Z Cuisine, the best thing to happen to Denver's Frog-humpers and charcuterie addicts since the now-defunct Brasserie Rouge made its debut, has finally expanded — sort of. Last Thursday marked the opening of À Côté, chef Patrick Dupays's homage to the Parisian wine-bar culture of the 1900s, at 2245 West 30th Avenue. While I could go on and on, lovingly describing everything that Dupays and his crew have planned for the new joint, Dupays does it better on his website: "We'll be serving creative small bistro plates, housemade charcuteries, French and local cheeses, French classic desserts, estate wine by the glass, bottles, magnums, a vintage wine list and a full bar. We dedicate À Côté to world culture, artistry, 'cuisine du terroir': our local farmers we call our friends who provide us with the best quality Colorado has to offer in the whispers of the seasons, our neighborhood for their continual support, to all of you who regularly come and share with us our ambience and passion for food, wine and life. Merci à tout mes amis et amies et vous disons à très bientôt at Z Cuisine À Côté."
Dupays plans to keep the new place open from 4 p.m. until whenever, Wednesdays through Saturdays (with Tuesday-night service starting after February 8). As for Z Cuisine itself? Est non plus. The wildly popular — and overcrowded — spot had gone dark for what was supposed to be a brief hiatus while Dupays got À Côté up and running, staffing it with everyone from Z Cuisine: kitchen, floor, management, le personnel entier. While this helped at À Côté, it meant that Z now had no crew and would have to be restaffed. When I got Dupays on the phone Monday, he told me he'd come up with a novel (and, to my mind, uniquely French) solution to that little conundrum: "After the vacation, I come back and I decide Z Cuisine is now À Côté."
When I expressed a bit of sadness over the loss of Z, Dupays responded, "It was cute, yes? But it was getting a little cluttered." He also explained that the place's success was another motivation for its closing: "Z Cuisine, people came in with all these expectations. What's cool about the new space is...no expectation."
So À Côté is the new Z Cuisine. The old Z Cuisine space, just a storefront away on 30th, will be used for private parties, wine tastings, extra prep facilities. That will be good for Dupays — and also good for the myriad fans of his charcuterie, his cassoulet, his informal wine lists and chalkboard menus, since we still have a place to go for our fix, only ten steps closer to the corner.
But show up early. Name change or not, I'm guessing that À Côté will be just as packed as Z Cuisine ever was.
More good news: I just got off the blower with Michael Bortz, now ex of Paradise Bakery, who finally kicked the corporate habit and is doing his own thing at City Bakery up at 5454 Washington Street. If you're a cook or a chef, you already know that Bortz is the closest thing we've got in Denver to a bread savant — a crazy, loud, enthusiastic genius who five years ago essentially bought my undying affection with one loaf of chocolate-cherry brioche. And if you're not a pro but just an eater, you've no doubt tasted Bortz's work at any one of dozens of restaurants around town.
While he was able to deliver the goods at Paradise, it ultimately wasn't the right fit for Bortz. "It was good, you know?" he told me. "The money, being under that corporate umbrella. But at the end of the day, I kinda felt a little like a traitor."
Not only that, but his old Paradise space on Seventh Avenue (which primarily handled large accounts, forswearing the headaches of dealing with the little guys in favor of the big-money players) was achingly small: 1,400 square feet. "The last couple of years were tough," Bortz explained. "I'd go home on a Friday night after sixteen hours, and I would just hurt. It was very physical, just being in that small space, never having the room to get ahead."
His new place is more than double the size of his old corporate home: 3,500 square feet in an industrial park, with room to stretch and room to move and play. Right now, Bortz is mostly doing wholesale business (for such established accounts as Rioja and Bistro Vendôme, Oceanaire, Pat's Philly Steaks and Ink Coffee, and for new joints like Encore, Agave Grill and the Wine Experience Cafe, as well as fifty more, including those little places he loves — like Under the Umbrella, at 3504 East 12th Avenue, which he couldn't stop saying great things about), but he's planning to expand into retail, selling bread and pastries hand-to-hand out of the front of the shop.
