It Takes Two to Tangle

Having two restaurants is a little like having two lovers. When you're with one, you're wondering what's going on with the other one. You go broke trying to make both of them happy, and you're too worn out to give either the attention it deserves.

Mark Chaffee knows this all too well. His first time as a restaurateur was with The Moondance, the tiny piano bar/eatery that Chaffee squeezed into a street-level space on Market Street in July 1994. The honeymoon lasted almost two years--Denver was ripe for the Tony Bennett lounge scene, and business was good--before Chaffee got the itch to take on another restaurant. In April 1996 he bought the nine-year-old Chives American Bistro from Barolo Grill owner Blair Taylor, who was whittling his own love-of-food life down to one restaurant.

Now Chaffee knows why. "I'm crazy," he says. "It's hard, because you can't be in two places at once, but I didn't realize just how much work two would be. I feel like I'm always at one or the other, and when I get back to the other one, there's something else I need to take care of."

After two visits to each of Chaffee's places, I can say that what needs to be taken care of are the details--especially at Chives, where my meals were rife with production problems.

I first ate at Chives five years ago, when Taylor still owned it and I was still working in restaurants. Along with about half the service-industry employees in town, I'd drop by late in the evening, since Chives was one of the few places around whose kitchen stayed open after 10 p.m. It remains popular with regulars from the restaurant crowd; you can find them gathered late at night around the bar area, eating Chives' infamous burgers (Taylor once rejected a Best of Denver award because he didn't want his restaurant to be known as a burger joint) and taking the edge off their demanding jobs with a few beers.

Even if you come from Lakewood, Chives has a welcoming neighborhood feel. The atmosphere is upscale casual, with remnants of Eighties teal and mauve submitting to a late-Nineties facelift. Although the menu, too, has changed under executive chef Tim McCaw, who served as sous chef during the Taylor regime, it still offers something for everyone. McCaw's fusiony roster jumps all over the place--there's Asian fare, American comfort food (including those burgers), California salads, pizza and pasta, even a few Southwestern items. McCaw also appears to have a sweet tooth, since many of the dishes feature such extras as caramelized onions, roasted red bell peppers, raisins and molasses.

Most of the time, McCaw's combinations work. But when they don't, they really don't. The fruit and duck-liver mousse pate ($5.95), for example, came drizzled with a super-sweet (strawberry? raspberry?) icing-like sauce. Scraping it off, we uncovered a fine pate, a harmonic mix of whipped duck liver and apples, apricots, cranberries and green peppercorns. Our other appetizers were successful from the start. The unusual but tasty tuna roll ($8.95) looked like something from an Asian Good Housekeeping: rare yellowfin tuna wrapped with avocado and too many cucumbers in a flour tortilla and then sliced. The three Vietnamese spring rolls ($5.95) boasted well-melded fillings of chicken and pork inside thin, crunchy rice-paper wrappers. The best of the bunch was the salmon and goat cheese strudel ($6.95): salmon fillet and smoked salmon bundled together with goat cheese in phyllo and served over a pool of red-pepper coulis.

After those starters, we looked forward to our main course. And we had plenty of time to anticipate it, since a half-hour after the appetizer plates were cleared away, we were still awaiting the entrees. Our waiter seemed pretty astute, so we got the impression that the difficulties were in the kitchen. But as the evening wore on and the place got busier, our waiter wound up with too many tables to give good service. At one point we had to snag a busperson to find out the status of our food; our waiter came by soon after to apologize.

Not long after that, we found ourself facing a haphazard collection of dishes. The herb-encrusted goat cheese spinach salad ($8.50) featured not warm but room temperature goat cheese, not wilted but withered-away spinach, and not a warm balsamic vinaigrette but a tepid balsamic wash unrelieved by even a droplet of oil. A much better balanced balsamic added zest to a sauce of pancetta and butter that covered the salmon ($16.95), and the fillet was nicely grilled. But the accompanying caramelized-onion risotto cake was a crisp-edged, dried-out patty. Also dry were the Kentucky pork chops ($16.95), three-inch-thick affairs cooked perfectly at the center--and parched on the exterior.

Our other entrees, however, came close to flawless. In fact, the spicy chicken chipotle pasta ($13.95) was flawless, a very generous portion of ziti mingled with soft strips of chicken and mixed bell peppers, all coated with a not-too-thick, not-too-thin chipotle-fired cream sauce. And the grilled portabello lasagne ($12.95) with grilled vegetables was fine, if a little light on the mornay sauce; more of that sauce would have worked well off the marinara.

