Kitchen Magicians

Last year, Sean Yontz started thinking about moving on from his double-duty position as executive chef at Zenith and director of operations for Kevin Taylor's four other eateries (jou jou, Restaurant Kevin Taylor, Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, and Boulder's Dandelion). At about the same time, former Zenith sous chef Dan Durkin moved to Singapore to open an eatery called Cafe Iguana (ironically, Taylor once had a restaurant by that name in Cherry Creek), now one of three Mexican restaurants in Singapore. At a dinner at the renowned Raffles Hotel -- a palatial complex that employs 128 cooks in seventeen kitchens and frequently asks world-famous chefs to do culinary exhibitions -- Durkin ran into guest chef Richard Sandoval, owner of the Maya restaurants in New York and San Francisco. Sandoval told Durkin that he was thinking about opening a place in Denver. Durkin told him to call Yontz, who'd grown up in East L.A., is part-Hispanic, and was looking for new opportunities.

Sandoval took Durkin's advice and hired Yontz to head the kitchen at his new Denver restaurant, Tamayo (see review, previous page). Not long after, Raffles called and invited Sandoval for a return engagement -- only the second chef to be requested twice (the other was Alain Ducasse). Sandoval took Yontz along to Singapore, where they spent a week cooking the Tamayo menu for the hotel's guests and threw a goodbye gala for the exiting Mexican ambassador. As exciting as the gig sounds, Yontz says it presented some major challenges. "Getting ingredients for our dishes was a little rough," he explains. "Avocados are non-existent there, and everything else is so different from what we're used to. Tomatoes are completely different, with a different texture and flavor, and onions are different, too. The hotel got us as much as they could, but we still only had about 80 percent of the stuff we needed to pull it off. I had to borrow a bunch of things from Dan's taquería, especially chiles and cheeses."

You can't blame Yontz for a lack of foresight, though. He'd anticipated that he might have trouble finding certain ingredients, so he'd overnighted a huge shipment to himself at the Singapore hotel. "Customs was a little tough on the stuff," he says. "The packages arrived at the hotel the day before we left to come back home."

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeff Cleary, former chef/owner of the now-closed Cafe Bohemia (1729 East Evans Avenue), says he's relieved to be done with the little restaurant. "To tell you the truth, it kind of exploded beyond what I'd ever envisioned for it," says Cleary, who has found new work as the executive director of the Pinnacle Club (555 17th Street), the former Petroleum Club.

"Being so tiny, it was tough to make everybody happy, and it turned out to be more work than it was worth," Cleary says of the eatery that he owned with Pascal Trompeau, who made Bohemia's breads and also ran the Trompeau Bakery next door. Particularly troublesome was a liquor-license problem that would have been too costly and time-consuming to fix. "In the end, it just made more sense to close," Cleary says. "Besides, I was already starting to focus on the club."

Cleary had been running what was then the Petroleum Club while still cooking at Cafe Bohemia, and he's been credited with keeping the place from going down the tubes. When he came on board, the main restaurant, Top of the Rockies, was still being confused with another Top of the Rockies that closed two decades ago, and nobody seemed to care about eating there in any case. Cleary made some fast fixes and has many more plans; renovations at the club will continue through 2003. "I have a lot of ideas to keep this growing," he says. "This is only the beginning."

While Cleary takes care of day-to-day operations, he's not in the kitchen quite as much as he'd like to be. Or as much as diners would like him to be, since it was his cooking that made Cafe Bohemia such a success (especially anything with potatoes, like mashed or French-fried or, oh, his latkes...). The menu and recipes for the two eateries inside the Pinnacle Club, the business-attire-required Crystal Room and the more casual Club Room, are mostly his, but the chef de cuisine, Michael Carrozza, who worked for Cleary at Bohemia (in fact, Cleary brought along the whole Bohemia staff), runs the kitchen while Cleary attends to board meetings and other less culinary endeavors.

