On a Saturday night, Cherry Crest Seafood is all business. The menu for this small strip-mall restaurant and fish market lists twenty entrees, not counting pastas or salads, as well as a spread of house specialties and a long board of apps; the chalkboards and dry-erase boards are full of more daily specials; and the kitchen where all these dishes are created is tiny — an open hot line arranged in a tight, cramped square with three guys banging around inside. They're slinging sizzle platters, saucing, topping and arranging a dozen different fish, pulling live lobsters from the tank with the calm coolness of veteran executioners while the waitresses do assembly-line salads and the busboys break like wings of Stukka dive-bombers every time a group leaves — grabbing plates, stacking glasses, wiping down and turning tables with the speed and practiced efficiency of an Indy pit crew.
Cherry Crest is not a hip restaurant. It is, in fact, the least hip restaurant in the city — possessing neither the honest retro credentials of an old place like Bastien's nor the bought-and-paid-for faux-retro slickness of a new-old joint like Steuben's, with no claim to the foodie-chic-ethnic-weirdness that keeps unusual spots like India's or Domo in the green. It isn't in a hot neighborhood, or even a neighborhood that has ever been hot or ever will be. And though many of the cars in the parking lot are expensive and German or enormous SUVs, they are driven almost exclusively by ladies of a certain age or men older than their teeth. Cherry Crest is not a place where anyone goes to be seen. Innovation is anathema here, chased out of the kitchen like a disease. With its cramped floor, upholstered booths, aging posters of the Detroit Red Wings, higgledy-piggledy arrangement of tables and chairs crammed in as tightly as possible and style of plating that harks back to the two-dimensional days before Portale, before ring molds, before every entree had to come stacked high as if the plate were incredibly valuable real estate and the chef had bought only one small parcel, Cherry Crest is not going to win any awards for design.
And yet, it is busy. At 6:30 on a Saturday night, the wait at the door is an hour, easy. I don't know how many people the restaurant can seat, but I do know the floor is completely committed — at 100 percent capacity and then some, with the dining room and covered patio full. The waiters and waitresses are moving along pre-cut grooves in the floor, following the same path that some have been following for more than two decades, since the day the place opened back in 1985. The hostess stand is unmanned most of the time, with the list working on a sort of honor system: You step in, pick up the little notebook, write in your name and the number in your party, then step back. A regular in the parking lot offers a helpful warning while I wait my turn at the book: write your name close to the one before you, because there are assholes in the world, jerks who will try to cram their names in between two other names, thereby bumping themselves up in the batting order. So when I pick up the pen, I leave no room for such shenanigans. I'm taking no chances at all.
Cherry Crest Seafood Market and Restaurant
5909 South University Boulevard, Greenwood Village, 303-798-2600, www.cherrycrestseafood.com. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Saturday.
Clams (dozen): $10.95
Lemon sole: $17.95
I've been here on a busy Tuesday afternoon when the patio was full and people were pressed up against the market cold cases (Cherry Crest is also a wholesaler of truly excellent fish delivered daily), but I managed to slide in, get my order — a lobster roll that was heavy on the red onion and celery, which I don't care for but some people do — and slip out again with no fuss, no muss. I've been in on a busy Thursday evening when I only had to wait seconds for a table, and not much longer for Little Necks dunked in warm, drawn butter, greenlip mussels in garlic-shot beurre blanc and a plate of peel-and-eat 18-20s mounded on a plain white plate with no more elaborate garnish than a lemon wedge and a leaf of wilted lettuce, no more extravagance than the shrimp themselves (perfectly boiled in court bouillon, chilled, lovely) and a tin soufflé cup of excellent, horseradish-heavy cocktail sauce.
But Saturday is crazy busy. Out in the parking lot, the conversation is all about fish, about piscine fantasies and memories of great meals had just on the other side of the glass, at this table or that one. Everyone has a favorite plate. I hear recommendations for the salmon, the salmon, the salmon again. For the sword, for the crab legs, for the Great Lakes walleye — a seasonal taste you rarely get to indulge in Colorado. One woman swears by the Thai noodle salad with grilled salmon. "I'm hooked," she says, with no trace of irony. "I'm going to have it tonight. Or maybe the lobster salad. Or the lobster and crab enchiladas..." Her voice goes all rough and husky, like Homer Simpson dreaming of doughnuts. "They are soooo good."
