I did my first few turns through Sketch while working as an anonymous restaurant critic. Not anonymous to Jesse Morreale or Sean Yontz, necessarily. Not to Charlie Master who works their bar, or to some of the staff to whom I'd been introduced. But generally speaking, I was still a mystery man — my face unknown outside a small circle of industry people I'd come to know over the past several years.
That all changed a week or so ago when my book, Cooking Dirty, hit the shelves. It has an author's picture of me on the sleeve — one that Westword has run online as well. Ostensibly, that was the end for me: Conventional wisdom has it that the minute a critic's cover is blown, he becomes useless — a kind of culinary third-wheel, since restaurants that recognize him will cater to his every whim.
Funny thing, though: My final meal at Sketch was done after the picture was out in the world, after I'd been unmasked — and that meal was the worst of the bunch. My VIP visit turned out to be the one where no one noticed me at all, where the prosciutto was badly cut, my drink forgotten, and almonds just dumped out, plain, onto a plate.
Which just goes to show that sometimes complicated inter-relations (like that between a critic and his industry, the floor and the ownership, anonymity and openness) do not unknot quite as simply as people sometimes think they might. Though never completely convinced that anonymity was worth anything beyond the vague threat it represented, I still thought the revealing of my smirking Irish mug might irrevocably change the job. Now, though, I'm not so sure. This is Denver, after all, not Manhattan.
I've eaten out probably a dozen times since my picture was made public, and I have yet to be recognized. No one has showered me with rose petals, tried to comp my dinner, or (way more likely) stuck their dick in my omelet. At least not that I know of. On a purely operational level, the job has not changed one little bit.
It might in the future. It might not. From here on out, this is something of an experiment. And in the interest of fairness (and, I hope, entertainment), I'm going to keep you updated about how it's going. Every dirty, grimy, terrible detail — just as I've been sharing since Day One. And the day that I become useless, irrelevant or crippled by whatever totally minor amounts of fame are visited upon food writers these days? I promise, I'll be the first one to boot my ass out the door.
In the 'hood: But first, I'm going to check out LoHi SteakBar, the newest project opened by Joe Vostrejs and his Larimer Square crew in the old home of North Star, at 3200 Tejon Street. After a wait that seemed to go on forever, the straight-up neighborhood joint finally opened for business last Thursday. (Nancy Levine was there; see Drink of the Week.) Dinner only right now; lunches will be added around July 11. The board looks excellent. While not quite so bare-bones as Sketch, SteakBar's menu is certainly simple, cored by four steaks served with a choice of four sauces and mounds of frites. There are also three custom burgers with a few high-end toppings (like sliced avocado, fried eggs and béarnaise sauce, which sounds awesome) and then a very brief board of other...stuff. Not quite American and not quite Continental, it includes poached mussels with saffron, cured pork chops, potted salmon and meatballs in red gravy.
One thing for sure: Even such a short, tight board will serve SteakBar well, because the guy in the kitchen is none other than Sean Kelly, brought back from managing bars and bar kitchens for Mark Berzins's Little Pub Company and installed back where he belongs: behind the burners of a single kitchen that he believes in.
Welcome home, Sean. Can't wait to see what you can do.
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Another great chef is back behind the burners: On the same day that Steakbar debuted, James Mazzio also got the Icehouse Tavern open at 1801 Wynkoop Street, in the same space that once held Via, with the same owners, the Momo family. This place, too, looks worth the wait. Mazzio has put together fantastic menus under some of the strangest constraints possible (like inside a movie theater, just for starters). And this board is straight-up killer. Boardwalk fries, crab cakes, steamed artichokes, burgers, brats, fried chicken, St. Louis ribs, clam chowder, Indonesian curry and brownie sundaes all together in one place? Count me in.
This trend of borderless Americana in the kitchen, of World Food gone both hyper-regional and totally melting pot, is gonna make me fat as a bastard before it plays itself out.
Leftovers: Great news for hot dog lovers! Not only has Biker Jim Pittenger installed a mister at the original Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs location at 16th and Arapahoe streets, but as reported on both the Cafe Society blog and the Cafewestword Twitter feed, Jim also has a second wiener dispensary up and running at 17th and California streets. The only lines longer than Jim's? The ones snaking out from the Thai Food Cart on the 16th Street Mall at Stout Street, where one lone woman in a little wooden box is cooking up some of the best Thai food in the city.