Here's some stuff I hate:
People who can't drive and talk on their cell phones at the same time. I've got no problem with those who can do both skillfully -- but seriously, if talking with your mom, your psychic friend or the phone-sex operator is impairing your ability to drive in a straight line, get off the road.
Pomegranates used in any unnatural fashion -- which is defined as anything other than buying them, splitting them and eating the seeds in the comfort of your own home. For years, cooks have tried to come up with some new, wacky culinary use for one of the greatest, most misunderstood fruits on the planet; as of yet, no one has succeeded.
People who misuse the word "myriad."
Snotty, ill-mannered, arrogant "service" in any restaurant, but in particular, restaurants on what I consider my turf. You wanna live in Manhattan and be a dick, fine -- there's not much I can do about that (yet). But this is Colorado, and things are different here. For the record, let me just say that no local restaurant I've been to (and I've been to a lot of them) is so perfect that anyone has any right to look down their noses at any potential customer.
Actually, let me amend that. Frasca is that perfect. But at Frasca, every person who comes through the door -- be they bum, dolt, douchebag, basket case, freak, moron or just plain folk -- is regarded as an honored guest. Honest to God, I've shown up half in the bag, in a wrinkled shirt and cheap junkie sunglasses, and been treated like the King of Spain.
My bad night in Boulder referenced in this week's Jewel of India review became a bad night specifically as a result of bad service. I'm not going to name the place -- that will happen soon enough, when its number comes up for a full-on review -- but I will say this: You never know who's walking into a restaurant. Seriously, you never know. This being Colorado, and Colorado being what it is, the odds are good that the guy in the ripped jeans and the baseball hat is a millionaire who's going to drop $1,500 on that '37 Giroud Volnay Burgundy. We have a blessed lack of pretension in our dining rooms, a blessed excess of talent in our kitchens, and there's simply no room that can get away with not catering to every paying, if unkempt, customer.
The reason I do this job anonymously is so that I will be treated like any old shnook walking in off the street. So here's a reminder for all you restaurant owners, maître d's, floormen, servers, captains and managers: I'm always out there testing you. I'm deliberately lurching up to your hostess stand looking like some lost member of the Manson family just come crawling out of the desert. I'm arriving alone in a suit like a wayward businessman, mispronouncing things on the menu and demanding complicated changes in my entree. I'm rolling in surrounded by a big-ass gang of drunken dipshits and ordering one of everything on the menu. I'm coming to see what you can do for me.
I don't expect the best table every night; I don't want special little snackies from the kitchen. If I wanted that kind of shit, I'd kill Anthony Bourdain and dress in his skin. What I want is to be treated like a guest, to be seated as well as possible and fed as well as the kitchen is able -- no matter how I look or who I have in tow. If you're honestly full to capacity, honestly overwhelmed at the bar, honestly on a wait, just tell me. Believe it or not, I love being turned away from a full house. Seeing a full house at any independent restaurant makes me happy. If the kitchen is running slow, if the fryers suddenly caught fire, if the chef just freaked out, shanked his grill man and fucked off for Mexico with the owner's sixteen-year-old daughter, tell me there's going to be a little bit of a delay on my cassoulet. I spent a lot of years in the business, and I'm gonna understand.
And most important, just remember that this is Colorado. No matter who you are, don't get to thinking you're too good for your area code. You're not. Your job is to serve -- in every good and decent sense of that word. And if you can't handle that, get the hell out of my industry.
On the avenue: There's more action on Sixth Avenue, with L'Asie Fusion Bistro moving into 603 East Sixth. The new owners are Andy Ho and May Giang, a husband-and-wife team with ten years in The Life. Ho (the cook) did time with Thai Basil and Ming Dynasty. Giang (who handles management and front-of-the-house) spent the past several years working with chef John Ye at John Holly's Asian Bistro (9232 Park Meadows Drive in Lone Tree). And it was Holly himself who helped the couple find a spot for their first restaurant: He owns the building where Emma's used to be and where L'Asie is currently under construction.
