If anyone wonders if I get special treatment as a critic, they should have been at Epernay, the nine-month-old, high-gloss restaurant and sushi bar a stone's throw from the Ellie, one evening last month. "I'm sorry," the hostess said, "but we're full tonight." My husband and I looked at each other, then glanced around the near-empty dining room, with frosted glass, a bamboo divider and a wall-sized underwater photo that makes you feel like you've jumped into a four-star aquarium. A very lonely aquarium, in this case. "We will be full in fifteen minutes," she clarified, offering us a seat in the lounge. Only when we turned that down, wondering out loud if we should just come back another time, did she change her tune. "Let's see, I think I can move a reservation around," she said, picking up two menus and showing us to our seats.
See also: Behind the scenes at Epernay
I suppose this might sound like special treatment: a table when moments before there hadn't been one. But not at Epernay, not on a night that remained quieter than an opera hall in August, with twice as many empty as occupied seats. I work hard to stay anonymous as a reviewer — and this crew definitely wasn't organized enough to somehow figure out my identity. So whether this seating snafu was a snub ("Was it something I'm wearing?" my husband joked sotto voce) or just a clumsy attempt to balance out servers, it was an unimpressive start to the evening.
1080 14th Street
Hours: 4-10 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 4-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Seared scallop and cauliflower $15
Beet salad $9
Lamb loin $31
Tuna nigiri sushi $6
Sea urchin nigiri sushi $9
Caterpillar roll $11
Papa bear roll $15
Yellowtail roll $11
Sashimi taster $10
It didn't get much better, either, at least not in terms of service. Menus were left on the table. Plates were cleared with a less-than-polished "Can I grab this out of your way?" When asked how he wanted the lamb, my husband inquired as to how the chef prefers it. "Medium," we were told, only to have it come out medium rare — which is, in fact, how the chef prefers it, and the server should have known this. And I wished I'd learned of the Olathe corn bisque at the start of the meal, not by chance several courses later, when we were handed dessert menus and found the soup special printed at the top.
Given the number of restaurants in town that treat you like a guest and not just another mouth to feed, it's hard to see why anyone who wasn't just killing time before or after a curtain would return to Epernay. Or so I thought, until I tasted the first few bites of my starter. That dish, a trio of scallops, was simultaneously precise, whimsical and cerebral, a case study of what executive chef Duy Pham is all about. The scallops were cooked as they should be, with crisp brown tops that provided a nice contrast to the smooth interior. But what made the plate stand out — and I'm guessing what made it fun for Pham, who seems as much a mad scientist as a chef and says "Wow!" with the gusto of a guy blowing up something in a lab — were his riffs on cauliflower. Nowhere in sight was the steamed white stuff you picture when you think of this vegetable. Instead, Pham presented it as purple puree, as caramelized green florets the color of broccoli, and as raw yellow shavings mixed with truffle pearls, in what the menu described as "black and gold caviar." Beet salad with a smear of housemade goat ricotta, whole golden and red beets and sunflower sprouts was also playful, in part because what seemed like a thin chioggia beet was really a pickled watermelon radish. And my husband's lamb was nearly upstaged by the goat-cheese potato cake, intentionally mounded like a scallop with a perfectly browned crust.
The food was so good that I put aside my memories of bad service and went back, only to find a similar story played out by a new cast (or lack thereof): an absent hostess, and a server who did little to explain Pham's intricate dishes or how to craft a meal from distinctly different menus. While a smooth front of the house is essential if a restaurant is to live up to its potential, this is especially true at Epernay, given that it's almost three restaurants in one: New American, Japanese and French. (Epernay is, after all, the champagne capital of France, and the restaurant serves what's billed as the largest selection of sparkling wine in the city, with bottles topping out at $1,500.) Without such a guide, my friends and I were on our own — which is how we felt anyway, tucked in a corner of the once again near-empty dining room.
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This time, however, the food wasn't strong enough to overcome Epernay's weaknesses. We opted to concentrate on the sushi menu, which is executed by chef Ariel Bil Yeu and doesn't include miso soup or edamame, but has enough nigiri and sashimi sushi, rolls and new-style sashimi offerings to make a meal. (Some guests do mix and match, but in my mind, it's disharmonious to follow sashimi with, say, gnocchi with brown butter and English peas or pork tenderloin with pork-head scrapple.) Despite what the decor implies, though, sushi isn't where Pham's heart lies. "We're not trying to be a Japanese restaurant," he stressed when I spoke with him by phone. And it shows.
Rice is nearly absent of seasonings, so the tuna in my nigiri sushi fell flat, like soup made with no salt. Uni (sea urchin) was as buttery as avocado but lacked depth. "It's like a peach that isn't quite ripe, compared to one that has all this peach flavor and is dripping with juice," mused a friend, pausing to rest her chopsticks on the origami holder she'd fashioned from the wrapper. An eel-filled caterpillar roll, plated to look like it was inching along, with sprouts for antennae, also lacked flavor, tasting to one of us like cucumber, another like nori, and another like nothing at all, not even eel. And the yellowtail roll, which promised cilantro and jalapeño, seemed like a tuna roll switched at birth, with no discernible spice or heat. The papa bear roll did have heat in the form of habanero, but the fiery sauce overpowered the tuna, shrimp and seaweed salad tucked inside. Better was the sashimi sampler, with salmon, garlic tuna, halibut with orange and basil, and more yellowtail, though when she set the plate down, the server should have taken more care to explain what was what, since this was a special.
I can't imagine that this is what Pham had in mind when he sold his well-received Restaurant Fifteen Twenty-One in Pueblo and returned to Denver last year to open Epernay. Not this guy, who at the age of 24 earned raves at Denver's long-defunct Tante Louise, who keeps menu descriptions to a minimum so that he can surprise diners, and who refuses to keep a dish on the menu just because it's a crowd favorite. "I try not to fall into that trap," he told me. "If you do, you can't grow."
For Epernay to grow — and grow up — certain changes will have to be made. Some already have been: The new fall menu promises twice as many small plates as before, with less-expensive entrees and more familiar fare such as braised short ribs and chicken. These alterations will help, but they won't solve the service problems. And for Epernay to really earn a standing ovation, it will need to decide just what kind of restaurant it wants to be.