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FANGS, BUT NO FANGS

Like the reptile it was named for, the Rattlesnake Grill began making noise long before it struck.

The hum started about a year ago when rumors ran rampant that, yes, the Jimmy Schmidt would be opening a new version of his Rattlesnake Club, the tony, very expensive (and therefore much-maligned) establishment that died a slow death at the Tivoli in the late Eighties. This time, though, the Rattlesnake would shed its elegant skin in favor of less formal culinary attire--and it would slither into the former home of the Blackhawk steak house in the Cherry Creek shopping center, a choice location spilling over with hungry prey. In the process, the prodigal son of Denver cuisine would save the city from slipping into a quagmire of red sauce and refried beans.

For all his type-A drive and fame, Schmidt is far from a culinary-school snob. He is a Jimmy, after all, not a James. "I'm just a guy from Illinois," Schmidt says. He was studying electrical engineering at an Illinois college when he got the chance to spend a year in France completing his language credits--and wound up taking cooking classes because "it was the best way to stay fat and happy," he explains. "I knew it was the only way I would eat well on my budget." When Schmidt returned to the States, he went to Detroit to pick up a few credits at Wayne State while supporting himself with restaurant work. It was during a stint at Detroit's ChopHouse that he decided to rethink his career plans.

"It was my job to go to Europe and buy wines," he says, "and I came to the conclusion in a drunken stupor one night that I could work all year as an engineer so I could take two weeks of vacation, or I could stay in the restaurant business and combine my work and my vacations. I was still a little naive at that point."

Schmidt came to Denver in 1985 to consult on the kitchen design for the Rattlesnake Club and wound up the chef and part-owner. But the public grew resentful of the high prices and the exclusive feel of the place, so Schmidt got out and returned to Motown to lick his wounds and regroup. Today he owns three Italian-style joints in Detroit, as well as another Rattlesnake Club.

Although Schmidt is still based in Detroit, he promised his Denver investors--many of whom, such as Barry Fey and lawyers Steve Farber and Norman Brownstein, are well-known and inspired still more publicity--that he'd pop into town at least three days a month. "I know this can work in Denver," Schmidt says. "I just need to convince the diners who confuse pyrotechnics with substance that some subtle foods can be fabulous. It doesn't have to be grand cuisine to be important."

And a restaurant's doors don't have to be open before it becomes the talk of the town. "I'm always worried when there's so much publicity," Schmidt says of his now-five-month-old Rattlesnake. "Of course, publicity is welcome and part of the game. But it's hard to meet people's expectations. A restaurant is normally an evolving beast. It takes time for the staff to learn to listen to the food. Sure, they follow the mechanical part from the start, but to really listen and get into a rhythm in there, that doesn't happen right away.

"We've taken a few hits. At least this way, there was nowhere to go but up."
Even so, dealing with heightened expectations isn't easy. Although Schmidt wanted to keep this restaurant lower-key, the Rattlesnake still rankles with importance. Every time a new diner enters the place, a buzz rises from the crowd, like a swarm of bees angrily hovering above a flower to inspect an intruder before settling back down to their meal. The dining room itself is as luxurious and obviously expensive--and comfortable--as a pair of snakeskin boots, and the dishes, glasses and flatware are equally stylish.

In a setting like this, people expect to be bowled over by big food, but the Rattlesnake's fare is actually better suited to an intimate trattoria than a swank, happening spot. First come the breads, served in whitewashed baskets spilling over with linen napkins and assembled with an eye to balance and proportion that would do a florist proud. The selections change daily, but they all revolve around a homey, country theme--the welcome constant during my three visits was the kitchen's signature spongy, honey-kissed muffin. Crisp and chewy breadsticks alternately contained black pepper and herbs or red pepper and herbs, and thick slices of rustic-style breads were studded with either walnuts or black olives.