"That first week in December, I put a cooler in front for, like, pastries and stuff? Broke the first week," he said, and laughed. As soon as he gets the cash to get the cooler overhauled, he'll try again — and he'll keep trying until everyone in the city knows about his bakery.
He told me how the name of his place came from a little plaque bolted to the corner of a building at 15th and Blake streets, which designates that spot as the 1864 home of Denver's original city bakery. And then we got to talking about the big sellers at this City Bakery (lavender sourdough, that same chocolate-cherry brioche that hooked me, a new chocolate sabayon that he's going to have on the board for Valentine's Day), and about restaurants in Phoenix (he's a big fan of Pizzeria Bianco, chef Chris Bianco's world-beating pie joint), when Bortz suddenly came in with a nicely anti-government rant. "You know what's killing me?" he asked. "The wheat prices! You know, you should let me write a column. I got some things to say to say to those dummies in the government..."
The same fifty-pound bags of bread flour he paid eight bucks for last year are now going for sixteen dollars, Bortz told me. And he'd just gotten a call from his supplier earlier that day, telling him that next month the price could be bumped again, to eighteen bucks a bag, more than double what he was paying twelve months ago. "They tell me the prices might come back down to normal by May, but I don't know," Bortz said. "That'll be nice, if I can hold on that long."
All of Denver should hope that he can.
Word of mouth: Over at 1312 East Sixth Avenue, Thai Thai Hibachi, which often was Empty Empty, has become Hue Asian Bistro — essentially Thai Thai without the hibachi grill and with a new name. I stopped in early last week during the lunch rush (which, I have to admit, looked a little more like a rush than I was accustomed to at Thai Thai, because there were actually some customers there) and learned that a major shortage in hibachi chefs really killed the initial concept. So the owners re-created their restaurant as Hue, a Southeast Asian operation that features a mix of curries and noodle bowls and splits its expanded menu (the jacket still says Thai Thai Hibachi) by protein, in the fashion of thousands of strip-mall Chinese restaurants.
But this place looks much better than most strip-mall joints. The space is beautiful now — missing some of those over-the-top touches (giant ceramic vases and grinning Buddhas) that made Thai Thai seem shlocky and replacing them with a lot of dark wood, lovely plates, gigantic driftwood sculptures and muted table settings. And just this minor readjustment seems to be working wonders for street traffic, because in the few minutes I gabbed with the floor manager, I saw two groups of people stop, peek in through the windows, confer briefly and then come in for lunch — proving that, at least in this case, less really does seem to be more.
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Leftovers: Another itinerant scout (and a man of notoriously Falstaffian appetites), Barry Fey, recently dropped me a line to say that he wholeheartedly approved of my review of Smashburger, at 1120 South Colorado Boulevard ("Cow Town," November 1, 2007), but really wanted to talk about barbecue — and more important, the lack of good barbecue in Denver. This is something that's been on the minds of a lot of folks lately (check out David Hahn's letter in the January 10 issue that I responded to at great length on my blog, From the Gut, which Hahn has also responded to), and me being me, it's never far from my mind, either. While I agree that Denver seems woefully short on great barbecue restaurants — as in a place that does everything on the menu really well — we do have plenty of great barbecue. Excellent pork shoulder here, good cornbread there, country ribs down in Sedalia and baby-backs in Centennial.
With Best of Denver 2008 creeping up on the calendar, all of you who've got either a beef or a recommendation should get on the horn (or your computer) and let me hear it. Like a shark, I'll be in more or less constant motion until that issue hits the streets on March 27. Barbecue certainly won't be the only thing I'll be testing, but it will certainly be a big part of the final list.
Finally, if the Cafe section and my frequent blog updates still aren't enough to satisfy your hunger for restaurant news, Westword sends out a weekly e-mail, Cafe Bites, every Tuesday night. Want to sign up? Drop a note to email@example.com.