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Family Plan

The problem wasn't so much that we were drinking, but that neither of us had really stopped in a couple of days.

When my little brother and I get together back home -- as annually as we can manage -- drinking is just what we do. It's not to excess (at least not by Irish standards), but rather like a constant watering of some deep and thirsty internal garden, common to both of us and tangled with childhood regrets and reminiscences. We're not drinking to forget (because what fun would there be in that?), but to make things bloom.

"Remember that time when...?"

"Or how 'bout when Dad...?"

Our drinking is a marathon, not a sprint. At least not usually. Sure, there was that one Christmas when Brendan -- in a fit of something -- pounded down a wee bit too much of rare old mountain dew, parked his truck halfway up the neighbor's lawn, tried to blame his confusion on a lamppost that has stood in front of our parents' house for thirty years, then fell over drunk in the driveway while trying to coolly light a cigarette with the cap off an old Bic pen. But Mom sobered him up as best she could with hot, black coffee -- my family's homespun medicinal cure for everything from mild depression to spontaneous decapitation -- and he still had to come with us, stinking like a distillery fire, to visit Grandma in the old folks' home.

It's maintaining a long, slow, cheerful buzz over several days that we prize -- not the quick flame-out of one king-hell bender. Any dipshit with a bottle and a thirst can get himself knackered fast and puke into the azalea bushes. But keeping a good buzz going for days? That's a survival skill.

Still, even with practice, things can get a little hairy around day three, and that's where my brother and I were -- at day three -- when it came time to start prepping for the glorious post-Christmas feast we'd promised our parents and assorted guests. We'd spent the previous two days lounging on the couch in the living room of the tiny suburban hobbit house where we'd grown up -- a place seemingly designed for turning out bonsai Irishmen, with half-sized rooms and low ceilings and a kitchen the size of a small walk-in closet -- drinking, giggling and chattering happily away.

"What ever happened to that girl who...?"

"And what about that time you got arrested for...?"

By this point, I'd already been back East for several days, had gone to Philadelphia to see the in-laws and to eat, hitting the Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken (still one of my favorite restaurants of all time), Penang in Chinatown for roti canai, the Asian markets along 10th Street for Chinese cigarettes and Hello Kitty figurines. The night before the feast was due to go off, Bren and I had gone to see a chef friend of his, trolling for inspiration among the failing downtown eateries of my dying home town and hoping for that bolt of lightning to strike. Instead, we got drunk and decided to wing it. Bren had some venison in his fridge -- fresh-killed by a buddy, dropped with a clean shot through the neck so that it hadn't run -- and we'd lifted two dozen Pacific oysters from his chef friend's cooler, so we'd figured we were off to a good start.

I went shopping the next morning, beating back my hangover with hot coffee and hair of the dog but underestimating the baffling power of below-freezing temperatures and a pushy New York crowd of pre-New Year's Eve shoppers. Still, I managed to buy all the necessities: French bread, prosciutto, pearl mozzarella, Irish brandy butter, tomatoes, seckle pears, peppercorns, olives and a wedge of Fontina. I'd wanted capons or game hens but could only find frozen chicken breasts. Then I picked up a dozen huge muffins from the bakery, thinking that everybody loves muffins and that if Bren and I fucked up dinner irreparably, everybody could just eat the damn muffins.

We started "prepping" around four that afternoon, when my brother arrived after sleeping on the job during a short day at the used-car lot. We opened bottles of wine, mixed strong drinks, tried to find something on television and confidently talked of the dinner we'd start whipping up any minute now. Because of our varied inspirations, we were envisioning a sort of Irish-Asian-Italian farmhouse spread with bruschetta and venison and muffins and oysters, my mom's killer cream of broccoli soup made with sixteen quarts of heavy cream and four pounds of butter that she had wisely prepared ahead of time, maybe some spring rolls, too. And stuffed chicken breasts. And salad.

 

By the time we dragged ourselves into the kitchen, all of the guests were already at the house -- and most of them were hungry. Bren pulled out the venison loins, and it was immediately apparent that his friend had not shot a prize-winning buck but found a baby deer somewhere, probably staked out in front of a pet store, and beaten it to death with a stick. I'd seen cats with meatier loins and serial killers who carved better.

We decided to crust them in pepper and serve them sliced as an appetizer along with the oysters. It was then that we realized there was no oyster knife in the house. And no pepper grinder. Bren made salad and toasted French bread for bruschetta while I smashed peppercorns by hand between two dinner plates until the pepper was roughly the consistency of gravel. We used this to crust the cat loins, then seared them in salad oil because I'd neglected to purchase any of the olive variety.

The first three courses went out around six to our starving guests. The bruschetta was a hit -- although my wife, my parents, their friends and my brother's new girlfriend (who had the misfortune of coming on this night to meet the family for the first time) would have gladly eaten wallpaper paste spread on folded newspaper by then. As always, mom's cream of broccoli soup went over big. Even the salad with seckle pears, walnuts and balsamic vinegar that had been aging for ten years in the wet heat of the cupboard above my parents' doll-sized gas four-burner stove was welcomed.

