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It's in the Genes

Room service: The Cherry Creek Grill was designed to please.
Mark Manger

I walk into the Cherry Creek Grill, and it just feels right. From the outside, from the inside, from the heavy front doors to the exhibition line in the back, everything about this restaurant oozes comfort. The smell of smoke from the wood-fired rotisserie oven catches me in the chest, triggering a perfect cascade of sense memories touching on those primal human desires for heat and warmth and meat cooked over flames. The dim, intimate lighting is narcotic. The low ceilings straddled with arched beams of polished wood give me the feeling of being snugged in tight, claustrophobia averted by the dark spaces between, the recessed lights, the wide banks of windows. And the classical architecture of seats arranged on a riser around the central bar with the kitchen/stage straddling the open end of the large, smoothly curved U seems so complete, compact and efficient -- a closed circuit. I'm shown to my table, settle in amid the rough wood, the stone, the brick and shining base metals, and I want to stay. I want to come back again and again. I've been here two minutes, and it feels like home.

Even though I know the Cherry Greek Grill is part of a chain, even though I know I have been folded so very smoothly into the perfectly realized embrace of a corporate design scheme and am soon to be eating off of a corporate menu, I can't help but think that somewhere in Denver there's a feng shui designer who deserves a very large raise.

When stripped to their bones, there are essentially only two kinds of restaurants: those built to house people and those built to house food. There's no sliding scale, no spectrum on which a restaurant's one-ness or other-ness can be measured. Just two camps, diametrically opposed, and like sex -- boy or girl -- a restaurant's orientation is chosen long before birth. Conscious or no, a choice is made -- scribbled onto cocktail napkins or sketched into the borders of a designer's blueprints -- around the time of conception. That decision is written into a restaurant's genes before the first brick is laid, before the first fork is purchased, and it is replicated forever after in the proliferation of its DNA so that every table, every plate, every light fixture and butcher's block is imbued with the imprint and consequence of the choice. A place is and forever will be one or the other, impossible to be both.

Matt, one of my old partners, put it best: "There are restaurants built by cooks who want a place for their food to live, and there are restaurants built by customers for their friends." We were twenty-something when we got our first kitchen, free and clear, to do with as we wished. And what we wished for was a temple to the foods we loved. We'd both worked too long in the other kind of place, spent too many good years doing bad things to food in restaurants where more consideration was given to the color of the plates than the quality of what went on them. It was time to go the other way.

The ultimate food-centered restaurant, we thought, would be white and plain and designed with only the bare minimum of comfort in mind. No art on the walls, no show kitchen, just butcher-block tables with white linens and affectless silver. It would be as spartan as a monk's cell, as spare as an empty apartment, as without character as a school cafeteria. But the food...all sensual attention would be focused on that which issued forth from a kitchen staffed by cooks chosen for their singular dedication to cooking as religion, as the one true faith. We envisioned an army of obsessive-compulsives laboring as acolytes to this perfect standard of culinary absolutism, like Keller's French Laundry taken to ridiculous extremes of repentance for past sins. And we came close. The owners we worked for tempered our vision -- creating a nice dining room, installing a pleasant bar -- but still kept things low-key and gave us exactly what we asked for in the kitchen. It was beautiful while it lasted -- which wasn't long. But in the meantime, we got to pick our side, make a home for the food we loved, then work like maniacs to meet the ideal. We were the kids who'd gotten everything we wanted for Christmas.

That was the first kind of restaurant -- designed by cooks for their food, with the customers included only as an afterthought (and the bottom line considered not at all). The Cherry Creek Grill is the other kind, a restaurant genetically engineered to bring in the customers. I can feel it in the silver, heavy but not clunky, a knife and fork that mean business, and also in the curve of the low wall that runs around the outside edge of the seating area -- high enough to make every booth seem private, but low enough to see over, to lean against, so that you don't feel closed in. I imagine that wall being measured by a team of experts in human nature, ensuring that it's psychologically accurate to the millimeter. I can see it in the soft light that pools around the lamps on the bar, smell it in the wood smoke that flavors every breath but is never oppressive. I can hear it in the way the noise of happy conversations, the tink of forks on plates, the rush of servers and sounds from the kitchen all rise to the raftered ceiling, then hang there with a thrum like a pulse. The Cherry Creek Grill is never loud, even when the place is packed (and it's always packed), but it's never quiet, either. It's always exactly loud enough.

 

The place catches you, hooks you a dozen different ways, playing on memories of long-gone restaurants you loved, of Grandma's kitchen and Dad at the grill, of a favorite college hangout, a favorite neighborhood spot. It's none of those things alone, but all of them together -- deliberately crafted with generic, anonymous customers in mind.

But there's the catch: It's built for customers, not for any one person. Built and run with numbers in mind -- and every time I sit down in the Cherry Creek Grill, I am one. There's a slip of paper laid on my table: a server's name and the number 18, another name and 44. My arrival, my request for a table, immediately sets in motion the machinery of service for which I am the prime motivator, yes, but which is ultimately designed for the speediest possible turning of my table. I am part of a head count, a table number, an X-top -- one, two or four.

