Ghost of a Chance
I have now been to 250 Josephine Street more times than I can count.
The address was predestined to fascinate me. As Papillon, it was ground zero (one of the ground zeros, at least) for Denver at its height of pre-millennium excess: a jumping-and-jiving bastion of high-tone, big-money weirdness with more action going down in the bathrooms than at the bar. Papillon was Radek Cerny's restaurant, was Radek at the top of his game, was Radek squared. The food was French by way of Venus, and the scene was like that R.E.M. song: "It's the End of the World as We Know It (and I Feel Fine)."
Papillon closed shortly after I moved to Denver -- not that you read about it in my column that week. One of the most important restaurants in the city, the biggest closing of the year (which in time would prove to be small potatoes as big address after big address went dark), and I'd missed it? My editor screamed, called my journalistic judgment and skills as a reporter into question. I reminded her that I wasn't any fucking reporter, I was a food writer (I thought they were different things at the time), and what did I care if a bunch of brat Creekers had lost their favorite Jack-and-Coke(aine) watering hole? And chef Radek who?
I almost quit my new job over that. Obviously, I didn't. I learned a few things instead, educated myself about the Denver dining scene before my arrival. You know how they say childhood trauma sticks with you the longest? Same goes for new-job trauma. I've been obsessed with 250 Josephine Street ever since.
Papillon out, Indigo in. I loved Indigo. Sometimes it seemed like I was the only one. My review of the place was a love letter to chef-driven restaurants and culinary suicide missions and the unusual comforts some guys can find in the strictures of the French brigade system. It was about streetfighters of cuisine -- guys like Indigo's chef Ian Kleinman and Ben Alandt, his sous -- who'd walk into anything, no matter how bad the odds, and just keep swinging until they were down or everyone else was. They had some dishes on that menu that no one but another chef or a certifiable lunatic would pay real money for, some other dishes that were so good I pity anyone who never got the chance to taste their freaked-out genius.
Indigo failed hard, and owner Larry Herz switched it out for Go Fish Grille, Indigo's evil twin -- a restaurant that was all about commerce, with no room for art, and looked like a stage set for Finding Nemo on Ice. Because life isn't fair and because the restaurant industry is cruel and merciless, Go Fish did all right for a while. Then it did even better. Then it vanished like it had never been.
"What, do they have a dead gypsy buried in the basement or something?" my friend Matt asks as we pull the car into the parking lot that's been 250 Josephine's most consistent asset. Four restaurants in four years is a tough run for any address, and I'd been giving him the grim history on our way over to the newest occupant: Tula, which opened with the new year, a few months after Go Fish went dark.
The curse of 250 Josephine is Tula's problem now. It's chef-owner Chris Douglas's problem, and his wife's. But it's also a bit of a problem for me, because if there's a center of my personal Denver dining experience that's not the Breakfast King, it's 250 Josephine, this metaphoric black hole at the dog-leg end of Cherry Creek that sucks in hopes and dreams and time and love and money (lots and lots of money) and gives back nothing but heartbreak. I know this building better than any in the city besides my house and my office. I know its kitchen, the smell of its dish room, the way its steam tables and prep tables and stubby, European-style hot line are arranged. I've drunk beers in its office with Kleinman, done shots with the traveling New York food press at its bar. Walking down the sidewalk past the picture windows with their potted plants obscuring the view of the interior, I go up on tiptoes to see how the crowd looks.
"Slow night," I mutter, and Matt nods.
"Shouldn't have trouble getting a table," he says.
With everything I know about 250 Josephine, I also know its finances. Rent-plus-parking lot, buildout, overhead, a skeleton crew of nine, maybe ten, just to keep the place going even on a slow night, and an artificially deflated price point that's necessary to remain competitive when everybody and their mother is banging out chicken mole and salmon in poblano cream. The menu at Tula is Mexican, high-end, market-corrected by Douglas in his first few weeks to cater to the crowd he was drawing, if not the crowd he'd expected. As it turns out, people come to Tula to dine, to have something special. And Douglas delivers, but the wrap on those kinds of dishes -- the food costs above and beyond the center-plate protein, starch and veg -- is murder. Organic greens, huitlacoche, blood oranges, epazote oil to lace the posole blanco and the pink papaya for the salmon ceviche: These things do not come cheap. Just to cover the nut, Tula has to do eighty covers a day on weekdays, double that on weekends to make up for Monday and Tuesday shortfalls.
And Douglas will kill himself to get there. He works a hundred-hour-plus week, obsessively tests and retests every preparation. He sees, touches, expos 99 out of every 100 plates that cross the rail at dinner, knows every square inch of the menu like he knows his own skin. One carrot out of place in the crown that tops his chorizo-wrapped scallops in blood-orange-habanero sauce will keep him up nights. He fights for every table, every cover, every plate as though his life were on the line.
And it is. After stepping inside, sitting down and ordering drinks, I look around the simple, comfortable leather-and-hardwood dining room and can still see the ghosts of Indigo and Papillon in its bones.