We wait. The rest of my party and I smoke cigarettes and talk about fish. Like John Candy in that movie Summer Rental, I keep an eye on the lobster tank and see its stock getting rapidly depleted. I don't exactly leave nose-prints on the front windows, but I come close. While I'm watching the lobsters, some 900-year-old man with no hair and a blind man's dark glasses almost backs over several would-be diners in his hurry to sling a three-ton Hummer into a choice parking spot right by the front door. He is oblivious to the yelling. When he hobbles out of the driver's seat, he looks as though a stiff wind might turn him to dust.
Finally, we are called to a table by the windows, a four-top shoved up tight against the glass, the fourth chair co-opted into service at some other table. Considering the hour and the volume that Cherry Crest is turning, service is remarkably fast, competent to a fault. There's a system here, one that serves a too-small floor with a too-small kitchen very well. Apps are mostly pre-prep, long-haul dishes: cold shrimp, soups, clam chowder, crabcakes that are already formed and need only a quick flip in a hot pan to brown. Salads (served with every entree) come as a second course — a stall to keep the kitchen on top of the flood of entrees. We get a plate of cold shrimp and bowls of hot shrimp and artichoke soup, thick and lemony, touched with tarragon — unusual but delicious, and rustic as all get-out. We eat two orders of delicious crabcakes that are nothing but lump crab, salt, pepper and some green onion — no cheating, no filler. The salads are steakhouse-standard: mostly iceberg, a little red leaf, pine nuts. They're being banged out by the dozen from a small cold table — the garde manger station, run by the floor staff, overseen by the floor manager who will also pour wine, pop the tops on beer bottles, pull sodas for the kids.
Then, the entrees. The best are the simplest, although the long menu does occasionally devolve into strange ethnic digressions (mahi mahi in Thai garlic sauce, chili-orange glazes and sesame oils). The lemon sole comes topped with a blue-crab-parmesan-and-breadcrumb crust to protect the delicate flesh of the fish from the blasting heat of the top broiler. Technically, this is a good idea, although our crust is a little burnt. But the sole itself is fantastic — soft and yielding, a little oily, a little sweet. The lobster and crab enchilada we'd heard about in the parking lot is good in a Casa Bonita kind of way: a guilty pleasure of perfectly cooked lobster meat and lump crab swaddled inside a tortilla and then smothered under a veil of yellow-orange cheese and a jalapeño cream sauce. The green beans on the side seem like a joke, a bit of green added in the vain hope that anyone presented with such a massive mound of tortillas, lobster and cheese might actually eat a vegetable and thereby put off the subsequent massive heart attack for at least one more day.
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I'd ordered a lobster dinner, of course. I've been ordering lobsters in Denver for years, futilely hoping that maybe, maybe, someone will eventually cook one right — the way I remember lobsters being done on family trips to Maine and the Maritimes. When handled right, lobster is the very definition of succulence, of sweet and fatty indulgence: the foie gras of the sea. In Colorado, I have been disappointed more times than I can count. But not tonight.
My lobster is flawless. Delicious. Bright red and angry-looking and big. It's a female, which helps (they taste better than the males), her body packed with roe. When I crack her first claw, the meat pulls out with no resistance, purply-red and mottled. It is, without a doubt, the best lobster I've had since coming west seven years ago. And the lobster is not even the best thing on the table.
No, that honor goes to the salmon — the salmon the people in the parking lot couldn't stop talking about, the just-delivered salmon that's a special this night. Served poached with a light nap of Dijon and dill hollandaise, it is a piece of fish so perfect, so beautiful and fresh and shockingly good, that it actually stuns me into silence for a moment. I am not a man who loves salmon. It's too fishy, too flaky, too oily, almost always too old. Other restaurants do terrible things to salmon, handle it like chicken, create throw-away dishes fit only for the unadventurous or those on strict diets. But Cherry Crest has treated my salmon with a French reverence for product. It's beautifully poached, buttery, delicate, almost meltingly soft on my tongue and ideally paired with just that velvety shroud of scratch hollandaise. It borders on miraculous — one cool, composed and classical high, the kind of dish that gets talked about in the parking lot.
And next weekend, that's just where I'll be.