I was a little nervous when I first saw the new sign. I mean, if there's one thing Denver doesn't need, it's another Asian fusion restaurant, right? Every two-bit cook in town with a taste for sushi and a few issues of Gourmet from the early '90s shoved under his bed thinks he can fuse the cuisines of the mysterious East with Colorado lamb chops and arugula. Thankfully, most of these places don't last long enough to clutter up the landscape. But L'Asie was moving into a high-profile space in what's shaping up to be a very hot and developing neighborhood.
To assuage my fears, I got Giang on the phone last week. And there's good news: It doesn't appear that Ho and Giang are trying to fuse anything that hasn't already been fused by history. The way she explained it, the kitchen will be cooking Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese and Korean classics, approached with French technique and dressed (where appropriate) with French sauces. "L'Asie is French for 'Asian,'" she told me. "We thought it was a catchy name."
The French (like those tricky Mughals in this week's review) are best at conquering nations with cuisine, if not with bombs and bullets -- and so Vietnamese, Thai and Korean cuisines in particular have benefited from close contact with Frenchmen who came to fight but stayed to make dinner. Thus, L'Asie will feature dishes like Chinese crispy shrimp and scallops in a lemon cream sauce that's basically a French velouté dosed with citrus, and Vietnamese noodle bowls deconstructed into their essential components. "We're trying a newer twist," Giang said. "Inventing our own dishes."
They hope to make L'Asie a fine-dining restaurant while still keeping prices low for the neighborhood (and offering a happy hour), and are shooting to open by the end of the month. Because the building is historic, they weren't able to change the outside, but the inside "is a whole new restaurant," Giang concluded. "We changed everything. The walls, the bar -- we'll have a full bar now. Everything...just everything."
Leftovers: Although John Ye is sticking at John Holly's, he's acting as both landlord and advisor to a guy -- he calls him Zen -- who's starting Taki, an Asian restaurant and sushi bar at 420 East Bayaud Avenue. I called Ye to get the details, but instead got a long, loping, occasionally hilarious lecture on the dedication necessary to own and operate a successful kitchen in Denver. Still, Ye ought to know, since he's been cooking for going on thirty years. And that's exactly the kind of experience you want on your side when you're opening a new restaurant.
"I can't say I'm a partner, you know?" Ye explained. "I say I'm a friend. Zen, I know him and I say, 'You want to ask me a question? You want my help?' I'll give him my opinion. But I'm not working there, not cooking. I have no time. I'm crazy. I'm dead. I can't do any more."
Ye is already on the clock seven days a week at John Holly's and insists he never leaves the kitchen. "Food!" he explained, shouting into the phone. "Food is what's most important. I want people to know my recipes. I tell Zen, 'If I am involved, I'd cook Korean, Japanese, Chinese, American food, all together.'"
And so when it opens a month from now, Taki will be serving not just sushi, but maybe Korean/Chinese/American barbecue, even burgers. "I tell everyone who asks, you have to do something different, something new!" Ye added. "Then customers will come back for your food. Five-star food, three-star prices. Good food, good service, good prices: That's what works."
In my November 2 Second Helping on Pete's Kitchen (1962 East Colfax Avenue), I referred to Zagat "inspectors" -- and I was wrong, according to Michael Mahle, corporate communications manager at Zagat. "Just to let you know," he let me know, "we don't have 'inspectors.' Instead, our ratings and reviews both online at Zagat.com and in the form of our burgundy books come from the general public who are savvy and interested enough to lend their opinions."
And that's absolutely true. Inspectors are for the Michelin Guide; what Zagat has are surveyors -- along with a whole bunch of editors and fact-checkers and whatnot. But I don't think any of them would be caught eating at Pete's these days.
And by the way, Zagat's 2007 America's Top Restaurants guide comes out this week, featuring forty Denver-area restaurants.
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