brooklyn's space at 5445 Olde Wadsworth Boulevard in Arvada. Why pick up a second address now, less than a year after the original expanded at 2524 Federal Boulevard? "Just the outpouring of demand," says Kathy Martinez. "The restaurant's success has been overwhelming, and we just needed more seats."
Obviously, since over the phone I could barely hear her through the roar and clatter of a full house during last Thursday's lunch rush. She assured me that the new location wouldn't be any kind of Jack's Lite, but would feature "the same menu, the same everything." And that includes the same family running the show. Jack Martinez Jr. , son of Jack-n-Grill founder Jack Martinez, will be on the floor in Arvada, with several other family members there to back him up.
And finally, Baca has taken over the old Swan space at the Inverness Hotel. Chef Hamilton Cowie (who wore the big hat at Swan as well) is still on board, and he and his staff are cooking through a soft-opening month before the official grand opening in July.
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.