Desserts have always been a big deal at Chives, and they're excellent under the new regime. The chocolate lasagne ($5.95) sounds like a novelty item, but the chocolate Plastique-layered confection was a chocolate-lover's dream, as was the kokopelli chocolate cake ($5). The cheesecake ($3.75), chocolate mousse pie ($3.75) and ice cream with caramel sauce ($3.25) also were good--but not good enough to justify another half-hour wait. All told, we spent three hours at Chives that night--and we weren't dawdling over our food.

On a second visit, the waits were shorter--but they were still too long. Again, the devil was in the details. The smoked tomato red-pepper bisque ($2.95 for a cup) had a delicious flavor but was thin and watery; the calamari ($6.95) appeared to have been handled roughly, maybe even flung onto the plate, because the crispy buttermilk batter had fallen off most of the pieces; the "roasted fall vegetables" promised with the wild-mushroom risotto ($12.95) never materialized, although the risotto itself was a creamy, 'shroomy delight; and the grilled double chicken breast ($13.95) stuffed with prosciutto, basil, garlic and mozzarella featured well-melted cheese inside very dry chicken. Fortunately, that great burger ($7.50) was a half-pound hunk of goodness, slathered with a mildly spicy chipotle mayo and accompanied by a side of golden-crisp, puffy fries.

The Moondance doesn't have the long history that Chives does, but in just three years this cozy eatery has developed a loyal following. Many customers come for the piano music, which is offered Wednesday through Sunday at 9 p.m. and usually features charming pianist Augie Savage. The small room and often-smoky atmosphere--Chaffee says they're close to fixing a problem with the kitchen ventilation--give a sense of another time and place at night; during the day, however, we found the close tables to be a bit stifling.

But the dishes here were better executed and more focused than at Chives. Chef Michael Sarlo's menu emphasizes comfort food with a New Orleans bent, and as long as we didn't stray from that territory, we never went wrong. The porcini and chicken soup ($2.75 for a cup) was chicken-heavy, creamy and earthy, with a faint bacon flavor. The lemon-pepper roasted chicken ($6.50 for a half) was not only lemony and peppery, it was deliciously juicy; it came with a standard side of basil-pesto-enhanced mashed potatoes and our choice of a second side, the sophisticated sauteed spinach and red cabbage. We thought the carrots and celery in the Moondance chicken over pasta ($7.50) were too crunchy, but Chaffee says he'd rather they were undercooked than too soft and mushy, and I have to agree. Covered with a potent blend of Cajun spices, the chicken worked surprisingly well with fettuccine; you can also get it over dirty rice. And what better way to cool down from a spicy Cajun dish than with a mammoth portion of bread pudding with caramel sauce ($3.95)?

The Moondance doesn't always shine, though. Our second meal there started with the mussels sardou appetizer ($8.75): mussels piled with artichoke hearts and spinach in an odd take on the well-known egg dish. While the individual components were good, the Pernod cream sauce tying them together tasted weirdly of bourbon and mint instead of licorice. The spinach and artichoke dip ($6.50) was much better, and the Moondance's signature bleu cheese bread ($3.50) was a downright brilliant combination of the cheese baked on garlic-buttered French bread.

We knew we were taking a chance when we ordered a dish listed on the blackboard as "chicken with Florentine" ($5.95); "with Florentine" turned out to be two spinach leaves wilted on top of a chicken breast. (Chaffee says he thinks the staffer who wrote the dish's name--as well as "crameni mushrooms"--is no longer there.) But the vegetable pot pie ($7.95) was pure comfort food, exactly what grandma would have made had she been a vegetarian: carrots, celery, onions and potatoes in a thick buttermilk crust. We finished the meal with a fabulously lemony lemon icebox pie ($3.75) and warm caramel apple pie with cinnamon ice cream ($4.75), both as comforting as it gets.

As a foodie, if I were torn between these two lovers, I'd have to go with the Moondance. But Chives has plenty of potential; it just needs more of Chaffee's attention. Since he can't be at both places all the time, his best bet is to hire more kitchen help, love the one he's with--and hope the other one isn't cheating.

Chives American Bistro, 1120 East Sixth Avenue, 722-3800. Hours: 5-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday.

The Moondance, 1626 Market Street, 893-1626. Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.


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