When I was talking with Michael Bortz about his new City Bakery ("From Z to A," January 17), he went on a ten-minute tangent about Under the Umbrella, a coffee shop and cafe at 3504 East 12th Avenue, and how much he dug the place and its baker-owner, Jyll Tuggle. By his own admission, Bortz doesn't get out much — he has to be at the bakery early — but as a wholesale baker and a contract baker, he often knows things about restaurants that no civilian ever will because of his intimate involvement with both the back of the house and the bookkeepers.
So after I hung up on that call, I hurried right over to Under the Umbrella. And once again, Bortz was dead-on. Tuggle (a trained baker, ex of Heidi's and Panera) opened Under the Umbrella back in 2006 in a space that had already seen two other coffee/sandwich joints go under — first Mr. Lucky's, then A Flamingo and Two Chicks — but quickly transformed it from a run-of-the-mill, hippies-and-laptops coffeehouse to a real neighborhood cafe. It's a pretty spot, comfortable, full of squishy couches, armchairs, newspapers and Congress Park neighbors all being served lattes and grilled sandwiches by a guy who looks kinda like a white Mr. T, with one of those fat Mohawks wrapping all the way around the back of his head and becoming an impressive set of mutton-chop sideburns.
Unusual cranial/facial hair combinations aside, this tiny kitchen pumps out a surprisingly comprehensive board of cafe standards, everything from breakfast burritos spiked, New Mexico-style, with chopped green chiles, to cinnamon rolls the size of a dog's head, homemade soups, racks of pastries and more gourmet sandwiches than you can shake a batard at. I went for the simple grilled ham and cheese lubricated by spicy mustard, as well as a nice turkey-and-pesto with fresh spinach — both of which rivaled the non-rotisserie panini being pumped out by the sandwich artists at Frank Bonanno's new joint, Osteria Marco ("King Pig," January 3).
My first thought on entering Under the Umbrella had been that if I lived in this neighborhood, I would totally hang out here. (It's open from early in the morning until ten at night on the weekends, eight on school nights.) My last thought before leaving was to wonder whether there was any real estate available — a couple of bedrooms, small yard, room in the basement for the meth lab I'd have to run to pay the mortgage.
All of which just goes to show that when a baker tells you to check out a place, you should listen.
I also heard recently from daring gastronaut and local beer expert Lew Cady, who was singing the praises of the hot pastrami sandwiches at Fisher Clark Urban Delicatessen (723 South University Boulevard), a spot opened last fall by Mary Clark, formerly of Blue Point Bakery. Cady says he's eaten everywhere from the New York Deli to Zaidy's, but he'd never found a place in town that offered a hot pastrami that came even close to the one served at Katz's Deli in New York City until he wandered into Fisher Clark. Which is high praise, indeed.
And I got a message from Rob Lawler, who, along with wife Karin, took over the Truffle cheese shop at 2906 East Sixth Avenue last year. Rob wanted me to know that a lot of the imported meats and cheeses that Bonanno is using at Osteria (in particular, that amazing Salumeria Biellese coppa) are also available at the Truffle — just in case I felt like taking my cured meat on the road. But for prosciutto, I remain a sucker for the meat at Oliver's, a dozen blocks away at 1718 East Sixth. There's just something about a neighborhood butcher...
Still on the sandwich beat, I decided to try the very strange, semi-cult Midwestern sandwich shop Erbert & Gerbert's that recently opened in a strip mall at 8000 East Belleview in Greenwood Village. The chain's primary claim to fame is a bizarre and convoluted backstory involving two time-traveling brothers, Erbert and Gerbert, who have adventures and eat sandwiches. Cool enough, but here's the rub: The sandwiches are purely pedestrian.
Actually, why mince words? They sucked. They were thin on the meat, carelessly thrown together and offered with a very narrow range of options reminiscent of a strip-mall Subway. Really, the only interesting thing that Erbert & Gerbert did was dig a trench in the bread before assembling the sandwich, rather in the style of a New Orleans muffaletta, and then, rather than throw out the bread guts, they serve them with the sandwich — which makes for a handy dipper if you've ordered soup.
Still, unless you happen to live nearby and are really hungry for a mediocre sandwich made by lethargic college students, this joint isn't worth your time or trouble. You're better off at Under the Umbrella or Osteria Marco, or just picking up some makings at Oliver's or the Truffle, maybe bread from Mike Bortz, and assembling your own sandwich.
Leftovers: In last week's Bite Me, I reported that Patrick Dupays, who'd just opened À Côté two doors down from his original restaurant, Z Cuisine, had decided to shut Z and move all operations to his new joint. À Côté had only been open a few days when we talked, and Dupays said he was convinced he could serve a worthy version of the brilliant Z menu at the new spot while still creating a real French wine bar: a piece of cheese, a bit of charcuterie, a glass of Côtes du Rhône and thee. After all, À Côté was bigger and brighter than Z, with a better location, right on the corner at 2245 West 30th Avenue.
But three days later, Dupays called again. "I've been doing a lot of thinking with my guys," he said, and what they were thinking about was reopening Z Cuisine. "It's like moving from your beautiful house into your garage, you know? I think I was in what you call a transition period, and I just lost it."
So here's the current plan: Dupays is going to keep Z Cuisine dark for a few weeks, and use that time to find a second staff — his original staff is now at À Côté, taking care of the already over-capacity crowds — and come up with a scaled-back format for Z Cuisine. He's thinking of putting six items on the menu rather than twelve, of changing menus every day, of doing prix fixe like a true Paris bistrot. And when he's ready, he'll open Z back up for proper dinner services — while continuing to operate À Côté as a wine bar. "What we do, it's for the people, you know?" he said. "How can we make them happy?"
I don't know about everyone else, but reopening Z Cuisine will make me very happy indeed.
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There's no question that some other restaurants have gone kaput. On Sunday, Palomino closed its doors at 1515 Arapahoe Street; the owners are reportedly looking for a new location, having lost their home of ten years when they neglected to renew the lease. The Karma Kafe, a vegan spot sandwiched between Vita and Lola at 1575 Boulder Street, has left that space (and the tax notices for Karma Souljahs from the city pasted on the door), which will soon be filled with another coffeehouse run by another tenant in the Olinger's building. Meanwhile, if the tax problem gets cleared up, Karma could reopen in Five Points, which will be good news for raw/vegan food fans.
And after one of the shortest runs in recent memory, Marni's, a steakhouse that was squeezed into an odd-shaped space at 925 Lincoln Street, has been transformed into Mr. Coco's Bar & Grill. Same owners but a completely different look, with two happy hours a day ($4 skirt-steak tacos and chicken wings; 2-for-1 margaritas and $8 six-pack buckets), and a late-night menu offered until 1:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. The former home of a classic neighborhood Italian joint, Mikey's Italian Bistro, at 4140 East 38th Avenue, just reopened as a neighborhood French joint: Indulge. The space, which now has a liquor license, has been remodeled into a 65-seat bistro that opened on January 22. Chef William Wahl (ex of the Kevin Taylor organization, specifically Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House) calls Indulge's fare "classical French with a global twist."
Finally, one of Denver's greatest black holes could be the space at 1700 Vine Street, which has swallowed up restaurants ranging from Juanita's to the Rhino Room to Milagro Taco Bar. But that didn't deter Kevin Daly, owner of Boulder's Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery and Southern Sun Pub & Brewery, from buying the 12,000-square-foot building. He plans to put the company's third brewpub, another Mountain Sun, in that spot, Denver zoning permitting. We'll drink to that.