May is going to be a big month for Troy Guard.
And not just for Guard, who's currently standing post as exec chef at Nine75 and Emogène and also overseeing the Caribbean menu at Wings and Wraps, which opened at 4736 East Colfax Avenue, but also for his wife, Leigh Sullivan, for Leigh's dad Jim Sullivan, and for everyone else in the Sullivan restaurant empire who survived the shakeups caused by the closing of Mao at the beginning of the year.
On May 1, Guard's new menu will debut at Jet, in the space formerly known as the Luna Hotel, on the corner of 16th and Wazee. In a weird, life-imitating-art kind of deal, this boutique hotel-slash-bar-slash-lounge-slash-subterranean restaurant and doomed crêperie -- which has already seen enough problems in its first two turbulent years to fill an entire book on how not to make money in the hotel and restaurant business -- was recently picked up by those ink-stained wretches at Dining Out, the Colorado-based publisher of restaurant guides that has already established glossy beachheads in a half-dozen cities across the country. And kudos to Dining Out for realizing early that publishing a guide about restaurants and actually running a restaurant are two very different things. There have been months of flirtation between the two camps -- the publishers-turned-hoteliers on one side, Sullivan & Co. on the other -- but in the end, the papers got signed, and Jet ended up with Guard and a hand-picked mercenary crew of Nine75 veterans to open its kitchen.
"Jet's coming along," Guard said when I talked to him last week, fresh from yet another all-day meeting at the hotel. He's pleased with the dining room (which will now have real table seating, unlike its first incarnation as Flow, which featured tall stools, banquettes and standing bar tables, but nowhere for a person to actually sit down and eat) and with the menu, which will offer about fifteen small plates, some of them designed specifically for Jet, others highlighting signature items from the menus at Nine75 and Ocean (which I'll get to in a minute).
What's more, Jet will also have Guard himself on the line, overseeing ops and making sure no one sets the place on fire -- which isn't a joke, because that almost happened when I was at Flow one night, getting a nice contact high from the pot smoke wafting from the kitchen and watching an ambulance carry away one of its cooks.
Unfortunately, Jet will only have Guard's undivided attention (well, mostly undivided, since he still has Nine75 and Emogène to worry about, plus plans for opening spinoffs of both) for about two weeks. Because on May 12, the hardest-working man in the restaurant business will be jumping out for the opening of Ocean in the old Mao space, at 201 Columbine Street. That's one day shy of Nine75's one-year anniversary: It opened last May 13 -- Friday the thirteenth, to be exact.
Ocean's focus will be seafood -- lots and lots of seafood. And Ocean's chef de cuisine is Javier Sanchez, an old hand who worked with Guard at Zengo and Tamayo and was most recently marking time in the kitchen at Zaidy's. And Mister Super Chef isn't going to be hurting for staff, either. With everything that's been going on in the Sullivan/Guard kingdom, the white-jackets in the kitchen "have really started to feel the fire," Guard told me. "These guys know that there's a lot of things happening. They want to move up."
While the interior space has been spruced up, the most interesting change is outside, where the entrance to Mao was once marked by several sets of gigantic hands holding torches. Those hands were cast from molds of Sullivan's own hands -- a display of narcissism so extreme that I couldn't help but be impressed. At Ocean, the torch-hands have been removed and replaced with new hands holding gigantic fish -- and again, they were cast from Sullivan's own humongous mitts.
Coming next: a life-sized bronze bust of Sullivan to be mounted right in the middle of the city permitting office, where restaurateurs will be able to rub it for luck.
For a small fee, of course.
The name game: Speaking of chefs with more addresses than eyes to watch over them, Kevin Taylor (Prima and Restaurant Kevin Taylor, both at Hotel Teatro; Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House and Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, which is scheduled to reopen this fall) has made a handshake agreement to open yet another operatic eatery (or three) in Central City.
Yup, Central City, the Paris of the High Country, where the slots are tight, the streets are steep and the house always wins.
Seriously, always. I've known nuns looser than the slots up there.
Taylor's latest enterprise is Kevin Taylor's Rouge at the Teller House -- a "modern steakhouse" that will operate through the summer in the historic onetime hotel, several-time casino. Rouge will be turning tables in the fine-dining room upstairs, while drinks, desserts and lighter fare will be served downstairs in the atrium and reopened Face Bar, which features that creepy Herndon Davis painting on the floor that the Central City glitterati swear is a tourist attraction. The Teller House's liquor license stretches to the garden next door, so Taylor also plans on trucking in two big tents and setting them up so that opera-goers can have somewhere pretty to retire to during intermission for pastries, petits fours and booze. And he'll be handling Central City's weekend salon performances, where Central City Opera cast members walk around singing while you have brunch. And then there's the catering schedule
The Teller House gig alone is complicated enough, and when you add in Taylor's three other restaurants, you've got to ask why anyone in his right mind would take this on. The answer is simple: no competition. None. Zilch. When Rouge unlocks its doors, it will be the only restaurant of note in town.