Our dinner is fantastic. This is my fourth time at Tula, and every meal has been fantastic. Matt and I run through two baskets of housemade chips as we try three different ceviches served in glasses set in antique wooden piloncillo molds. The salmon tartare with poblanos, cilantro, diced red onion and pink papaya is my favorite -- acidic and biting and sharp, like a glass full of excellent sushi. Matt devours the chopped shrimp with avocado, shredded cucumber and white onion in a simple tomato broth barbed with jalapeño. The scallop-in-coconut-milk version is less successful: the sweet milk jagged with serranos, the scallops curled into parentheses, their delicate flavor masked by onion and chile until they end up tasting like good squid -- which is to say like not much at all, like texture without a center. But the duck-confit tamale with fruity poblanos, squiggled with a stiff Mexican crema, is excellent. The masa is almost sweet, like the jacket on a corn dog, and the mole is possibly the best I've ever had: heavy, nutty and floored with a dark, chocolatey base that seems to go down forever.
Douglas is 33 years old, but as a chef he's so green he still smells like cut grass. He was a helicopter pilot, thought about being an artist, then came to cooking just six years ago. He cooked at the French Laundry, staged at Per Se, rolled a little sushi because he loves it and worked for (worked with) Laurent Gras at the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. Locally, he did time with Kevin Taylor and Sean Yontz (coming in just as Vega was grinding to a close) before venturing off on his own. Tula is his first restaurant, and Gras provided much of the inspiration. Gras, who plays with oils and colors and plate design maybe better than anyone. Gras, who shows up in his kitchen at eight every morning and stays until two the next morning, who sees every single dish that's destined for his dining room, who regards a drip of sauce on one of his cook's cutting boards as a personal affront.
Douglas's whole past is stacked up behind him like a weight pushing him forward, like an engine driving him. He came late to the galley so he had to run twice as fast and work twice as hard to catch up. And now, when I talk to him, he speaks of his plans for the future as if they all must happen tomorrow -- even as he speaks of other chefs like he's not yet worthy to stand in their company. "When I worked with Laurent -- well, next to Laurent..." and "I'm talking to Yontz and Kevin about maybe doing a tasting dinner -- not that I'm at their level yet..."
But this humility ends with Tula's plates, which are full of flowering arrogance and a wicked, driven sort of talent that speaks of natural skill, great masters and clear vision. Douglas's duck is a seared breast and confit leg glazed in pomegranate and dressed with a blood-orange salsa served warm because cold, the flavor would be too sharp; hot, too broad. But warm blood orange turns sweetly smooth and becomes a blanket around the pomegranate, neither astringent nor smothering.
The pork chops are napped in a cinnamon-cider reduction, served with a chipotle-shot potato gratin and glazed baby carrots. It's a subtly smart dish, pure Keller in the way it jumbles the components of an American classic -- pork chops, scalloped potatoes and applesauce -- takes them south of the border and brings them back home again. Of everything on that plate, Douglas is most proud of the carrots. "Pork chop, whatever," he says. "I want to send a person home saying,'That was the best carrot I ever tasted. It tasted like a carrot.'"
At lunch, the butter-poached tilapia tacos are as simple as can be. At dinner, the tilapia is crusted in rich, dried pumpkin flesh, served with Japanese Okinawa potatoes, a huitlacoche foam and chips made of chorizo. At $19, Tula is giving it away. The tuna nachos are new, served at both lunch and dinner, topping crisp, curled wonton skins with flash-seared ahi, smooth guacamole and a smoky-spicy chipotle crema that takes things one step too far. Douglas says he's still tinkering with it. But at dinner, the tuna entree is a proven winner: rare ahi, seared with ancho chile, sliced and served over coconut chipotle sauce ringed with a tonsure of black beans, then a stripe of bright-green cactus oil. Two warm slices of plantain cross the top of the plate. It's so good that Matt is reluctant to give me a bite.
I eat achiote lamb, a piece of shank and a single chop, both braised, both tasting completely different. The delicate chop is beautiful, bloody-rare and banded with fat, the muscular shank tender and stringy like good stew meat. The chop tastes like young lamb, full of life, the shank like it's been around the block a couple times. A faux cassoulet comes on the side, and each variety of bean (there are at least four) tastes different, too -- like itself, then like itself plus achiote. This plate, composed in a dozen or more discrete, complicated steps, displays the kitchen's impressive, rigorous, pitiless control over flavors.
I don't know if Douglas, his wife, his cooks and his dedicated floor staff are going to be the ones to break the curse at 250 Josephine. I hope they are. They deserve it -- Tula deserves it -- and they're close. Ten tables a day could make or break them. Patio season is coming, and Douglas is spending his Sundays off hunched over a diamond sander, trying to take Tula's patio down to clean cement. He's doing the work himself because he can't afford to hire someone to do it and because it's his place, his life on the line. He doesn't see his kid as much as he'd like, or his wife. But he's a chef now. Six years in or sixty, a chef is judged by what he does, and he's only as good as his next plate, the next head count, the next review.
Tula won me over. What happens next is up to you.
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