On my visits to Nine75 (see review), I pretty much avoided the desserts -- and not because I was watching my trim and girlish figure. No, I skipped the massive slabs of peanut butter-chocolate cake and individual apple mini-pies (dressed with mint leaves) because I knew that the pastry department of Jim Sullivan's restaurant empire -- which includes Mao and the nascent string of Emogene patisseries -- had taken a crippling hit when it lost champion baker and sugar-pusher Syd Berkowitz to Goose Sorenson at Solera.
Although it just came down this month, the move had been in the works for some time. And Sullivan's loss is definitely Solera's gain, because Berkowitz -- who's supplied a host of top-shelf Denver destinations and made some of the best desserts I've ever tasted -- is a man who knows volumes about the soft science that's such a mystery to many lifer chefs and sweaty line cooks.
While using Berkowitz to restart the recently shuttered Ivy Cafe, at 5709 East Colfax Avenue, would seem like a logical move, that's not what Sorenson has in mind. When I got him on the phone last week and asked if he was going to get back into the bagel-and-Napoleon business now that he has a bona fide patissière on staff, he said that he's already had a few nibbles from buyers looking to pick up the Ivy space and will probably let it go so that he can focus all his energies on his flagship joint a few blocks down at 5410 East Colfax.
Putting some new signature desserts on Solera's menu (which rolled out last week) would be a good start. Sorenson has already made a smart move in bringing up a new right-hand man to watch the line for him while he's off doing all that rising-celebrity-chef nonsense. As noted on the bottom of the new menu, Romero Guzman (of the late Coos Bay Bistro) is now Solera's sous chef.
Menage-a-Yontz: Cherry Creek has everything necessary to make even the stupidest of concepts seem like a winner to anyone with a bagful of money and the will to lose it fast -- a captive audience of Richie Riches who fancy themselves sophisticated; foot traffic at all hours of the day and night; and ample parking for those willing to hoof it a couple of blocks to their favorite bistro, boîte or barstool. What's more, there's even a decent contingent of locals who can tell a good meal from a bad one. No, not the folks lining up outside the Cherry Creek Grill or California Pizza Kitchen every goddamn night, but the ones smugly looking on from their comfortable seats at Sushi Tazu, Ristorante Amore, Steak au Poivre or Mel's while everyone else waits for a table at North.
At this point, it would seem that Cherry Creek already has restaurants offering anything a hungry gastronaut or pie-eyed foodie could desire -- Italian, French and Vietnamese, coffee and ice cream, high-end, low-end and in between. So what else could possibly be shoehorned into this scene? "A wine bar," says Jesse Morreale, co-owner of Mezcal, the popular Mexican joint a dozen blocks away from the Creek, at 3230 East Colfax. "There are a million bars that sell wine, but there are no wine bars in Cherry Creek."
So that's what Morreale and partner Sean Yontz plan to open in the former home of Le Delice, at 250 Steele Street, before the end of the year. "We've had this menu, this concept, in place for a long time," says Morreale. All they needed was a spot to make it happen.
"It's a cool space," Morreale says. "Lots of light, lots of angles, a massive kitchen. I'm talking six fridges, the freezers all work, a Scandinavian oven as big as my truck."
And sure, light, angles and a turn-key galley are all well and good, but still, a wine bar? "The wine bar is going to be the focus of it," he explains. "But with Sean putting on the coat again, the food is obviously going to be a big part."
Yeah, that's right: Yontz will be going back into the kitchen to design a menu of straight American fare -- steaks, chops, crab legs, french fries and onion rings -- that will offset the very serious wine board the partners plan to put in. But don't anticipate the kind of masterpieces he used to create at Vega. When I got Yontz on the blower last week, he made it very clear that he wasn't going to be on the line steaming crabs. "I'm going to be there," he admits. "But I mean, I'm not going to be cooking there every day and night." What he'll be doing is training the staff and watching to see that a good crew of mercenaries translates to the plate all those things that Yontz has in his head. He'll have a "setup exactly like Mezcal," where he's a consultant/executive chef/partner who writes menus, watches the kitchen, cooks event dinners and generally makes sure everything is done right.
"It's going to be accessible American stuff," Yontz says of the fare at the Cherry Creek joint, which will be called Sketch, after one of Morreale's favorite West London hangouts. "You know, chops, oysters Rockefeller, crab Louie." He and Morreale are still in the market for a sommelier to handle what's looking to be a nicely upscale wine list. "That's not something I can do or Jesse can do," he adds. "We don't know enough. I drink beer and tequila, you know? I'm not an expert."
While Yontz already has his work cut out for him at Mezcal and Sketch, he also has another project in the works -- this one all his own. And in Belmar, of all friggin' places.
He won't tell me the name (although he does have one in mind), but says he's looking at an October opening, in advance of Sketch. And while he won't give any specifics about the food, he will say that it's mid-range Mex with another Mezcal-style kitchen. And the joint will be big, seriously big: 210 seats and right on the plaza, which will put him in direct competition with P.F. Chang's, Ted's Montana Grill and the Elephant Bar, which pack 'em in by the hundreds every night.
"I don't think there's anything wrong with a place like P.F. Chang's," Yontz says. "It gets people down there, into the area. If I can do a third of the kind of numbers that Chang's does, I will be a rich man. We're going to be doing high volume in a really nice atmosphere, and there's no reason why I can't compete."
He pauses, thinks for a second. "Well, so long as I don't fuck this up."
Leftovers: It looks like we've lost Ink!, the coffee shop at 970 Lincoln Street right next to the original Spicy Pickle and across the street from Nine75. The joint is locked up tight, with a sign on the door advertising all the other places where you can still get a hit of Ink! coffee and calling the closure a "strategic repositioning," or some other Orwellian business-speak. While I was reading it, an Inker (Inky? Inkoid?) rolled up in his SUV and tore down a few other signs that had been posted by enterprising coffee-pushers from Java Moon, over at 1116 Broadway, imploring suddenly DT-ing caffeine tweakers to walk (or run) the couple blocks down to their place for a fresh hit of the hot and black. It was excellent guerrilla marketing -- but I think I may have seen a few vultures circling over Java Moon recently, as well.
All this maneuvering may be a moot point, anyway, because the signs are already up at the Beauvallon heralding the coming of Aviano Coffee. And once the yuppies can get their lattes without ever leaving the building? There goes the neighborhood.
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