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Liars' Club

Diamond in the rough: Mao's dining room is a lot more polished than its kitchen.
Sean O'Keefe

John has a British accent -- cultured, smooth, well-practiced, but fake. It keeps dropping off mid-sentence and goes out entirely when he has to raise his voice to be heard over the Saturday-night crowd of beautiful people and liars at Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi Lounge, hereafter to be known simply as Mao, because it's not a bistro, hardly a sushi bar and Asian only in the way the Power Rangers were: as seen through a distortion lens of American consumerism -- cartoon Asian played out by real people.

John has a last name, but he won't tell me what it is. "Don't know you, mate," he says. "Why would it matter?" When he calls me "mate," his accent suddenly goes Aussie. Bad Aussie. Crocodile Dundee-impression Aussie. I ask what he does, and he says it's something for the government -- "something for your government" -- then raises a hand, waving the question away. He's lying, but he's trying hard.

He asks what I do, and I tell him I'm in I.T., a corporate computer geek blah blah blah. My name is Ed. Ed Norton, like the actor.

"I.T.? Really?" John asks, accent gone entirely. "Where at?"

Liars, aren't we all.

I'd met John-No-Last-Name accidentally. The crush at Mao's bar had me pinned next to a beautiful girl, he was on the other side of the girl, and all three of us were trying to attract the notice of one of the overworked bartenders. The girl had won. Smoothly, John had used this opening to pay for her drink and his. Smoothly, the girl had said thank you, flashed her pearlies and extricated herself.

"American girls," John had said to no one in particular. I was there to hear it, though, and said I agreed as the bartender took my order for a Tsing Tao and presented John with a pinkish martini in a frosted glass. The drink was gay as a trivet, yet somehow suited him with his dark two-piece, fake accent, fake everything. No matter their pedigree, martinis suit anyone who holds them right -- and John handled his like James Bond's insanely jealous younger brother.

The crush was not the sort that Mao had attracted on any given weekday during its first month, or any weekend in its second. Those nights had been wild and extreme, humming with a live-wire buzz that let you know the minute you walked through Mao's grand front doors that you were somewhere, that you were entering the city's hot spot du jour, that this was the place, the moment, to be Denver-hip and Denver-pretty in a spot far more South Beach than Cherry Creek. Those nights had been a frivolous put-on of luxury and money, with girl-on-girl softcore on the flat-screen TVs (soon replaced by Hong Kong chop-socky kung fu flicks), eighty-year-old Captains of Industry bouncing the nineteen-year-old-daughters of trophy mistresses on their knees in the main dining room, and the leering portrait of a mass-murdering Socialist despot gazing out fondly over the heads of all the children of the revolution. Sure, the menu was a joke, the appetizers had tasted like rewarmed Applebee's, and I'm pretty sure I was nearly poisoned by the sushi -- but in those first months, no one was at Mao for the food.

By the time I returned on this Saturday night in mid-March, things had changed. Some. No longer the newest, no longer the hottest of hot spots, Mao still had a respectable four-month crush at the bar. The crowd was youngish and pretty, the fellas in their Saturday-night best, the ladies all catwalk fine, the mob dotted here and there with elder Creeksters still digging the luxe. But what had been an over-the-top freak show of blatant excess and bad behavior had mellowed, and now -- whether you were at the bar or settled in one of the high-backed red-leather booths or sitting at a dining-room table beside a floor-to-ceiling window with its view of nothing more impressive than the Village Inn across Columbine Street -- Mao felt like a very luxurious, very well-appointed restaurant where something naughty could happen at any moment. Not a very luxurious, very well-appointed, laser-lit, members-only Chinese swingers' bar where something naughty is actually happening right behind you. It was an improvement: In public places, potential naughty is always going to be better than actual naughty, unless, of course, the naughty is happening to you.

Anyway, it was a big enough crowd that it was easier to stay put than try to fight my way out. Which meant staying next to John for the time being. Which meant making friends.

"I.T.? Really?" he asks. "Where at?"

"Schwab," I say, thinking of the office I passed on my way into Mao. Turns out John-No-Last-Name, John the super-spy with the in-and-out accent, is an I.T. guy, too, at some company whose name means nothing to me. Now he wants to know if I like working for Schwab. I smile big, say sure, say it's better than not working at all, right? John wants to know if they're hiring and apologizes bashfully for the fake accent, which he says works a surprising amount of the time. "I'm working on it," he says. "Girls hear it and they're done."

