Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?
A good brunch is a mixed blessing. Once a restaurant becomes known for its brunches, customers tend to go there for that meal, and that meal alone.
"How many times did you eat in Pour La France!, and how many of those times were for dinner?" asks Scott Holtzer, who introduced PLF! to Denver in 1986. "Never? I thought so. People thought of us as a breakfast and brunch place, sometimes lunch, but never dinner." For a while, people also thought of PLF! as one of the few places in town where you could get good coffee -- but that changed. "When we started, we were the only ones in the area doing cappuccino," Holtzer explains. "Our main revenues were from croissants and coffee drinks, because that was a new thing. And since all of these Starbucks and other places have opened, they've cut into the main bulk of our dollars. We finally realized that in order to capitalize on the wonderful location we had, we were going to have to start over."
And so last September, Holtzer closed the Pour La France! at 730 South University Boulevard, as well as one in his hometown of Snowmass. (The PLF! on the B concourse at DIA, which Holtzer does not own, is still going strong.) In its place, he and his partners, including some former PLF! employees, opened Seven 30 South. "We knew that we had a successful location, because the restaurant had been profitable for more than a decade," Holtzer says. "But we simply were not maximizing it. We were busy for breakfast during weekends, and we did a good lunch trade, but considering the rent for that area and the potential clientele, we knew there was something more lucrative out there that we could capture."
The Seven 30 South ownership team -- Holtzer and his wife, Patrice, general manager Ron Girardi, Hollis Glenn and Demo Cottingham -- spent many nights transforming the space, turning it from a bright, casual bistro to a dimly lit, casually elegant dinner destination, with comfortable booths and stylish wood accents. They hired Kip Wotanowicz, a sixteen-year kitchen veteran whose most recent job was at Mattie's House of Mirrors, to run the kitchen and devise a menu that would work in the Bonnie Brae area. That menu is a work in progress, Holtzer says: "We know there are things we still need to work on. We'll keep at it until we get it right."
They're already headed in the right direction. Wotanowicz is a capable and creative chef who has a way with beef and Southwestern fare; both are featured on the menu. Several other items are reprisals of his work at Mattie's (sadly, he didn't bring his delicious duck-filled taquito "cigars" with him), while others are new creations. For the appetizer of calamari strips ($8), Wotanowicz took thick-cut planks of squid instead of the usual ringlets, covered them with a thin coating of fine breadcrumbs, and then deep-fried the sticks until they looked like fat French fries. The squid inside was soft and tender, its flavor brought out by a dunk into either of the well-made sauces -- an especially garlic-heavy aioli or a thick, mildly spicy marinara. Another new offering, the chicken and goat cheese ravioli ($7), confirmed the chef's Southwestern savvy by balancing a spicy black-bean sauce with a rich cilantro cream.
Although the blue crabcakes ($9) and Asian spring rolls ($6) were created for Mattie's, they worked well here, too. Wisely, Wotanowicz barely touched the crab, simply cobbling the lump pieces together and sautéeing them until a buttery crust formed. At Mattie's the cakes were paired with a mango sauce; this dipping liquid had a tangy barbecue quality that complemented the sweet crabmeat. The spring rolls were crispy on the outside, and the beef on the inside had a sharp, tart taste that worked well with the accompanying wasabe aioli.
Wotanowicz has the basics down, too. The French onion soup ($4) was a classic, classy rendition, adding a welcome touch of sweetness to the flavorful beef broth. The well-priced Caesar ($4) resembled the one Wotanowicz offered at Mattie's; it was generous in portion, pumped up with garlic and blanketed with freshly grated parmesan. The traditional Caprese of tomatoes and fresh mozzarella ($5) was another stunner, the truly ripe tomatoes and creamy cheese all drizzled with a well-balanced balsamic vinaigrette and a basil-heavy pesto. The baby spinach salad ($6) was the most interesting combination: impeccably washed spinach beautifully arranged with toasted walnuts, goat-cheese crumbles and bacon shards, all evenly coated with a to-die-for maple dressing and then studded with apple slices that rounded out both the salad's flavor and its appearance.
But on another night, the same salad was a disaster: too many walnuts, not enough goat cheese, and a dressing that tasted like a cheap knockoff of the one we'd had before. This time our starters were also a disappointment. The warm Brie and toast points ($6) offered a variation on the current cocktail-party trend of raspberry jam on heated cheese. The dish featured an excellent mini-Brie, but it was almost ruined by a cherry vinaigrette that not only looked unappealing, but needed to be much sweeter, and the "toast points" were really thick, cross-cut slices of heavy bread that gave our jaws a workout. The prosciutto-wrapped shrimp ($9) were good in concept, but they'd been overcooked until the crustaceans were tough and chewy and the prosciutto had turned into bad bacon.
Our entrees were uneven, too. The grilled, marinated beef tenderloin ($18) was a perfectly cooked, high-quality piece of meat set atop a concentrated, mushroomy red-wine sauce; the sides of garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach were also nicely done. And while the macadamia-crusted red snapper ($16) wasn't what we'd expected -- the "crust" was little more than a dusting, and the tropical fruit salsa more sweet than spicy -- the juicy fish itself was lovely. But the slow-roasted duck ($15), which came with a wonderful raspberry sauce and great grilled asparagus, was dry, and the accompanying rice pilaf was even drier. The grilled Alaskan salmon ($14) had been cooked so long that it was dry-edged and crunchy; the cilantro-dotted rice was overdone, as well; the corn tortilla had a weird oiliness; and the scant amount of shrimp ceviche was bland.
The desserts, all $5.50, also earned mixed reviews. On one visit, we ate every bite of a dreamy-textured Key lime tartlet and a hazelnut-enhanced cheesecake. But on another night, the mango tart fell apart. And while the blood-orange tart was fabulous in concept, the fruit's juice created pockets of goo that made the custardy filling separate.
Like that dessert, Seven 30 South hasn't quite gelled. But if it does -- and with Wotanowicz's expertise and Holtzer's experience, it certainly should -- dinner here could be something special.
Brunch, too: Seven 30 South added that meal this past weekend. "We wanted people to think of us first as a dinner place that does a good brunch, rather than the other way around," Holtzer says.
Now he just has to make sure his restaurant is known as a consistently good dinner place.
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