Last Supper: Our outgoing critic ends things at Ondo's, where they're easing into excellence
We parked the car in the snow and walked gingerly down the icy ramp. The wind was bitter, and Cherry Creek lived inside a snow globe of swirling flakes glittering like chips of diamond as the gusts whipped them, scarving from rooftops and frozen iron railings. Laura slipped and I caught her hand. I slipped and she caught mine. This is what we've done for all of our years together — caught each other as we were about to fall. In the end, we toddled like children, holding tight to each other and ducking our heads against the biting cold.
At the top of the steps, we paused to look over the menu under glass. Bocados and cazuelitas, postres, pintxos and raciones, foie gras a la plancha, rollo de mango relleno de bonito del Norte and my favorite, solomillo con salsa de queso Valdeón: words that would've been foreign to the both of us ten years ago, but now spoke only of warmth and comfort and broad smiles, sunlit plains and dry, dusty heat. Spain is what Laura and I have dreamed of together when it seemed that this country alone was too small for us. We each have our private geographical fantasies (Japan for me, or Vietnam or Lyon, maybe, provided everyone was kind enough to speak English in my presence; Key West for her, as well as Ensenada, St. Croix and Germany, because she's spit in the Neckar in Heidelburg and, according to the particularly disgusting folk traditions of the Germans, that means she's destined to return), but Spain is the one we've shared, the one we've studied. Spain is the far horizon on which our collective gaze has long been fixed, and so we know where to stay in Granada to have our view over the Alhambra, where the olive trees grow, when to find shade in the lee of Peñafiel castle and where they keep all the best pigs in the world. The menu was poetry written in a language meant for poetry, flowing and rhyming effortlessly and bucking literal translation, demanding only to be taken for what it is.
Curt and Deicy Steinbecker lived the dream that we're still chasing, having gone to Spain (coming from the United States and Colombia, respectively) to attend La Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar, then spending five years studying and working around San Sebastian and Barcelona under the likes of Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak. They learned Spanish food from the inside out. They learned Basque food. They fell in love there, conceived a child there, but decided to come back to Denver (where Curt had lived before) to raise their child and to open a Spanish restaurant where they could do what they loved, what they'd been trained for. Laura and I had only come across town to see what they'd brought with them from half a world away, but we were hopeful.
Ondo's opened in November, in a subterranean space that's already swallowed more restaurants of more nationalities than I care to count. It's next door to Tambien, Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz's Mexican codicil, their Mezcal Mk. II, and as we eased our way down the cement steps, across the frozen patio, freshly shoveled and swept, toward Ondo's front door, we could see that Tambien was having a great night, with a crowded bar and a busy floor, and Ondo's was...not.
Actually, it was empty, with the floor staff standing around in those nervous postures of expectation (bodies leaned forward, hands clasped, eyes scanning the front windows for the sudden flood of customers that resolutely refuse to come) that speak volumes about desperate want and need. I hesitated a little at the bottom step, at the same instant as Laura. We exchanged a quick, nervous glance.
"This might be the last time, you know?" she said. "Our last chance." And she was right. While Curt and Deicy and Ondo's might just be starting out in Denver, we were finishing up, handling final details before aiming ourselves west and making for the distant coast, the stones and salmon of Seattle. I'd been waiting months for Ondo's to open, tracking it with the fanatic focus of some Brooklyn towhead pawing through baseball cards and building fantasy lineups on his bedroom rug, talking with Curt, watching the long-dormant website, hoping that Laura and I would get to experience their Spain before we turned our backs on home and headed for parts unknown.
Together we stepped inside — out of the cold and into an empty room that seemed almost to crouch with anticipation, everything happening a little too fast, with a little too much anxiety. Because there was no one ahead of us, we were shown instantly to the seats we wanted, tucked away in a corner with a view of the dark bar across a broad dining room filled with small tables and artfully curvy plastic chairs. Because there was no one else battling for attention, our drinks came with a rapidity and care that was like the compression of a movie dream sequence — my glass of rosado arriving cold, like liquid ruby in the glass, and Laura's white dithered over, with tasting glasses brought to the table by the willing waitress who talked her through the dry one, the sweet one, the fruity one, before she made a final decision.