Bren and I poured another round, recalled the venison loin still in the oven, pulled it and sliced it, then realized we had no sauce. Our solution was to dump a bottle of red wine into a pot and a jarful of herbs de Provence into a coffee filter, tie off the filter, throw it in the pot to act as a bouquet garni, then put the pot on the stove to reduce while we prayed fervently that everyone in the dining room was drinking too. In desperation for a main course, I made chicken roulades out of the breasts -- beating the mortal shit out of them with a carpenter's hammer because I couldn't find a tenderizing mallet, and stuffing them with prosciutto, Fontina and bacon. My brother, meanwhile, wrapped sweet potatoes in more bacon and coated them with brown sugar that had to be chipped out of its bag with a steak knife. (When pressed, Bren has only one avenue of culinary counterattack, and that is to wrap everything in sight in bacon and burn it over any flame available.)

It was almost ten before the roulades went out; for sauce, we used more cream of broccoli soup and called it a "unifying motif." Then we strolled out into the dining room with a final course of bacon-wrapped sweet potatoes -- just as the smoke detector started to blare from the bacon we'd left scorching under the broiler.

I made two more short whiskeys for my kid brother and me and sat down next to him at the table. We accepted the dubious congratulations of our friends and family with smirking pride, knowing that even if it wasn't the best dinner in the world, at least when we got together again for another one of our annual marathons, we'd have a fresh story to tell.

"Hey, remember that dinner we made...?"

"With the oysters? And the cat loins?"

We touched glasses in a silent toast while Mom tore the smoke detector off the wall, ventured bravely into the kitchen and came out bearing a tray of muffins. Time for dessert.

Leftovers: With the great post-Christmas Sheehan brothers' bacchanalia out of the way, I took a couple of days to dry out before venturing into Bite Me World HQ, where phones were ringing off the hook with news of post-Christmas closings -- the traditional holiday cull when restaurant owners tote up their receipts, come to some hard realizations, then pack it all up in favor of new, rewarding careers selling used cars or secondhand plumbing fixtures.

Three Best of Denver 2005 awards weren't enough to save A La Tomate (1618 East 17th Avenue), owner Phil Collier's highly personal ode to his love affair with France in general and Provence in particular. On the little bistro's answering machine, Collier announces that "A La Tomate has closed its doors. Thank you all and goodbyeŠ" Also gone is Gavi, the very short-lived Italian spot next to the Donkey Den at 1109 Lincoln Street.

The big news, though, was the end of Mao, which celebrated the New Year by locking its doors at 201 Columbine Street. As is usually the case with holiday closures, employees didn't get any advance warning that they were going to be starting 2006 with a pink slip -- because if they knew, who would come to work on New Year's Eve? But according to Leigh Sullivan of the Sullivan Restaurant Group, although "90 percent of the staff will have to look for other jobs," they were "well compensated" for their troubles. And the remaining 10 percent may have a gig at SRG's new concept for the Mao space: Ocean, a casual steak-and-seafood restaurant slated to open in mid-February. The new operation will be more laid-back than Mao, with a new menu, a change in color palette (going from commie red to cool oceanic blue) and a preference for banquettes over booths.

 

In a press release announcing Mao's demise, owner Jim Sullivan (yes, Leigh's dad) did the big mea culpa thing, placing all the blame for the "myopic blunder" and failure "to read the Denver market correctly" squarely on his own shoulders -- where it belongs. Sure, he'd botched his take on the concept (a Chinese restaurant named after a Socialist despot who murdered millions of Chinese people) and on Cherry Creek itself, then couldn't make the joint support itself no matter how hard he tried. Still, he did the honorable thing by admitting his mistake. And Leigh says the world may not have seen the last of the Chairman: Jim is looking to maybe move the Mao concept to Arizona or Las Vegas.

But Colorado has seen the last of chef Ian Kleinman, late of the Hilltop, Indigo, Nine75 and Emogene -- those last two both Jim Sullivan operations. He's now executive chef at Aqua -- no, not the Aqua that has yet to open on Lincoln, but the one in Beverly Hills, which is looking to be one of the hottest new joints in one of the hottest neighborhoods in the world, in a space that had been Larry Flynt's old Hustler Club. Kleinman was flown out on a Tuesday, had the job by Wednesday morning, flew back to Denver, gave notice to Troy Guard at Nine75, and was gone just a few days later. His new bosses even sprang for a Beverly Hills apartment -- for a guy who's never even worked outside of Colorado, unless you count the half-dozen times he was called out to cook at the James Beard House.

I got Kleinman on the phone on his last day in Denver, and he was so excited he'd pretty much lost the ability to speak coherently. He jabbered on about tasting menus and sous-vide cooking and Michael Jordan being at the opening set for January 14, but the only really articulate thing he said was this: "I've been called up to the big leagues, bro!" Ain't that the truth.


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