Planned communities creep me out.
It's something about their zero-down homogeneity, the Stepford-ness of their razor-straight streets and perfectly manicured medians, their covenant controls and faux-utopian doubleplusgood Orwellian weirdness. It's the way they build their own parks, schools and churches on the same templates that govern the placement of their PF Chang's and Wal-Mart, and how everything appears sized differently than it does in the real world -- bigger or smaller depending on need, but always, always placed closer to everything than is necessary.
It's the kind of people such projects attract: people who have a real desire to live above a Pizza Hut, next door to a Noodles & Company, around the corner from a Claire's Boutique and across the parking lot from an Old Navy. They are like pod people, only worse because they crawled willingly into the cocoon, went out of their collective way to put down stakes here.
While in the past I might have had some legitimate Levittown bitch about white flight or economic isolationism or creeping, gentrifying sprawl, that's not the case with Denver's new, United Colors of Benetton developments like Belmar and Lowry and Stapleton. Rather than segregate by race or class, these "neighborhoods" split populations along the demographics of consumption. Those on the inside are the people who want all of their options chosen for them: where they eat, where they shop, where they worship, socialize and entertain themselves. In a planned community, everything is right there; it's the next best thing to just moving into a mall. Dome these places over, throw in a few robots and some giant video screens, and you've got a ready-made set pulled straight out of the science-fiction fever dreams of Philip K. Dick, Stanislaw Lem, Aldous Huxley or William Gibson -- the real modernist social visionaries, the guys who saw this shit coming over the far horizon and tried their best to warn us.
More than anything, it's the notion of planning in these planned communities that makes me itch -- the removal of the Darwinian survival-of-the-fittest component from the consumer-retailer equation and the way simple convenience now supersedes quality or service or value or any other business modifier, allowing stores, restaurants, what-have-you to survive in an artificial microcosm, when in some cases they wouldn't stand a chance in hell of making it on the outside. Planned communities are the Galapagos Islands of the retail world -- a protected environment where the dim, the flawed and the strange can flourish without predation, safe from the market forces that might otherwise cripple and kill them. Such artificial survivability pollutes the gene pool, and that's never a good thing.
Unless, of course, you are one of those operations existing within the cordon. Then it's the greatest thing in the world. If you're a sea turtle or some kind of freak-ass flying monkey-lizard, then the Galapagos are exactly where you want to be. They're freak-ass flying monkey-lizard nirvana.
The six-month-old Coral Room is the freak-ass flying monkey-lizard of the Stapleton development, itself the Galapagos of northeast Denver. The first Coral Room opened in the Highland neighborhood several years ago. This second Coral Room displays numerous genetic mutations adapting it to the specific environment. It's right around the corner from everyone -- a default neighborhood restaurant for a default neighborhood, designed for default yuppies.
As a locally owned and conceived restaurant, the Coral Room has little competition among the chains and fast-casual outfits that flock to these planned developments. The decor is sleek and modern, retro-urban and just a little bit Asian, with a lot of earthtones, organic curves and raw materials all coming together to create a feeling of hip comfort -- more LoDo than the 'burbs, more Dean & DeLuca than Williams-Sonoma. The hosts are chummy, the waitresses quick and smilingly obsequious. And to the staff's credit, this doesn't come off as forced. Dinner here is just one short step removed from the comfort of dinner in your own home -- provided, of course, your home is impeccably decorated, spotlessly clean and comes complete with a full bar, stocked gourmet kitchen, teams of high-priced caterers and scads of beautiful people draped over the furniture drinking flavored martinis.
The Coral Room doesn't serve lunch -- but why should it? The target demographic -- the people who live in Stapleton -- certainly don't work in Stapleton, and the people who do work in Stapleton (primarily service-industry employees of one type or another) aren't going to drop into a place like the Coral Room on their lunch breaks. They're more likely to hit up Chipotle (across the street) or Noodles & Company (in sight of the Coral Room's front door) for a fast midday repast. On the other hand, the Coral Room does do brunch on Sundays -- when all those potential customers are at home, just blocks or even feet away.
The biggest difference between the original Coral Room and this new, improved model is the accommodation of that one indispensable accessory of the 21st-century nuclear unit: children. Although kids can be the fine-dining kiss of death, it makes sense that a restaurant designed expressly for upwardly mobile thirty-something families would include space for pint-sized patrons. Here it's an entire room -- almost a third of the restaurant's real estate -- separated from the main dining floor and bar by a sliding, Japanese-style screen, set with grown-up tables all facing a padded, carpeted, vaguely piscine-themed play area called (annoyingly) "The Little Reef," which is filled with savaged books, broken toys, smudgy kid-sized furnishings and, most important, a TV.
The Little Reef proves that Coral Room owners John Nadasdy (the chef, ex of Rapids Restaurant and Lodge in Grand Lake) and Nick Mystrom (the former pro football player-slash-contractor responsible for the buildout) knew what they were doing when they opened this second location. Everything about the place -- from the kids' room to the movie nights to the everything-by-the-glass wine list, fashionable cocktails and Metropolitan Home decor -- is calculated for a restaurant meant to thrive in a highly specific niche: the sheltered, insular world of the planned retail/residential community.
