Denver restaurateurs have never been very good at taking the long view, but they're going to get there eventually. And when they do, the mistakes of the past will seem ridiculous in hindsight.
Someday, prospective chefs will be taken on a tour of the failed restaurant playgrounds of Denver's gullible elite, shown addresses around LoDo, along Sixth and 17th avenues, in Cherry Creek and Wash Park, while grizzled old pros explain to them what failed where and why.
"See this?" one will say. "This is where Le Petit Merde was. The owner thought it would be enough to just look like a French restaurant. And this used to be Vientiane, a Communist fusion restaurant where all the best foods of Laos and Vietnam were mixed with Cuban and Soviet classics. Folks around here didn't much go for sour cream and curry blintzes."
"And what, that?" another will chime in. "Oh, that used to be Chi Bistro. Honestly, I have no idea what kind of restaurant it was trying to be. Problem was, neither did anyone else."
When Chi Bistro opened on Old South Gaylord last summer, it billed itself as a cool neighborhood bistro offering Asian-influenced American cuisine -- a worn and overwrought description of a style that hasn't been cutting-edge since...God, I don't even know when. The late '80s, maybe. Since the explosion of American sushi restaurants and the co-opting of culinary education programs into hackneyed art schools for chefs who'd be better off doing boardwalk portraiture than cooking my dinner. "Asian-influenced American cuisine" is a buzzword phrase that essentially means "Danger: Here be frisée." Wise diners know enough to stay well clear.
Last Memorial Day, I dropped by the annual Old South Gaylord street fair. Chi Bistro had not yet opened in the former Las Margaritas space, but it had a booth set up, a big tent that blocked off the boarded-up windows and wallpaper of city permits tacked everywhere. Pretty women handed out leaflets, coupons and business cards, and at a table off to the side, job applications were available. No matter who I asked about the soon-to-open restaurant, I got the same practiced spiel promising "Asian-influenced American cuisine," "beautiful plates," "a hip neighborhood bar" and, most disturbing, a prediction that this Chi Bistro would be just the beginning, "the first of many," the headquarters of a culinary revolution whose battles had all been planned, fought and lost a decade ago. Seeing the pretty women standing there, their pamphlets and sample menus and job applications fluttering in the breeze, was like running across a time-warp recruiting booth for the invasion of Panama.
I stopped in a month or so after Chi Bistro finally opened. The space was lovely, straddling that fine line between zen austerity and hipster comfort, with a lot of earth tones, natural flourishes (stone floors and brickwork and bare wood), deep, dark booths and a soothing flow. The bar emptied naturally into the dining room, the seats were well spaced, and the patio was a year-round affair -- all plastic-wrapped and heated against the coming winter.
But physical beauty is not enough in this town. Denver has a wealth of lovely rooms, a glut of excellent designers just itching to slap their "Asian-influenced American" design revelations all over someone's walls. Seven-figure buildouts, radical-chic architectural concepts, thousand-dollar sconces -- we've seen it before. And all too often, the more time and money and effort put into the front of the house, the less time and money and effort put into the back of the house, where it really matters.
That's certainly what I found at Chi Bistro. The menu was a nightmare of Sisyphean proportions, the kind of hell to which I've long feared I will someday be consigned, where every surefire, guaranteed, dim-witted and just flat goofy crowd-pleaser of a dish stolen from the Asians over the past fifty years has been re-concepted, dumbed down and fucked up, uncomfortably wedded to some recognizable American food item with all the grace and subtlety of a shotgun service, and thrown out there for the gnashing pleasure of stick-thin yuppies, holiday window shoppers with more credit than smarts, and brain-damaged foodies who believe that eating a lettuce wrap in Wash Park really puts them in touch with 10,000 years of the yellow man's culture.
But it doesn't. Not with Thai chicken wings on the menu. Not with wings glazed in chile sauce and served with a side of gorgonzola cream sauce -- an app that takes two wholly and completely respectable cuisines, Thai and Buffalonian, and castrates them both by forcing them into some kind of unholy culinary union. Not when pure soul-food baby-back ribs are tarted up with honey, chiles and Liquid Smoke, served alongside a wet mound of "Asian slaw" that tastes like shredded leftovers from the garde manger station at P.F. Chang's, and presented as though this fourth-hand ripoff and blatant pig abuse were genius. And definitely not when you're served lemongrass-dusted calamari with Chinese hot-and-sour sauce and Japanese wasabi cream.
