Good Morning, America
As I left Vietnam House (see review), I was briefly sexually assaulted in the parking lot by a small pockmarked fellow who -- overcome by the beat pounding out into the cool night air -- grabbed me and rubbed up against my junk. Stunned and a little drunk, still wired on Sriracha and lemongrass, the sting of the stage lights and the sight of the security guards' guns, I had no idea what to do with that. It wasn't even the weirdest thing about the night. I'd been rocked and rolled, blown away by the Vegas-meets-Saigon countercultural weirdness of watching the Vietnamese Elvis kick out the jams under the mirror ball while the gangsters danced and the ladies dripped diamonds into the soup.
When I finally laid down long after midnight, I had a head full of beer, a heart full of Vietnamese love songs and a feeling of having truly seen something, even if only from the periphery. And once the couch stopped spinning, I slept, content in the knowledge that all over the city -- in the basement clubs and karaoke bars, the all-night diners, the after-hours joints and the cowboy saloons -- night people and fun hogs of all description were carrying on without me.
Twelve hours later, I was in Boulder with Laura, walking through the park where the mobs were celebrating El Grito. Under the bandshell, the mariachis were blasting away with crisp horns and fat-bodied guitars. The beautiful, dark-haired dancers stomped their feet, twirling in rainbow-colored dresses and heavy eye makeup. Everything smelled like cheap cologne and tamales and rain in the mountains.
We were hungry, and just across the way from the Dushanbe Teahouse, which was packed to capacity on a Sunday afternoon. So we put our name on the list, ducked into the shade of the arbor and waited. We could hear the music coming from the park. All around us, other stalled brunchers were speaking in Russian and Spanish and Mandarin, thumbing paper menus. When our turn finally came, we ordered hibiscus tea and fresh orange juice and French-pressed Ethiopian arabica, tried to sound out the Cyrillic lettering worked into the tiles above the bar, contemplated the menu and listened to the hum of voices and the burble of the koi in the fish pond in the center of the restaurant.
It occurred to me then that I'd experienced a rare thing these past twelve, thirteen hours. There was probably nowhere else in the world where I could have moved from a Vietnamese nightclub to a Mexican lawn fete to a Tajik teahouse with such speed and accidental grace, without planning or expectation, just a big, dumb kid stumbling from one sensation to the next. The Denver/Boulder area, this strange cultural blender cupped in the palm of the mountains, is so rich with wild strangeness and commotion that even without being a skier, a cowboy or a Broncos fan, I can find fun in almost any direction I turn. Like a food shark who will die if he stops eating, I can swim and swim and never run short of chum.
Laura and I ate stuffed olives and hummus; fat, rustic blueberry pancakes served with a thick slice of ham; and a surprisingly bland breakfast burrito that was big but not much else. We flipped through the tea bible (countless varieties, culled from growing regions all over the world, and canonized here the way wine is at Frasca or Mel's) and then shared the single best plate on the entire menu: a double wedge of architecturally arranged gingerbread soaked down with a sweet, thin and powerful orange tea sauce, topped with handmade Chinese five-spice whipped cream. On the plate, it looked like a Libeskind fantasy, a scale model of the new DAM addition rendered in gingerbread. It was so rich that two of us couldn't finish a single serving.
The Dushanbe Teahouse was given to the city of Boulder in 1989 -- a gift between sister cities, shipped in lots and lots of pieces all the way from Dushanbe, Tajikistan. Nine years later, under the guiding hands of Sara and Lenny Martinelli (who also own Aji in Boulder, reviewed in "Beyond Borders," in the August 10 issue), it finally opened, and has been serving ever since.
Still, when then-Boulder mayor Linda Jourgensen shook hands with then-Dushanbe mayor Maksud Ikramov and declared the two cities sisters way back in 1987, the agreement called for an exchange of gifts: the teahouse for a Boulder-style cafe or restaurant that would be erected in Dushanbe. Two years later, Ikramov made good on his end of the bargain. As yet, Boulder has not, which is really kinda embarrassing.
But plans are finally in the works to seal the deal, and make us look a little less like the cheap bastards we are. The sister-city crew in Boulder has proposed giving Dushanbe an environmentally friendly coffeehouse/cyber-cafe and has hired architect David Barrett to create it. Now all they need to do is raise money for the gift. Lots of money -- close to a million of the $1.3 million overall budget. Boulder itself has agreed to loan $350,000 (under rather stringent requirements), with the remaining cash coming in the more traditional manner: through begging.
So far, less than half of the $940,000 needed has been committed. So if you're feeling fiscally frisky, you can go to www.boulder-dushanbe.org/cybercafe and cough up a little for the cause. Since the United States has managed to piss off just about every other country on the planet, I think staying friends with Tajikistan is a nice idea. And there's no better way to do so than by providing the good folks of that town with a place to drink $3 mocha lattes and surf for Internet porn -- just like we do in America.
I love this place.
