There was a time when I would have raged and mounted the barricades to do battle with any chain restaurant. Back when I was younger, dumber and somewhat more deluded than I am now, I made no distinction between behemoths like Applebee's and the Olive Garden (true villains) and operations like Ling & Louie's (see review). But not only does Ling & Louie's have fewer restaurants than some of our local, independent operators (Kevin Taylor, Dave Query and Mark Berzins, to name just a few), owner Randy Schoch is making a real effort at gastronomic decency, redefining an already redefined culinary gestalt — from Asian to Asian-American to family-friendly yuppie-Asian. Schoch has also managed to raise the bar by aiming lower than the competition, not trying to out-fancy or out-innovate P.F. Chang's (started by a former partner) or Roy's (where he once worked), but instead offering children's bento boxes and Chinese party food, American takeoffs of Asian street food carefully calibrated for the mid-range palate. And the food is, above all else, solidly decent — which sets Ling & Louie's way above all the Wanker's, Tooter's, McBurgermaster's and T.G.I.Fry-holes of the world.
Five years ago, I wouldn't have seen that. But since then, I've come to recognize what can be done by a dedicated operator with a conscience, some talent, a little taste and the kind of financial security provided by having an entire corporation at your back. I've learned that there are good restaurant chains as well as bad, good operators as well as bad. And while bad might still be the rule, these days I am comforted by the exceptions. Exceptions like Oceanaire Seafood Room.
"I've run five restaurants. I've run one restaurant. I've run 200 restaurants," says Terry Ryan, president of the company that operates Oceanaire. "What matters is taking care of your people. Because when you take care of your people, they understand that they have to take care of their people — the customer, the employees."
Oceanaire just opened its fourteenth restaurant last week, at 1400 Arapahoe Street. There was a big party. All the beautiful people were there. But Ryan wasn't: He was down in Florida, seeing to the empire. And I was at my desk, talking to him over the phone about his customers, his employees and his fish.
Like Schoch, Ryan is a niche marketer — a guy who, back in November '98, saw how much money popular steakhouses were pulling down and decided to open a fish restaurant. In Minneapolis. "There was this space in the middle, and it was being taken up by the steakhouses," he explains. Meanwhile, there was a gap between the low-rent seafood chains, the neighborhood joints, places like the Lobster House in Cape May, New Jersey (a favorite of his), and high-end luxe properties like Le Bernardin and Aqua (two of the many places Ryan checked out during his research), a gap that he thought he could fill. "Fish is not political. Fish is not demographic," he tells me, selling each word like it was part of a manifesto. "Fish is all about appetite."
And freshness. One of Oceanaire's hooks is the promise of absolutely fresh seafood, delivered daily. But when I heard that, I was skeptical because — having come through several highly disreputable seafood restaurants myself — I know exactly how hard that is to set up, how prohibitively costly, how unbelievably complicated. It took owners of Sushi Den years to work out all the kinks in their Japan-to-Denver, round-the-clock seafood delivery system, and there aren't many restaurants in the entire country that can claim a schedule even close to Sushi Den's — where there's a possibility that the fish you're eating in Denver on Friday night was swimming in the Pacific on Thursday morning. But Ryan figured out his own system, working with a select group of seafood brokers — the guys who go right down to the docks, take the fish off the boat, put it in a box and put the box on a plane — whom he pays well (and quickly, which sometimes matters even more) to get him and his restaurants the best product, the freshest fish, the biggest catches.
And then he lets all the different restaurants work the system themselves. "If they, the chefs, ever had to go through me, they wouldn't work for me," Ryan says, then laughs. "It would mean I didn't trust them."
Trusting in his chefs, his sous chefs, his partners and managers and busboys and fish butchers and dishwashers is a big thing for Ryan. It's become a key part of his business plan. The way the industry has changed over the forty years he's been in restaurants — with real-estate rates through the roof — it's become increasingly difficult for young, smart, talented chefs to get into their own spots. "Knowing how hard it is to get into your own place," Ryan explains, "we offer chefs a chance to become partners."
Chefs like Matthew Mine, who opened the Denver restaurants. "Matt worked with us for five years," Ryan tells me. "Started as a fish butcher in Seattle." Now he's wearing the big white hat, talking to the company fish brokers in Florida, Honolulu and New England, writing a new menu every single day depending on what's been caught, what's looking good, what can be put on a plane the next morning. It's impressive what such focus, such dedication, such honesty (like when Ryan told me he won't be getting Sunday fish deliveries because no one in Denver gets Sunday fish deliveries) can accomplish.
Now all he and Mine and the rest of the staff have to do is convince Denver that a power fishhouse can stack up against a power steakhouse; that there's room in the demographic for lobster thermidor and oysters Rockefeller, too.
Me? I'm already convinced. I can't wait to get in there and see what Mine can do.
Adios and hola: The Peaberry Coffee at 3031 East Second Avenue recently signed another year's lease on its space, so I figured that might mean a reprieve for Chez Jose, at 3027 East Second, which was supposedly going to close this summer. And according to the manager I found there the other day, Jose may stick around for another year, until the entire building is demolished to make way for yet another loft/condo/retail development.
And long before then, the Creek will have another Mexican joint. Last week I got a call from Jesse Morreale, who told me that he and Sean Yontz were going in on yet another restaurant venture. "We're actually putting it in an old restaurant space," Morreale told me, pausing for effect.
"Okay, where?" I asked.
"The place that used to be called Sketch."
That's right: Sketch está muerte. They shut the joint after service on July 9, papered over the windows and are already hard at work turning it into Tambien. Yontz was in Mexico last week picking up supplies (ingredients, Mexican wrestler masks, porno comics, Chiclets and tequila — the usual) while Morreale watched over the empire. And while the closure of Sketch might be a little surprising for those who loved its crab cocktails (me) and "Harry's Bar" carpaccio (everyone else), what's even more surprising is the schedule that the Wonder Twins are looking at for opening its replacement: three or four weeks.
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The hard part of opening a restaurant is never putting in carpet or laying on a new coat of paint, Morreale explained. It's putting in the hoods, the kitchen equipment, getting all the paperwork done. And when you're flipping an existing spot, all the hard work is already done.
When I asked Morreale why they closed Sketch, he said it all came down to numbers. "It wasn't vacant," he said — although in my experience Sketch often seemed damn close to vacant until late at night, when seats were filled by off-duty cooks and waiters, the girls from the boutiques and salons in the neighborhood, half-drunk members of the press. "But it wasn't doing the kind of numbers we needed to keep it open. We had four or five really fucking rotten weeks at the end of the year, and it never really rebounded. The heat wave has been almost as bad. It's all about opportunity cost. I would see open seats, and I hate seeing those. It just wasn't going good enough."
The new joint will be brighter and bigger, since contractors are taking down the walls that separated Sketch's private dining room and all of the wine cabinetry. The menu will be a little bit Mezcal, a little bit Chama and a little bit brand-new. "You've got to open the place that's appropriate for the neighborhood," Morreale explained, when I asked him why he and Yontz didn't just open a Mezcal II or Chama el Dos. Besides, he said, that would be "boring."
Which Yontz and Morreale, the Wonder Twins, never are. After some reminiscing about Sketch's early days, Morreale asked if it would be okay if he told everyone that it was my review ("Booty Call," August 24, 2006) that tanked Sketch, and I told him that would be fine — provided he also admit that it was only my constant pimping of Mezcal that kept that place in the black. "You know, it's sad," he concluded. "I think it was a beautiful restaurant. And I loved the food. But we're excited. I want people to look at it like a rebirth, not that we're closing something."