Actually, it will pretty much be the only restaurant, period. In Central City, it'll be Rouge or a slice of pizza and a microbrew at Dostal Alley, Rouge or a quick order of nachos at one of the casinos. Although a mile down the hill in Black Hawk, several of the big casinos are trying to lure gamblers with fancy dining rooms (and succeeding only with their buffets), Central City's culinary landscape looks bleak. And to a businessman like Taylor, that looks like money in the bank.
"We felt like there was very little risk in it," he says, laughing. "The opera has been overjoyed with what we're doing at the Ellie, and at the Teller House, we'll be cooking for the same crowd. It seemed like a natural."
Even the schedules fit together nicely: The Central City Opera season begins June 24, at which point Opera Colorado will have been out of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House at the Denver Performing Arts Complex for a month. And while Taylor is obligated to keep the restaurant below the Ellie open whenever there's an event booked there, he thinks servicing Central City through the summer will be no problem, since the Ellie looks to be almost completely dark in August. And come Labor Day weekend, Rouge will shut its doors -- sparing everyone the trouble of suffering through a long, lonely winter.
Business aside, Taylor is still a cook at heart, and one of his first moves was to inspect the two kitchens already installed at the Teller House-- one upstairs and one down -- where several restaurant attempts have crashed and burned since gambling came to town in 1992. The galleys are old but remarkably well kept. "I was shocked," he says. "I mean, it was old, but there's something charming about old. I've always wanted to do a retro kind of thing."
He plans to keep the menu simple and approachable -- or at least approachable by his standards -- which translates into lobster cocktails with Bloody Mary granite, tuna au poivre in green-peppercorn sauce, potato-crusted veal porterhouse and Madeira jus. "Simple," he says. "Something simple, not overwhelming. Good food, prepared well."
Taylor and the folks from Central City Opera, which owns the Teller House, have been working through the details for the past two months, but Taylor is sure his group will hit the mark, catering for the opening-night party crowd on June 24 and then welcoming the public to Rouge proper the next day.
And he'll have some welcome help, since pastry chef Jason LeBeau has rejoined the Taylor empire. He'd been working at Udi's Bread Bistro in Stapleton while still supplying Prima, et al., with pastries, but now he's back with Taylor full-time and will be kicking doughy, sugar-coated ass all up and down the mountains once things get rolling this summer.
Leftovers: Less than two months after it left South Pearl Street, Lola will unveil its new digs at 1575 Boulder Street at a private shindig April 19, followed by a public opening April 20. Look for the popular brunch on both Saturday and Sunday, with live salsa music added to the mix on Sunday nights. Lola's old space, at 1469 South Pearl, will soon be filled by BB's on Pearl, which joins with two more new restaurants in the neighborhood: Nosh, at 1439 South Pearl, where John Hinman serves sandwiches, soup, gelato and smoothies; and Gaia, a breakfast-and-lunch joint at 1551 South Pearl.
Caribbean Cuisine Plus, which left its original home at 15445 East Iliff Avenue in Aurora last fall, has reopened right down the street at 11200 East Iliff -- in a bigger space in a much more heavily frequented strip mall. The cuisine is the same, though: Jamaican meat pies, blazing stir-fries and roasted goat for everyone! Also in Aurora, J Shabu is now offering Japanese table-top cooking at 2680 South Havana. It's brought to us by Jun Makino, chef/owner of Junz in Parker, and early word is very good.
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Sadly, Boudreaux's Bayou Buffet is gone from its spot at 12200 East Cornell Avenue, a space that had already swallowed Maruti Narayan's and Denver Woodlands. This Cajun eatery run by actual Louisiana natives lasted only a couple of months before going under.
I tracked down owner Mike Reimann to find out what happened. Turns out that far from the usual restaurant story of closing for lack of business, too much support put Boudreaux's down. "It was the press that killed us," he told me. "This was supposed to be fun and everything, you know? A little restaurant. But it became too much, too fast, and too much work. It was no fun anymore."
While lack of trade was never a problem, ninety-hour work weeks and a seven-day schedule were. Mike was worn out, and his wife, Cindy, was having health problems -- so they made the decision to bail.
"We lost some money, but it was money that we didn't have when we came up here," he said, referring to Hurricane Katrina insurance money they used to open Boudreaux's. "But that's all right. It was wearing me out. My marriage would have gone down the tubes had we stayed open."