Prodigal son: Duy Pham was a wonder boy of Denver's pre-recession food scene who wowed 'em (and me, in particular) at Opal during its first, best season; who was courted by big names on both coasts; who opened Flow (now Twenty) in the basement of Luna (now Jet Hotel) and rode it straight into a mach 3 nosedive; and who served me what will undoubtedly go down as one of the best meals I've had in this city -- an hours-long, $400 dozen-course digression on the breadth and depth of serious fusion cuisine and what is possible when the guy cooking it actually knows what he's doing.
But Pham has been off the radar for a while, suffering the sort of explosive lifestyle decompression that comes from being young, smart and viciously talented in an industry that sometimes seems custom-made for breaking guys like this in half. After the spectacular tanking of Flow, he did some time in Meeker, cooking for the resort crowd and trying to get his head together. He returned briefly (and almost silently) to Opal, then bailed again after owner Jay Chadrom brought in Jose Guerrero to run the kitchen (and subsequently, the kitchen at Aqua across the street). He took a turn through the galley at Sushi Den -- which, for a lot of restaurant guys, is kind of like checking into culinary rehab or a monastery, where the work and the product take absolute precedence over any individual name in the kitchen. And then Pham left town altogether.
"I was in Naples," he told me after calling out of the blue last week. "Naples, Florida. Not the other one."
To be exact, he was at Zoe's, a Naples institution that gets some serious national attention for a place that exists mainly to feed tourists. Duy was behind the grill at Zoe's for almost a year, writing menus and cooking for a highly transitory crowd, trying to find a balance between the complicated, super-intellectual food he's best at and the down-home simplicity of the comfort-food addiction that Florida has never managed to shake.
"It was extremely high-end," Pham explained. "And maybe it was over some people's heads. But Florida is weird, you know? I mean, I could do meatloaf -- and not to say meatloaf isn't complicated; it can be. But I put meatloaf on the menu, and they love it. It was our meatloaf. We made everything ourselves, from scratch, and it was good. They'd eat it all day."
Pham thought he had a pretty good deal at Zoe's. The owners got him an apartment there and flew him back to Denver once a month to see his family and snoop around the edges of the scene. So when the time came for him to pack his knife roll and come home (a move inspired by the fact that he was unable to sell his house here), he wasn't totally out of the loop.
And now he's buying a restaurant -- actually, half of one: Kyoto in the Aspen Grove Center at 7301 South Santa Fe Drive in Littleton. Pham's in the process of buying the 50 percent share of one of the owners who wants out of the industry, which will make him an equal partner with James Lee, who's staying. Pham's in the kitchen right now, cooking through the transition and anticipating that the deal will be completed within the month -- at which point Kyoto will close briefly and reopen as...Kyoto. And when it does, it will be the first place where Pham has had an ownership stake -- his first restaurant, really, though he's been cooking since forever.
"My partner wanted to keep the name and the basic concept the same," Pham told me. "But we wanted to be able to have a grand opening and everything. A fresh start. Really do it right." He's already picked up Lieu Chi D (formerly the assistant manager at Sushi Sasa) as his GM, and has Andy Ly -- "one of the best Chinese chefs in town," according to Pham -- as his right-hand man. Ly will handle the Asian half of the fusion equation, while Pham, a classically French-trained chef, handles the European side. "I'm not very strong on Asian cuisines," he said, repeating what he's said more times than is probably comfortable for someone with his name and skin color. "But I'm learning. This is not my show. It's not just me. I know I need to surround myself with a good crew, the best guys I can find."
His menu (some of which is already in place) will be Asian flavors translated through European technique. "Duck confit with five-spice," he said, switching suddenly into a cook's verbal shorthand. "Two ways, right? Breast with a plum-wine and soy marinade? Serve it with new potatoes and bok choy. True, authentic Chinese flavors and true, authentic European flavors together. Blue prawns from Hawaii -- I'll grill them head-on -- then maybe red-dragon prawns as an entree, with scallion risotto. But real risotto, you know? Real Arborio rice. Real European technique."
He went on and on, talking about a pho spinoff with serious, low-cooked Vietnamese broth like a consommé and interesting ingredients; about chef-tasting menus (for which he is justifiably famous), about lunches (everything under ten bucks) and sushi, too. "Not a huge list," he insisted. "Just clean, great fish. No gimmicks. No cheesy rolls. Nothing." He wants to ease into dinners, bringing on new dishes slowly, with confidence.
"Look, man, I can't go anywhere now," he said. "I have to stay. I've put everything I have in my life and then some into this restaurant now. I'm massively in debt. I have to make this work."
Spoken like a true owner.
Leftovers: Oops. In last week's "Grill of My Dreams," my rave review of Buenos Aires Grill, at 2191 Arapahoe Street, I said the place was only open for dinner. Turns out that in August, owner Francis Carrera and his crew added lunch Tuesday through Friday. Sorry about that.
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