At my first Rattlesnake lunch, though, even the excellent breads couldn't sop up my disappointment over the puree of wild mushroom soup ($3.95), in which an abundance of roasted rosemary overwhelmed the delicate 'shrooms. I've always felt that love grows where rosemary goes, but this was a clear case of wanton lust for the herb. I did, however, appreciate the restaurant's presentation of its soups: The waitperson brings an already garnished shallow bowl to the table and then pours the soup from a metal pitcher, which not only keeps the liquid warm but also imbues the diner with warm, fuzzy feelings about the waitstaff. In fact, the entire staff continued to earn my admiration throughout my visits; they treat everyone, even a non-Cherry Creek-chic person such as myself, with the same respect and lack of condescension.

At that first lunch, the waitress was particularly sympathetic to my complaint that the crust on the Italian cheese pizza ($7.95) hadn't been cooked through; she whisked it away and returned moments later with a reheated pie. By this point, though, the crust had dried out and the mozzarella and fontina topping had that lovely, mottled dark-brown shell that cheese gets when it overcooks. And the four-inch-high goat-cheese sandwich ($6.50) with roasted red peppers was commendable for its generous portion of chevre, but it would have been easier to eat the cheese separately and supplement it with bites of bread; the three skinny strips of pepper were useless.

When the kitchen exhibits such shortcomings on simple fare, it's not surprising that a more involved dish would come up lacking. I tried the risotto ($11.95) twice, and both times it was rife with cross-sections of succulent portabellas, fat, caramelized shallots, gloriously rich Parmigiano-Reggiano and an exquisitely potent amount of basil. But the rice stunk: It was oatmealy on the outside and uncooked on the inside.

Schmidt says he's been having a tough time finding risotto that will adapt to Denver's mile-high locale. "I just took it off the menu because I have been getting complaints, and they do have a point," he says. "We weren't getting a good superfino and, not to make excuses, but the altitude does affect the absorption rate, which is difficult to control." True, but this dish is done well elsewhere in town--it just takes time and the concentration of one person, which is hard to come by with the sort of chaotic lunch crowds that the Rattlesnake has been experiencing.

If the risotto was disappointing, the $8.95 hamburger was a hit. I'd been skeptical about paying that much for a burger, but it was a monster: ten ounces of ultralean meat swathed with homemade horseradish-laden ketchup on a fresh, onion-studded roll and accompanied by almost a full potato's worth of steak fries. This time the soup of the day was a smooth, simple-but-sophisticated take on vichyssoise ($3.95)--a blend of parsnips, leeks and potatoes sparked by a red-pepper coulis.

The soup at dinner was another class act. A brandy-tinged red-pepper bisque ($4.95), it had a strong seafood base and a generous helping of crawfish. The good tastes continued with the pheasant quesadilla ($6.95). Although tortillas filled with whatever happens to be lying around in the kitchen are popping up everywhere, the Rattlesnake's upscale version worked well: The spicy meat was interspersed with roasted poblano peppers, and the drippy smoked Gouda holding everything together was pungent enough to add flavor as well as glue.

The ingredients were less complementary in the rack of veal ($24.95). This wasn't really a rack at all, just one big ol' tasty rib chop slathered with a too-mild vanilla sauce; the kitchen--headed by Schmidt's longtime co-worker Keith Josefiak--seems reluctant to go full-strength with this one, but a tad more vanilla would be wonderful. The grilled leeks didn't add much to the dish, either, but the sauteed apples lent a nice sweetness. A hefty side of garlic-gorged potato gratin with a hint of nutmeg rounded out the entree. The meal somehow still seemed naked without veggies, so I asked for a dish of "squash panache." I got what I deserved for ordering a la carte: a tiny mound of thinly julienned zucchini, yellow squash and carrots not worth $3.95--but then, what amount of this stuff would be?

I'd happily pay any price for the Rattlesnake desserts, however. A pyramid of chocolate ($4.95)--literally shaped like a pyramid and centered with fresh raspberries--boasted the most chocolate you could possibly pack into four cubic inches of space. The pecan tart ($4.95) also was dense and luscious, more like a chunky puree of pecans than a pie filling in a crumbly crust.

Unfortunately, the desserts were the only fancy food befitting the inflated prices and the high-profile location. Schmidt may want to wow folks with subtlety, but so far he hasn't rolled snake eyes.


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