 

I lean close, confess that sometimes I tell girls I'm a restaurant critic.

"That won't work," he says.

John's right.

Finishing my beer, I leave John and my prime seat at the bar and make for the sushi zone -- an interstitial stop between booze bar and dining room. This is where Ed the I.T. Guy's business gets dangerous. This is where his night has the potential to take a very ugly turn. Back in January, I'd had a phenomenally bad piece of sushi here -- a special, an icefish hand roll, glistening pearlescent white inside its nori wrapper, tasting like old pennies dipped in kerosene. One taste was one too many, but that was two months ago, and now it's time to try again. Still, Ed is worried.

A server stops by, so I ask, "What's good? What should I absolutely not miss?" I'm holding the menu -- Mao's little red book -- open to the sushi selections, and he reaches over my shoulder and turns the page for me, away from the standard rolls and custom offerings toward the listings of sashimi.

"That," he says. No question. "That is very good."

"That," I say. "And some edamame. And another beer."

My server nods, vanishes, and soon that arrives. It's a simple, austere presentation of lustrous tuna on a plain white plate, topped with microgreens. There are six strips of fish, each cut with robotic precision so that when stacked on top of each other, Lincoln Log-style, they form a perfect square in the center of the plate. In one corner, there's a tiny pile of red caviar; in the other, a matching pile of black. The sashimi itself is painted with just a touch of sesame oil. With my chopsticks (Mao has great chopsticks -- not the cheap disposables, but nice ones fashioned from dark wood with pale inlays), I snap up a piece of fish, fold it over a tangle of greens, dot it with black roe and taste.

It's fantastic, the very fresh, slightly bitter greens and nutty, warm sesame oil playing off the fatty smoothness of the tuna without overpowering it, the roe bringing texture and a dim fishiness. I click away with my sticks until the plate is clean, then turn my attention to the bowl of edamame.

They've been sautéed, cooked fast in a mess of garlic, oil and chiles. On paper, that sounds like a great idea; in practice, it's a bad one for a couple of reasons. First, edamame come in pods, tough-skinned pods designed by nature to very effectively protect the delicate soybeans inside from the sun, from the rain, and from things like being sautéed with garlic and chiles. Instead, the pods themselves are crusted with spices, look and smell wonderful, but none of that wonderfulness gets anywhere near the beans inside. They pop out of their shells naked, tasting exactly like soybeans to which nothing whatsoever has been done. Talk about a wasted effort: The kitchen has done the equivalent of herb-crusting a lobster still in the shell.

And that leads to the second serious problem with this dish: getting to the beans. This means picking up the pods, and that means all the garlic and oil and red-chile powder and whatnot ends up on your fingers. You wipe your fingers on your napkin, the napkin goes back in your lap, and now you've got garlic and oil and red-chile powder and what-not all over the crotch of your best party pants. A simple solution would have been finger bowls. A simple solution would have been cocktail forks and a red-chile-and-garlic dip for beans already taken out of the shell. A simple solution would have been a little forethought, but now it's too late. And brother, no matter how good your fake British accent, the ladies just aren't gonna go for a fella with a red-chile-garlic dick.

I'd experienced Mao's thoughtlessness before. When I'd dropped in earlier in the week to check out the lunch menu, I'd enjoyed excellent service in a space that appears only marginally less sexy in the daylight. But my burger was only a burger, food without adjectives, a singular object to which the kitchen had given little thought. The next day, I came back for a twenty-dollar lobster club sandwich that, again, sounded lovely and decadent on the menu, but on the plate was good lobster meat with bad wilted field greens turned black from the hot oil leaking off the burned bacon, all on dry ciabatta -- no mayo, no remi, no nada -- crusted with choking amounts of flour. It was a terrible sandwich, and the only explanation I could come up with for it still being served in that form was that no one in the kitchen had thought about what it would look (or taste) like by the time it made it to the dining room.

 

My next visit is for dinner -- formal, sit-down, no messing with the bar at all. On a Tuesday night, Mao is still drawing a good crowd, but even without reservations, my friend Sam and I are seated immediately. Our table is on the upper deck, on a riser that allows us to look down imperiously on the hair plugs and factory-installed cleavage below us.