Aperitivos appeared: tall shooters of warm leek soup dressed only in jalapeño sliced thin as paper, brought standing tall on the waitress's tray.
"From the kitchen," she said. "Do you have any questions about the menu?"
We didn't. Our ordering had actually been planned out days in advance, Laura and I each gravitating toward personal favorites and special flavors with the ease of two people who've been doing this sort of thing for far too long. I ordered a first round of pintxos and small plates while she sipped her soup. She amended the order while I shot mine, closed my eyes and recalled sweetly why, sometimes, an amuse bouche can be a great idea. When it's not just a way for some prep cook to show off, or a stall by a buried kitchen, but used as a flirtation, a tease — a goad to the appetite, like a culinary lap dance — the amuse can be a wonderful thing. And this was: two swallows of a soup that could very easily have been put into standard rotation on the regular menu, perfectly in keeping with the style laid forth by the spread of small plates, large plates and snacks. It was delicious, creamy, warming, comforting and tormenting all at the same time. I wanted twenty more, lined up in a row, ten before me, ten before Laura. I wanted to make a drinking contest of them — first one to pop loses.
But there was no time for that, because more food began arriving. At the moment, the kitchen was cooking just for us — which meant, essentially, that Curt was cooking just for us: holding down the line, taking orders, working the pans, humping the fryers, finding moments to step out and survey the floor in his chef's hat and immaculate whites, wondering, no doubt, where his rush was and why his kitchen was so quiet. When we'd talked before the official opening of Ondo's, he'd told me that he wasn't going to hire a chef, wasn't going to bring in someone to do the grunt work or watch the plates for him. He and Deicy had the skills, after all. They had the passports, the five years in their rearview, Arzak on their resumés. Who else would be able to do the work as well as they could all by themselves?
The first dish I'd ordered was the Tortilla Española, an omelet of eggs and potatoes, something so simple and so basic yet so fundamental to the soul of classical Spanish peasant cuisine. But an omelet can also tell you many things about a cook and a kitchen. It's one of those plates that a French chef will use to test the chops of his commis. Make an omelet, he'll say, and then he'll watch while the commis fucks it all up; watching, really, to see the care with which he makes his mistakes, the concentration he lends to the eggs, the whisk, the pan. At some of my first cooking jobs, omelets were what I did — all night, every night. In later years, omelets were what I would cook for myself at the end of the night, a sponge to soak up the evening's excesses. It is the tamago egg omelet that an aficionado of sushi will order first at any new sushi bar in order to judge the skills of the rollers behind the counter. It was an omelet that Secondo made for his brother, Primo, at the end of Big Night, silently, by way of apology and comfort.
I watched as Ondo's version came to me from the kitchen, weighing it by eye. It was a big omelet, fat and beautiful, not cold, not too hot, neither too dry nor too runny, touched with perfect, delicate brown sears on the outside edges, folded in on itself and resting on a single slice of oiled and toasted bread. I cut a mouthful, dragging it slightly through a line traced in reduced, sweet balsamic vinegar, and ate. The chunks of potatoes were soft. The eggs were excellent.
I could have ended the meal right there. I've always believed in the omelet test in its many forms; have been a devotee of the notion that a cook who can focus on and care about the simple things is a cook who will bring that same dedication to the more complicated tricks and maneuvers of the profession. On a quiet night in Cherry Creek, while parties rolled on next door (loudly enough that I could hear them through the wall shared by Tambien and Ondo's) and his own dining room lay in silent desolation, Curt Steinbecker had made me a perfect omelet for no other reason than I'd asked for one, for no other reason than doing it right is what a good cook does. But the meal didn't end there, of course.
