I drink champagne when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it — unless I'm thirsty. — Lilly Bollinger
I love champagne.
Truly, madly and deeply, I love the stuff. American bubbly is okay, sweet Italian prosecco is better, but my real passion is for la méthode et la région de Champagne and every estate therein that attempts to bottle the stars.
In my best moments, I like to think of myself sitting alone at the bar with a fine, fluted glass, like James Bond just ten seconds before the girl walks in. In my worst, I fear I'm more like one of Candace Bushnell's cosmo-skanks, getting giggly and paralytic after too many glasses, rolling the stem of a Riedel flute between my fingers and watching the bubbles ladder upward like my own private lava lamp.
The best bottle I ever drank was a limited-edition Piper-Heidsieck wrapped in a miniature red corset by Jean-Paul Gaultier — not necessarily the best-tasting bubbly in the world, but I was wearing a tux and the environment was conducive to the kind of fun and bad behavior that only a man with a tuxedo and legendarily poor impulse control can get up to. My favorite is the Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label. Failing that, a Perrier Jouët grand brut — sweet and muscular, like getting punched in the mouth by a fist made of sugar cubes and grapes. At home, I have a bottle of '86 Moët Dom Perignon that I'm saving to celebrate something very special, though I don't yet know what.
So the idea of a classy, Froggish champagne bar in Larimer Square really Veuved my Clicquot, so to speak, when I first heard that the last vestiges of Josephina's that hadn't already been taken over by Rioja were going to be swept away and filled with something called Corridor 44 — a champagne bar and crudo restaurant to be helmed by the half-famous chef Eric Laslow, who'd been brought to Denver from Oregon by Larimer Square's owners. It was a three-way marriage of convenience between the out-of-town chef, an unusual space (little more than an unused, 44-foot-long hallway, two dollops of floor at either end, Josephina's old bar and a bit of room for kitchen and storage), and a concept that managers hoped would squeeze every possible dollar out of every possible square inch of this cramped piece of real estate.
And it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a complete disaster. Shortly after Corridor 44 opened in early 2006, the crudo was abandoned when it wasn't instantly successful. Laslow was forced into serving what he called a "whitewashed, diminished version" of what he'd originally wanted to serve, and felt as though he was cooking by committee. And his crew consisted primarily of guys who'd still been limping along in the kitchen when Josephina's was going through its death throes. By the time a second menu was instituted last year (a horrible, Frankenstein's monster of desperation vittles that presumed to offer oyster shooters and crab-spiked mac-and-cheese, sugared gourmet frites served in greasy paper cones and chocolate pudding — but more than anything, really offered the very palpable sense that everything behind the scenes was going sideways fast), Laslow had admitted that his heart just wasn't in it and that all he truly wanted was to be gone, like, yesterday.
I stopped in one terrible and uncomfortable Friday night before he managed to escape and spent a couple of hours in a virtually deserted restaurant with misery sketched between every line on the disjointed menu and nothing but champagne to speed the clock along toward the moment when Laura and I might decently flee. I drank Perrier Jouët in the futile hope that four glasses of bubbles would either give me the borrowed lift to rise above the gloom or just knock my punk ass out, but instead ended up eating a bad oyster and spending the next day and a half suffering the effects of medium-serious shellfish toxicity, a not altogether unpleasant mix of numbness and floaty incoherence that's kind of like being high on opium (or so I've been told).
I wrote about my experience in Bite Me ("Oyster Barred," June 15, 2006), but by then Laslow had moved on, taking at least one of the Corridor 44 partners with him and leaving behind a shell-shocked crew. The response I got from the manager was exactly the opposite of what I expected: not inchoate anger and threats of violence, but sincere apologies, a point-by-point explanation of everything that'd gone wrong since Corridor 44's inception, and a heartfelt promise that things would be turned around as soon as possible. I was asked straight out to give Corridor 44 a little time to get back on its feet and find its way, then to return and see how things had been transformed. And I, the cynic, said, "Sure, why not?" — figuring that the place would be closed before I could get back for dinner, anyway.