Service is smooth even if Sam and I aren't. We order in staggered flights, bopping around the menu, confusing things by mixing up apps and salads, entrees and noodles and drinks. So one minute we're sampling crisp Imperial rolls, the next sushi, the next stunningly beautiful desserts that taste exactly as good as they look, the next pad thai -- which is dry and boring, a jumbled mess of slippery noodles, nuts, meat and veggies. It's like a bad party full of guests who've never met before and don't get along very well once they do. Each bite tastes exactly like every one of its constituent parts, and never is there that elevation of flavor that comes in good pad thai (or good anything) after the elements have all been nicely introduced to each other and become fast friends. The Imperial rolls are better, deep-fried in very thin wrappers and filled with mild spiced pork and fat chunks of shrimp. They come with a nutless, fishless nuoc mam knockoff that's all watered-down vinegar and citric sting, and crisp leaves of butter lettuce to wrap the rolls in. I eat them all.

That's fine with Sam, who's a Buddhist and doesn't eat meat. He's also a Socialist and is pissed off by the pictures of Chairman Mao on the wall, projected on the ceiling, everywhere. There's a brief bio of his Chairmanness on the back page of the menu -- a brilliant bit of spin that plays up Mao's good points (he was a revolutionary, a problem-solver who united China, a gourmand and apparently a snappy dresser, to boot) while glossing smoothly over the bad (he was a short, fat sociopath responsible for the deaths of 25 million people) -- and Sam is reading it, loudly, with the condescending cadence of a sixth-grade history teacher facing a classroom full of paste-eaters.

Odd for a Socialist, Sam likes nice restaurants and comes to eat with me a lot. And odd for a Buddhist, for a moralistic vegetarian, he eats fish. I ask him why. A fish is a living thing, isn't it? Did the Buddha not like fish?

"Fish don't count," he declares. "A fish is the same as a carrot. Plus, I can't stand tofu, and I have to eat something."

That's good enough for me. I flag down our server and we order fish. Lots of fish. And some seaweed, so the fish will feel at home. While I'm ordering, Sam spots someone he knows in the crowd and flags her over. Join us? Why, of course. Is there room? We'll make room.

Two more servers and a busboy arrive, and we're transferred with efficient smoothness from our little table to a large booth along the wall. Drinks and plates follow us across the room, new places are set, and more food and drinks are tacked onto our order. The staff handles this sudden, unexpected complication without missing a step, greeting each fresh request with cool politeness. They've been broken in well these past couple of months. Nothing throws them.

When the entrees arrive, we pass them round and round. We eat hibachi-grilled salmon -- flaky, but cooked to death -- in a sauce that's all creamy and glossy and too delicate to fend for itself on a plate overcrowded with things that aren't salmon or sauce, like a mound of wasabe mashed potatoes under the fish and a confetti drift of shredded cabbage in several very busy colors on top. We share rich, butter-poached lobster, served curled like a pair of quotation marks on a bed of green-tea risotto with edamame (this time sans shells). It's a pretty color, but it tastes like plain risotto tinted green -- St. Patrick's Day risotto. The halibut is the best of the lot -- a good piece of fish, greasy but treated well by the kitchen, kicked up and sweetened with a miso glaze.

 

We keep passing until we get tired, and then, abandoning all manners, we just reach, mixing and matching our favorite bits. Sam has proclaimed the lobster too rich for his Socialist politics, so he eats the halibut. His friend finishes off the risotto, leaving all the soybeans neatly lined up on the edge of the plate. I eat only the wasabe mashers from the plate of salmon that ended up in front of her. The only thing we fight over is the martini glass full of seaweed, stacked like a napoleon in variegated shades of green, from jade to nori, and touched with just the lightest whisper of sweet miso dressing. This is good. No, not just good. It's great. Intelligent, expressive, creative, simple but beautiful -- the kind of dish that should be every dish on the menu, because a kitchen and a chef capable of such balanced taste and restrained weirdness on one plate ought to be able to do the same for all of them.

Only this kitchen can't, or won't, or is maybe still so wrapped up in the idea of trying to create a cuisine fit for these regal surroundings that it has yet to see how food should define space, not the other way around.

Still, when our waiter comes with the bill and asks how everything was, we say it was great. We all nod. We all smile.

Liars, aren't we all.

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miles
Mao Asian Bistro and Sushi - Closed

201 Columbine St.
Denver, CO 80206

303-377-5350


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