The Cherry Creek Grill takes no reservations, and waits can be twenty minutes, forty, sometimes more. But once the clockwork is engaged, service comes in a rush and operates like the pit in Vegas, with everyone watching someone and every aspect of separating the customer from his money handled smoothly and with discrete precision. Once I'm seated, a waiter is at my elbow immediately. Drinks? Yes, please. The wine list is non-threatening, the well at the bar all top-shelf, the beer expensive. Appetizers? Of course. I ask for the stupidly named "Dipping Duo" and receive a plate of salted tortilla chips balanced by one mound of gooey queso that tastes like microwave-melted Velveeta kicked up by spicy picante, and another mound of trout salad -- shredded trout and chunks of trout in mayonnaise with black pepper, spices and a little more black pepper for luck. At first I think it's chicken, then tuna, and it could easily be either; the only way I know it's trout is that I asked my server, and he may have been guessing. The dips aren't bad, but they're very forgettable. They taste like something you'd have no trouble finding in a grocery-store deli case.

So I move on to a split grilled artichoke, each half tender, nutty and tattooed with perfectly symmetrical hash marks from the grill; it's served with a side of rémoulade that's just mayo with a limp French accent. This is a clone of every other grilled artichoke being served at every other restaurant in the world that shares this one's genes. In the cook's kitchen, an artichoke is an object of devotion -- a beautiful, complex food, infinitely versatile, with different and delicate tastes and textures in the inner leaves and the outer, the heart, the cap and choke. Each section reacts differently to heat and to cooking methods. Each has its own character, and to just grill the whole thing? Well, sure, if you're in a hurry and don't care. Split it, oil it, grill it, plate it and move on. There's nothing precisely wrong with that, but there's nothing precisely right about it, either. But maybe no one will notice. Maybe no one will mind.

And here, no one seems to. I watch plate after plate of artichokes go out from the kitchen. I watch plate after plate come back empty. I eat mine, too, and enjoy it but for the feeling that something more could've been done. I have that same feeling about the chicken and spinach enchiladas that arrive at the table looking and tasting like something straight off the menu at Applebee's. Same for the ribs that are huge, yes, and smoky, yes, from being cooked overnight in that wood-fired oven that rotisseries up something like a thousand chickens a day. But they're absolutely dull, with a texture like baby food. Poke them and the meat falls right off the bone; pop a piece in your mouth and it's like chewing fat chased with a hot shot of liquid smoke. The barbecue sauce is a sweet, sticky mess just this side of the stuff they use on ribs in Chinese restaurants, and the side of peanut coleslaw comes off like one of those ideas that look really good on paper but fail spectacularly in execution.

 

On another night, I try the prime rib with Colcannon mashers and walk out insulted that someone would do something so wrong to a potato for no good reason. Colcannon is an Irish dish -- whipped potatoes with cream and heart-stopping amounts of butter folded in with scallions and cabbage. (Murder to all the Irish Atkins dieters out there.) And it's good stuff in the proper hands, but what the Grill serves under the guise of Colcannon are just smashed-up baking potatoes and green onions. A dry, flavorless pile of mash made with no love, no respect and likely pounded out in bulk, then slapped down on the plate like any other buffet-line starch. A travesty.

Then again, the prime rib is just fine -- something the Grill's kitchen does very well, taking advantage again of those big rotisserie ovens and slow-cooking the meat on the bone in large quantities, then cutting it fresh-to-plate as needed. On one visit, I pair it with hand-cut shoestring fries that are some of the best in town, on another, a side of pickled red cabbage with goat cheese that works very nicely, the sweet-and-sour brine of the cabbage cut by the milky smoothness of the mild goat cheese. A simple green salad at the Grill -- a dish that would be a throwaway anywhere else -- surprises me with immaculately fresh field greens tossed together with cherry tomatoes, slices of avocado, house-made cornbread croutons and more goat cheese, all drizzled with a fantastic, peppery house Italian dressing. And the kitchen's burger is a monster -- excellent beef, juicy even when ordered well-done, set on a good roll and stacked with enough fresh accoutrements (lettuce, pickles, relish, huge slices of tomato, onions, etc.) that I almost have to unhinge my jaw like a python just to get a bite.

Still, I can't shake the feeling that the food here, if not totally ancillary to the Cherry Creek Grill experience, is certainly somehow separate. The kitchen does some good work, but even at its best, those talents are being showcased within the parameters of a dining room meant for something else entirely. Every plate brought to every table has the stamp of mass production -- a pastiche of national trends and signature efforts that seem cut to fit the character of some externally imposed model, not the character of any particular place. The menu is here because it's expected to be here, but I get the feeling that if the owners and partners and managers and all the other staff removed from the day-to-day business of the kitchen could figure out a way to make people pay a $50-per-head cover just to walk in the door and sit quietly for an hour in a beautiful space, they'd do away with the food and drinks entirely. Because there would be no need for them.

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