After that first visit, I was not eager to return. Which worked out, because Chi Bistro soon changed chefs, changed hours, changed concepts. Suddenly, it was being hailed as a restaurant featuring "American classics with a flavor of French Indochina" -- which ought to have meant Café du Monde and crème caramel, pho, fish heads and pigs roasted and redolent of gunpowder and Zippo lighter fuel, but didn't, of course, except for an Asian bouillabaisse that managed to smash together the flavors of coastal France and Southeast Asia with all the gentility of a sledgehammer blow. Lunches were done off a slightly cut-down version of the dinner menu, hours were extended late into the night. Ladies' nights and industry nights and wine tastings were introduced. And, miracle of miracles, the many more locations originally promised had yet to materialize. The flagship was wallowing enough all on its own.
I waited, knowing from experience that the flailing had just begun. And sure enough, Chi Bistro soon shifted again, getting rid of weekday lunches and late-night hours and now claiming that it served New American cuisine -- a descriptor both ubiquitous and totally meaningless, since it never really stood for anything when it was first introduced and certainly doesn't today.
But while the name changed, the menu at Chi Bistro stayed the same. Thai chicken wings and lemongrass calamari. Alaskan halibut served over Shanghai ratatouille with homemade spaetzle. Meats rubbed in Kona coffee or shiitake powder, then buried under competing floods of chutneys, demis and glazes. A Vietnamese noodle bowl. Duck breast brushed with pomegranate syrup served over linguine Alfredo with "carrot paint." I didn't know what the hell carrot paint was, but I wasn't about to order the dish just to find out -- because then I would've had to eat duck glazed in a bittersweet fruit syrup served over a cheesy white sauce...which was wrong in so many ways that I couldn't begin to count them.
Still, I went back. A few weeks ago, I had French-press coffee brought to the table in a beautiful service, then ate the world's most inedible chicken lettuce wrap, with whole-leaf romaine so shiny it reflected the accent lights. It was that shiny because it was coated with a thick shellac of food-grade wax. The chopped, smoked chicken tasted like something rescued from a fatal house fire, the hot-and-sour peanut sauce like a culinary-school experiment gone terribly wrong. But the lobster and avocado spring rolls were surprisingly good -- real chunks of lobster, their fresh, clean taste accented by the buttery softness of the avocado. And the sweet-potato brûlée was excellent, too, rich with butter and cream and natural sugar, then further sweetened by a properly torched sugar crust.
Not everything at Chi Bistro is terrible. Poorly conceived, terrifyingly overwrought and about as delicately understated as a boot in the nuts, yes. But some of it tastes okay. Oddly, the most overtly creative ideas are tucked away on the soup-and-salad section of the menu: a Pacific Rim Caesar, and onion soup made with a fresh and interesting mix of white and yellow, sweet and bitter onions, all caramelized together and hit with a perfect balancing note of earthy leek and smoked Swiss cheese.
I once had a very good chef tell me the secret -- the only secret there is -- to writing a successful menu, running a successful kitchen and thereby living a happy life. The secret is simple: You've got to love something.
It doesn't matter what. Love mussels. Love your grandmother's recipe for puttanesca. Love lemongrass, even. But you have to love something. There must be something you have an unreasonable and maddening passion for, and it must go on your menu. Everything else will be shaped by this thing, influenced by it, flavored by it. And this one cherished thing, your love, will keep you honest. Your love will keep you pure. It will keep you anchored, prevent you from flying off in a hundred different directions and making a fool of yourself.
At Chi Bistro, there's no love. There's no anchor. This kitchen has plenty of problems -- including, but not by any means limited to, a lack of identity, a menu that showcases little beyond the embarrassing mistakes and cultural missteps of a thousand menus gone before, and a postmodern geographical schizophrenia that no amount of lithium could ever fix -- but at the root of them all is the sense that no one here is doing anything out of love. They're serving reflex food, copies of copies of copies, sadly loyal to a style that survives today only through the cowardice of the unadventurous.
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