A plate of unadorned Ibérico ham, rosy pink against the white china, veined with white fat. Patatas bravas with romesco, the chunks of potato looking as though each one had been individually hand-fried, babied, coddled, brought out of the oil at just the right moment and then piled up around a bowl of gentle, orange romesco sauce more savory than spicy, tasting of tomato pulp and paprika. A bowl of croquetas, made with Serrano ham, breadcrumbs and cream sauce, fried golden-brown and served still steaming at the table, followed by another bowl just because the first one was so good and gone so quickly. The courses came scattered, well-timed by the servers, occasionally walked across the floor by Curt himself, cut loose from the kitchen and coming to check in on us. There was an art to the ballet of plates — not perfected yet, but there in a rough form, set to a rhythm not of clocks, but of impressions, of weighing appetites and speed of digestion by eye. Sometimes fresh plates would arrive just as we were finishing the previous course. Once or twice we were asked whether we wanted to keep the single crust of bread left alone on a side plate.
We had brocheta de langostinos — one big shrimp on a stick, attended by lumps of what I think was mackerel, the whole thing grilled, dressed in pepper vinaigrette and set over an oiled round of bread. It was my favorite plate until the stew of potatoes and chopped chorizo arrived, bubbling in an earthenware bowl, rich with peppers and onions. And then that was my favorite until the solomillo came — a simple bit of sliced beef tenderloin, cooked bloody-rare and smothered beneath a thick veil of white béchamel dosed with powerful Spanish Valdeón blue cheese. The solomillo was so addictively good it was scary — the kind of plate that's been done a million and a half times before in a hundred thousand different restaurants, but never, never quite like it was done here, and never even close to as well.
Ondo's has some issues, yes. I didn't love the slightly undercooked grains and weird brothy consistency of the arroz meloso with Spanish Idiazábal cheese (an attempt at a Spanish risotto, I'm guessing, that failed somewhere in the execution but made a nice starch when I ate it with the potatoes and chorizo). The albóndigas were delicious, but while they were meant to be simple, they seemed somehow too simple, sitting in their tomato sauce and bringing nothing more than the plain protein of their existence to the table. And the Steinbeckers might also do well to look at the pricing on their menu, because while I dearly love pork products and am willing to pay ridiculous prices for Ibérico (some of the best ham on the planet), the going rate for a small plate of it seemed high even to me. Fifteen dollars for a (very) small plate of ham, thirty for a large? That's going to knock out all but the most dedicated pork junkies.
Still, through it all, there is a consistency at Ondo's, a sense of distant horizons and love borne of strange latitudes. There is the taste of ancient dust and the feel of a canon that has been alive and growing for centuries, perfected across a million bar tops and tables, taught to those with the means and the wherewithal to go to the source. Ondo's tapas have in them the potential for true greatness, the staff and room a capacity for becoming a new destination in Cherry Creek — a bright point of independence in a neighborhood that's become crowded over the years with corporate branding and big-box names. Ondo's isn't quite there yet, but there's room for growth, for easing into excellence slowly, one omelet at a time.
While we'd been eating, a couple of other tables had drifted in. They were only two-tops, a couple of singles at the bar, but it was better than nothing. As we watched Curt make his way from the kitchen to their tables, handing around aperitivos, smiling and wishing them well before retreating back behind his burners, I thought to myself that maybe, once I'm gone, these few people and the ones who follow them will act as a vanguard of gastronauts, the outriders of cuisine bringing back news of Ondo's to their friends and families. I hoped that they'd all have meals as good as the one I'd just finished.
But in the meantime, Laura and I made our way out the door and back out into the cold. This time, though, our walk was much shorter. Next door, Tambien was backs-to-the-glass crowded as we pressed our way in and made for the bar, looking for one more drink — unwilling, while there were still some days and hours remaining, to let this be our last of anything.
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