Blast From the Past

Made in the shade: The umbrellas didn't cut it at Zenith, but the food does.
Q Crutchfield

It's been a long year for Kevin Taylor -- and he has only himself to blame.

The chef who earned his national reputation with just one Denver restaurant is now juggling five establishments in the metro area. And while Dandelion in Boulder and Palettes at the Denver Art Museum are going strong, Taylor's namesake restaurant at the Hotel Teatro is a constant struggle, and his more casual Jou Jou, in the same building, is just so-so. But Taylor's biggest burden was Brasserie Z, just a few blocks from his other three Denver restaurants -- and in the middle of 17th Street's construction zone. A big hit when it opened two years before, by this summer, Brasserie's business was catching z's. So Taylor decided to give in...but not give up altogether.

"This area has been so inundated with California and Mediterranean cuisine," he explains. "Brasserie Z didn't stand out, and between the construction all the time and me doing too many restaurants at once, things were getting too difficult. I have to stay on top of the one here at the hotel, which is getting better with meeting people's expectations and needs, but it was so obvious that people wanted something very different from Brasserie Z, too."

And what, exactly, did they want? To find out, Taylor did something more chef/owners ought to try: He asked his customers. "They were telling me that they were looking for something different from what everyone else was doing," he reports. "They wanted something zippier, something hip and upbeat that wasn't the same old, same old. And they also wanted an atmosphere that would let them linger a little, and more room to relax in that would be upscale but not too upscale, but still fancy enough to do a date or a business lunch in."

If the concept sounded familiar, that's because Taylor had already done it before -- at the restaurant where he'd first made a name for himself: Zenith American Grill. For ten years, first in its home in the Tivoli, then at 17th and Lawrence, Zenith had attracted a loyal crowd of diners; in 1997, however, Taylor decide to close it and try other things.

"I had so many people telling me that they missed it," he says now. "I think I missed it, too, so I thought, what the heck."

And this fall, Brasserie Z was resurrected as Zenith.

In reprising the restaurant, Taylor made a few crucial changes. He dropped the cumbersome "American Grill" from its name. He made Sean Yontz, who's cooked with him for nine years, a managing partner as well as Zenith's executive chef; together they created a menu that brought back the best of Zenith's original dishes but also revamped their more outdated components. Another Zenith institution needed no updating: Joel Portman, who's done time at all of Taylor's properties through the years, is back as general manager, keeping the waitstaff loose but efficient.

The result of all this mixing and matching is a more streamlined Zenith, one that fits well into the impressive, almost voluptuous space that was first a bank, then Brasserie Z. Although Taylor kept the ring of Pagliacci-themed Italian murals in the main dining area (there's a more serious, better-for-business red room off to the side), he made two major decor changes, both in response to complaints that the place was too noisy: He carpeted the floors, and he put umbrellas over the tables in the middle of the main dining room. The carpeting helped (although it covers that cool marble), but the umbrellas were goofy-looking. "We got rid of them last week," Taylor says. "They didn't work."

The food does, though. Yontz is an excellent chef, capable of consistency as well as creativity, and this is the food he and Taylor spent years fine-tuning. It's also the food that they both do best: Southwestern, fusion, contemporary, funky. In fact, many of the dishes are even better than they were the first time around -- and a bigger bargain, since some of their prices have held, making them quite reasonable in today's market.

But I'd pay any price for a taste of my all-time favorite Zenith treat, the smoked sweet corn soup with barbecued shrimp ($5). The chowder was as good as I'd remembered it, its intense sweetness augmented by the sharp tang of the shrimp and an undercurrent of smokiness. While the corn soup achieved national renown, unless you ate at the old Zenith on a weekly basis -- and believe me, there were many, such as food writer Bill St. John, who did -- you might not have tried the golden gazpacho with queso fresco and pico de gallo ($4). I hadn't, and I didn't know what I was missing: a smooth, creamy-textured concoction the color of the sun just as it hits Mount Evans on its way down, with the fresh, ripe flavors of bell peppers and a blob of fresh cheese for further richness.

Our appetizers featured more of Zenith's liquid assets. Rather than heavy, cloying sauces, these three starters all featured classic emulsions, perfectly blended and generously flavored so that they accented the main components of the dishes they accompanied without distracting from their primary flavors. The blue corn cake ($7), which came with a cilantro cream that played up the hearty sweetness of the corn, was paired with sticky-sweet barbecued salmon and fried until the corn on the outside had caramelized. The calamari ($6) -- now one of the signature dishes at most Taylor eateries -- was so beautifully deep-fried that it didn't need much accessorizing, but the basil aioli, flecked with fresh shreds of basil, was irresistible. A tasty, tangy creole mayonnaise came with the shrimp fritters ($6); too bad it didn't blanket the four peculiar packages, though, because each tangle of fried batter contained just one hardened, overcooked shrimp and looked like a hairy armpit.

On another visit, we found the side of tart, pungent tomatillo chutney was the best thing about the duck, potato and goat cheese quesadilla ($7); you could barely find any duck, potato and cheese inside the buttery tortilla. The chile relleno ($7) was another disappointment: a tough-hided pepper meagerly stuffed with string cheese, sitting in a dull black-bean purée. And our two salads were also mixed blessings. While the butter lettuce, smoked chicken and avocado salad ($7) featured diced bird that looked and tasted like it had come from a Safeway deli, the ranchlike dressing that covered the haphazardly assembled salad was sublime. The Caesar ($6) was one of those cut-your-own piles of crisp romaine topped by a sinfully salty, fishy dressing whose tang was offset by well-aged parmesan and very garlicky croutons.

During both of my visits to Zenith, the start of my meal was rougher than I'd anticipated, but the rest of the dinner was flawless. The menu is divided into three categories -- meat, pasta and fish -- with preparations ranging from Southwestern to Asian. And Yontz handles them all with ease. The lobster ravioli with fried leeks ($13) featured a drop-dead (you might, if you eat too much of this one) rich champagne butter sauce. A succulent-skinned, crispy Chinese five-spice duckling ($16) came with a mélange of stir-fried cabbages and a mango-sweetened ponzu sauce. The rosemary-scented lamb ($18) arrived atop a bed of strong, sautéed fresh spinach made more potently earthy by grilled mushrooms and a red-wine reduction that intensified the juices running out of the lamb. And then there was the Southwestern-style charbroiled salmon ($17) served with an ancho corn sauce, "smashed" potato cake and lightly grilled asparagus.

The bottom of the regular menu lists all the desserts -- everything's $6 -- so we knew from the start what to save room for. Still, the surprise star turned out to be the bread pudding, a dense wedge of chocolate on a pool of brandy custard sauce so delicious I wanted to weep. Compared to that, the other finales were no more than marvelous: Taylor's ancho-spiked, flourless chocolate cake with vanilla-bean ice cream; a macadamia-studded praline cheesecake with praline-sugared anglaise; and a fairly standard caramelized-apple tart enhanced with a caramel sauce.

Sweetest of all, though, was welcoming the return of an old favorite. While I miss the stark drama of Zenith's old dining room, I'd eat this food in just about any setting. Taylor has given customers what they want -- now he just needs to make sure this gift keeps on giving. And with his overload of restaurants and the area's undersupply of staffers, there's no guarantee that he'll be able to sustain service at this high level.

In the meantime, though, it's out with the new, in with the old. Welcome back, Zenith.

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