The Pinnacle Club opened two weeks ago, and while several opening-night party guests say they enjoyed the food, the decor left them cold. "They're trying to attract women, but it looked pretty manly to me," says one woman. "I do a business lunch a day, but I think I'd rather just go to a restaurant of my choosing." Another woman, Pat Schoenfeld, went to the Pinnacle Club for dinner with her boss and a few co-workers the other night, and "it was just okay," she reports. "The food was good, but none of us liked it that we had to pay a set fee."

And the prix fixe menu isn't the only set fee. Before you get to dinner, there's the little matter of membership costs: A regular membership requires a $250 initiation fee, plus $90 per month to maintain, while juniors (35 and under) pay $150 up front and $35 a month. Those fees gain you entrance to the two eateries, along with the privilege to run a tab, access to a bunch of other clubs just like it across the country, and free use of the conference rooms. Or you can pay a $125 annual fee that just gets you into the Crystal Room.

Obviously, the place is meant to attract business types. "It's really nice in that corporate way," says my buddy Thom Wise. "It's not completely finished, so I guess it's unfair to get too definitive about whether it'll fly. But the truth is, in this town, there's just no true old-boy network with the kind of mentality needed to pull off this kind of place." A man about town who snagged an invite to the opener, Wise adds: "It's a great way to the see the mountain views, though, and I think a lot of people want it to be a great place because of that. But this exclusivity thing could end up biting it in the ass."

The prix fixe menu could be another bone of contention. "I just wanted some appetizers," says Schoenfeld, "but I had to go with the whole kit and caboodle." There are three menus -- the contents of which will change periodically -- from which to choose: a $75 five-course tasting menu that recently offered a choice of roasted duck breast, prosciutto-wrapped halibut or venison loin; a $55 four-course menu with such inducements as Hudson Valley foie gras, free-range pheasant and saddle of rabbit; and a $35 five-course vegetarian menu that has no choices -- but considering Cleary's way with spuds, who could argue against potato-chive-and-truffle ravioli with brown butter?

An 18 percent gratuity is added to every check, and no liquor is included, obviously. That means that even two abstemious veggie-head execs couldn't get out for less than $85. Does Cleary think Denver diners can stomach those prices? "So far, so good," he says. "We have people joining."

Trompeau, meanwhile, has taken over the Bohemia space and expanded the bakery's wholesale operation. The native of Chaillac, France, still offers killer croissants, delectable cinnamon rolls, to-die-for eclairs and tarts, and a host of chewy-crusted, spongy-centered breads; he plans to add even more items in the next few months. No membership required.

Just desserts: Even as I raved last week about the desserts made by Nikki McCauley and her Blue Valentine Pastries for the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue), the restaurant was handing her a pink slip. According to new Fourth Story chef Brian Sack, the desserts weren't up to snuff. "It's not like they weren't warned," Sack says. "I'd been asking them to change up the fruits, stop using nothing but strawberries, to punch the stuff up a bit -- and that wasn't happening. The quality just wasn't there."

Although I hadn't noticed any problems, it also turns out that one of the desserts I tasted, the rhubarb-filled Napoleon, was Sack's work, anyway. And the Fourth Story's new bakery is a favorite of mine: Devil's Food The Bakery (1024 South Gaylord Street), which does amazing things with scones and other delectable pastries. And fans of Blue Valentine's desserts can still get their fix at the retail outlet at 4628 East 23rd Avenue.

When I reviewed the Armadillo over three years ago ("Native Truths," March 12, 1998), I marveled that the lower-lower-downtown outpost of this homegrown chain could stay in business. Although the Armadillo's origins were undeniably colorful -- the business began three decades ago in sleepy LaSalle, when Joe and Lucy Lucio turned the burritos served in their bar into a full-scale restaurant -- the food was bland, bland, bland. Meanwhile, just a tortilla's throw away from the Armadillo, at 2401 15th Street (the former home of Maxfield and Friends), were numerous eateries serving authentic, flavorful Mexican fare. (For starters, how about Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, at 2005 West 33rd Avenue?)

Finally this summer, the Armadillo's parent company accepted the inevitable and closed the 15th Street address. Meanwhile, assorted Armadillos in the suburbs -- where bland-but-authentic Mexican food is better than bland, fake Mexican food -- are doing a booming business.


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