Then I promptly forgot all about Corridor 44 until a couple of weeks ago, when I stumbled across a few favorable references to its prix fixe menu on the interweb, which mentioned a very good and very French champagne flight of all my favorites (four or five glasses, including a taste of Bollinger) for just $18 — roughly the price of a glass and a half of something decent.
"Champagne," I thought. "Yeah, I could drink some champagne."
So I did.
Corridor 44's space hasn't changed — but then, I'd always liked the room. It still looks like an elegant French Revivalist house made up of nothing but living rooms, with pillars, some gilt, a lot of stripey cloth wallpaper, white plaster that deserves a patina of age and the yellow sheen of French cigarette smoke that it hasn't yet earned, and a beautiful, carved wood bar with an arching mirror. But beyond all this, nothing about the restaurant is the same. It's like a completely fresh restaurant grafted into the old space, a lovely body now animated by a transplanted heart.
And this time, finally, Corridor 44 has gotten it right. Third time's a charm, I guess. The menu — once a rambling, failed attempt at foisting raw proteins on an unsuspecting populace, then a horrific monster cobbled together out of graveyard spare parts and stolen comfort-food tropes — is now a Hemingway short story, brutally clipped and concise, offering nothing more than what is absolutely necessary for a champagne-bar dinner. I could take in the entire menu now at a blink — twelve items total, not counting desserts. And this version is even a cut-down version of the original third draft — minus the mako shark steak with melted leek and pomegranate sauce that had sounded like a bad move anyway; minus the kobe short ribs that everyone and their mother put on their menus three years ago and everyone and their mother stopped putting on their menus one year ago; minus a tortured boar bacon and carrot bread pudding. What remains are the strongest and most solid dishes: mussels with green curry and fennel; a simple green salad; oysters on the half shell; a smart country-come-to-the-city plate of roasted wild mushrooms that sometimes brings hedgehogs and criminis, sometimes enokis, shiitakes or morels, and always came dressed in a veil of shaved parmesan and truffle vinaigrette.
There's a New York strip, though I'm not sure who would order steak and potatoes in a champagne bar; a cheese plate with lavender honey and scratch pear jam; salmon lox; and caviar service complete with fried capers, crème fraîche and blini. There's a cured-meat plate with lomo and prosciutto that comes with a few spears of perfectly grilled (not burnt, as they so often are) French baguette, two small mounds of delicious and powerful gorgonzola tapenade, a lace of white aioli and a tiny portion of antipasto salad with baby artichoke hearts, asparagus, black olives and pine nuts. On the first menu, a meat plate would've been raw meat and nothing else. On the second, it might've included melon balls, simple syrup, cotton candy, sparklers, frisée, chicken wings and little American flags. But now it was perfect, preceded by a glass of cheap New Mexican Gruet blanc de noir, chased with a much more subtle and sedate Moët & Chandon White Star.
On one visit I ate the Latino'd-up shrimp (chipotle barbecue sauce, chile-fired black beans), on another the confit of Muscovy duck, which was another galley triumph of restraint and subtlety. Served on a large, square white plate, it was nothing more than one deliciously dark and gamey (though under-salted) confit leg laid in a shallow sea of mandarin orange and duck jus reduced to a glossy slick of pure, two-note excellence and punctuated by three sections of Mandarin orange that should've been candied but tasted pretty good anyway. On the side was an excellent miso couscous studded with edamame and topped with kimchi. The kimchi was pointless — little more than boiled cabbage touched with chile — but the couscous was so delicately redolent of miso that it was more a scent than a flavor. It tasted like the best risotto, particularly when mixed with the duck-and-orange jus.
After that, the dessert offerings looked disappointing — crème brûlée, seasonal berries with crème fraîche, chocolate this and chocolate that, an upscale version of banana lumpia. A glass of port or more champagne seemed much more appealing. Not wanting to ruin the savor of the miso couscous, I passed over the punchy grand brut and went for my sweet and long-legged darling, Veuve Clicquot. Sitting back and sipping happily in my booth, I watched a restaurant come back from the dead. Tables came and tables went. Bubbles rose as the sun set over Larimer Square. Corridor 44 is doing okay.
And by the end of the night, so was I.
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