Growing Pains

So much news -- good news, bad news, ridiculous news -- keeps coming out of Steak au Poivre (231 Milwaukee Street), I sometimes wonder when they find time to cook. Chefs have come, chefs have gone, a consulting chef has come and will go after the holidays, menus have been issued, changed, then changed again. And this just in the first five months of business.

Now comes news that the place is going through a massive structural shift. What was originally a huge underground bar/lounge/dining room/courtyard combo sprawling below Milwaukee Street will be split in two, making for one reasonably sized restaurant (still called Steak au Poivre) and one "downtown-style martini bar and lounge with a French twist," according to partner and front-of-the-house man Marco Colantonio. The new space, which will take over all of Steak au Poivre's bar real estate, will be called Bar Luxe and is down for a "massive overhaul of the decor" until December 1 at the earliest, says Colantonio. "And you know how these things go. Even that might be a long shot." He says that Luxe will be the "first martini bar in Cherry Creek" (though I've never had a problem getting a bucket of juniper consommé in the Creek whenever the urge has come over me) and that its final look will be very downtown, very plush, with white-leather banquettes and a late-night vibe that should attract that post-midnight party crowd.

Steak au Poivre shuttered the bar last week, putting up partitions and making a separate entrance for the restaurant, which will remain open during the construction. But it's already made some changes, dumping its lunch service and closing on Monday nights -- a compression of hours that Colantonio says should allow the staff to concentrate on putting out great dinners five nights a week.

A few blocks away, Brix partners Charlie Master and Chuck "Señor Checkbook" Cattaneo are getting a little anxious over the delayed opening of their second Brix, Brix Downtown, in the Ballpark neighborhood. How do I know this? Because Chuck "The Hammer" Cattaneo went out and leased another space to take the edge off the waiting. The papers were signed just last week, making the Boys from Brix now the proud holders of a brand-new 5+5 lease on the former basement home of Nectar (like Brix, at 3000 East Third Avenue), which they're calling Brix Downstairs.

But it gets better. Along with the Nectar lease (which included a new lease on the original Brix), "Icepick" Cattaneo negotiated a sweetheart deal for the patio outside both Brix and Nectar. This space -- formerly a communal arrangement between all of the tenants -- will give Brix room for live music, patio seating, an outdoor smoking area and a happy-hour wet-bar setup. Masters is even talking about putting lawn chairs out there so that he can do catered tanning in the summer.

How did all of this come together? "Chuck is the greatest partner, man," Masters says. "He's my best friend. He's just one of those guys who, if you don't give him the deal he wants, he'll walk away. You know, he's a New York guy. He'll just say 'Hey, fuggedaboudit' and kill ya."

Masters is joking, of course...

At any rate, he says they're looking at a fast-turnaround opening somewhere toward the end of November, with former bar mistress extraordinaire Zonnie Bernstein coming on as general manager for both operations. This rush will slide the grand opening of Brix Downstairs about a month ahead of the re-rescheduled opening for Brix Downtown at the end of December, giving Masters and Catteneo space to spare for holiday parties. The sooner they get the new Creek joint open, the better, Masters says, since he's currently turning away about forty or fifty people a night because Brix gets so crowded after 10 p.m. Brix Downstairs will be working off of a limited menu (essentially the left side of the Brix menu -- apps, soups, salads, burgers and dogs), will be open only Wednesday through Saturday nights, and will have live DJs all that time -- a hook that was crushing Masters at the original, because the DJs and all their gear took up a twelve-top's worth of space in an already crowded room.

With the new spaces (kinda attached but separate, and within stumbling distance of each other), Brix will soon be among the biggest restaurant/ bar/nightclub/tanning salon operations in Cherry Creek. Not bad for Masters, who once said the only reason he was opening Brix was to get out of the restaurant business -- to do the opposite of everything he'd ever known in a lifetime spent in a white-tablecloth world. That straight punk-rock, anti-bistro, anti-Creek vibe has always made Brix a cool place to hang out, and I just wonder if the Boys will be able to keep that feel now that they're the biggest game in this part of town.

Leftovers: I've long used The Hornet (76 Broadway) as a hard zero point on my reviewer's scale, the absolute median of my suck-or-super critical spectrum. But that may change with the recent loss of Kevin Savoy, who'd been brought on to give the joint a culinary signature beyond burgers and beer and bailed out about a month ago. The Hornet's owners have now signed on chef Justin Leidenheimer (an old friend of the Hornet's Sean Workman, taken from a five-star steakhouse tour in Cincinnati), who's scheduled to start work in the next couple of weeks. Leidenheimer will be the driving force behind a menu redesign and concept overhaul that will debut sometime before the new year.

A lot of the classic Hornet grub -- the honey-stung cayenne-pepper chicken, for example -- will stay, Workman says, but Leidenheimer will definitely add more white-tablecloth items. "Obviously, he isn't going to be using the kind of high-end ingredients he was," Workman says of the new chef. "We're still a neighborhood restaurant. But I think this will be good. We want it to be a very creative space."

In northwest Denver, Parisi plans to open a taverna/wine bar/catering space in the basement of its current home at 4401 Tennyson Street, which would essentially double its floor space. This will be the second expansion for owners Simone and Christine Parisi; the first was their move from Parisi's original location on Lowell Boulevard to a larger restaurant/market space last year. They're not yet sure whether the new area will be used as overflow seating for the existing dining room, since much of Parisi's great vibe comes from a place filled with happy eaters packed in elbow to elbow. But it will definitely give Simone, Christine and everyone else the room they desperately need for doing private parties, wine tastings, special events and the like. The buildout is under way and should be completed around the first of the year.

Change has already come to Ocean City (1098 South Federal Boulevard), which is flying an "Under New Management" sign, along with a grand-opening banner that calls the place New Ocean City Restaurant and promises the finest in "Hong Kong-style cuisine." Also, I got a call last week from Biker Jim Pittenger -- he of the reindeer sausage and New York cheesecake ("Dog Days," October 20) -- letting me know that he and his cart are movin' on up to the corner of 16th and Arapahoe on the 16th Street Mall in order to take advantage of all that foot traffic. Sounds like a step in the right direction.

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