That's genius. That's playing to your strengths and minimizing your weaknesses. That's knowing your ecosystem and being the best damn freak-ass flying monkey-lizard you can be.
Now if only the kitchen could get its act together, the place would be unstoppable.
While the Stapleton restaurant looks entirely new, its menu is the same one served at the original Coral room, a dated Asian-Southwestern-Californian fusion that jumbles steaks and curries, lemongrass, mussels and sambal. Yes, there was a time when the Coral Room's food would have been cutting-edge in any neighborhood. But that time was ten years ago, and today, corn soufflés, chile-apricot sauces, coconut tempuras and wasabi mashers are old tricks for any new restaurant to be trying, tired stunts that might still play in a city farther down the culinary food chain than Denver (Omaha or Indianapolis, perhaps), but no longer viable in a town where all the grubniks read Gourmet and Food Arts and know better. Even as a retro gimmick, these trite tricks don't work, because other kitchens out there are doing the same things better -- although none are within walking distance of Stapleton.
In failing to follow any straight-line culinary path (like French-Vietnamese or even Chinese-Peruvian), the Coral Room's menu reads like flailing, like an unbridled (and misguided) enthusiasm for world cuisines by a chef and a kitchen badly in need of having their access to the Food Network curtailed. I mean, if you're going to put a cheese plate on a heavily Japanese-American menu (the Coral Room offers brie wrapped in phyllo, served with lavosh crackers and pear chutney), why not do goulash, too? And blini. And cassoulet decorated with California rolls. The trout with mangoes, almonds and vanilla makes no sense at all. The house's tuna stack -- marinated ahi tuna layered with avocado, mango salsa, pepper purée and cilantro paste -- nails two of my pet peeves at the same time, touching on both my loathing of '90s-style vertical food and my terror in the face of too many gastronomic traditions jammed into a single dish. And the kitchen insists on using broccolini as a vegetable side, despite the fact that I have never, ever, ever met anyone who's eaten a piece of broccolini and enjoyed it.
Right at the top, the menu lists a coconut curry served over a timbale of jasmine rice. I was doing timbales almost a decade ago at a hotel restaurant -- which means it was old even then, proven palatable for even the least adventurous eaters. But there was nothing challenging about this curry; it was weak and soupy. And the "Asian vegetable medley" that made up its bulk wasn't, unless they've recently started growing fat carrots and red bells in the mysterious East. The honey-soy and brown-sugar-glazed chicken was soggy -- tasting more boiled than grilled -- but came with a nice (and fairly original) tray-cut portion of scalloped sweet potatoes. Wonderful mashed sweet potatoes accompanied the well-handled pork chop, which was dressed with a chile-apricot sauce that echoed the Kikkoman sweet-and-sour sauce that my parents kept on the second rack of their refrigerator for years when I was a kid. The sauce was tasty, but unless the kitchen was deliberately copycatting sticky, 1980s ersatz Asiana, it's working from a playbook decades out of date.
The lobster-and-shrimp cake tasted great, even though it was falling to pieces as it reached the table, mounted over limp, decorative greens on a plate doodled with Nagel smears of chive oil and squeeze-bottle lemongrass and chile sauces. A gigantic filet mignon had been marinated in ginger and soy, glazed with an excellent Indonesian sambal demi that would have been better if the kitchen had showed a little restraint and not spackled the stuff on so heavy, then set over a mushroom-risotto cake wrapped in sautéed spinach leaves -- a nice move.
The filet was the best dish I tried at the Coral Room. The spring rolls were the worst -- were, in fact, possibly the worst spring rolls in all of Christendom, all ugly and lopsided and huge. Under normal circumstances, that might be a good thing, but no one wants an appetizer that's both awful and generous. I would have needed six napkins just to hide all the parts I didn't want to eat: stiff rice-paper wrappers; crunchy rice noodles that had obviously been incompletely par-boiled, then left to languish in a cold table; tender, cold beef-filet end cuts that would've been a good textural counterpoint to the carrots and the cucumbers if the guy on the mandolin had checked to see that the blade was set right. Instead of thin, uniform sticks of vegetable, I got chunky, inconsistent slabs of them, mostly cut only halfway through. And the "Thai dipping sauce" was just plain nasty.
The coconut tempura prawns were fine when hot out of the fryer, but suffered terribly as they cooled and their jackets of sweet batter took on the consistency of crunchy taffy. Dipped in the attendant Szechuan peanut sauce, these big shrimp lollipops tasted like the most ill-conceived culinary combination possible: nuts and gum. But the coconut tempura banana on the dessert menu was fantastic. I could have eaten three.
Right now, Stapleton's Coral Room is a great idea, a sexy space balanced by room for kids, a high-tone dining experience in a neighborhood that offers no others. And despite the fact that its out-of-date menu is poorly executed, it's surviving, even thriving, because of intelligent design and a lack of competition.
Still, if there's one hard-and-fast rule in nature, it's that entropy rules. Even the Galapagos didn't stay isolated forever.
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