Life and Death

Open invitation: The 9th Door is a welcome addition to Denver's tapas restaurants.
Mark Manger

I love zombie movies. Of all the filmmakers in the world, I feel the most kinship with the guys who make zombie movies -- freakish, obsessive man-children who know how to guiltlessly tell a ripping good yarn and who never got over that visceral thrill of being fourteen-year-old boys, up past their bedtimes, scaring the crap out of themselves watching the Monster Chiller Horror Theatre double-bill at home on a Saturday night. And of all the monsters out there -- vampires, mummies, wolf men, Karl Rove, Godzilla in his many incarnations -- I've always found that the living dead make the most satisfying stories. As a matter of fact, I can't think of many Hollywood classics that wouldn't be improved by the addition of a zombie or two. Titanic would've been a much more tolerable movie had Leonardo DiCaprio become zombie chow in the first ten minutes. And Citizen Kane? No one can tell me that an army of zombies wouldn't have livened up the third reel.

From Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (the original zombie-with-a-heart-of-gold story) to George Romero's brain eaters, from 28 Days Later (where I spent the whole movie rooting for the zombies to eat poor, pasty Cillian Murphy and put both of us out of our misery) to Shaun of the Dead (funniest zombie movie ever), I've never found a tale of the undead life that I didn't like.

And that includes the story behind The 9th Door.

The 9th Door -- which opened in LoDo a few months ago to surprisingly little foodie fanfare, despite having the name of Belgian-born and West Coast-trained Michel Wahaltere, former Esquire magazine "Best New Restaurant" award-winner, all over it -- is proof positive that nothing beloved ever really dies in the restaurant industry. Not as long as there's one guy out there willing to pick up the shovel, rob a few graves, and bring the dead back to life.

The 9th Door has a bed in the middle of the dining room. This trick has been tried before at pseudo-sexy boîtes across the country, usually to disastrously bad effect. But this bed is one of the best tables in the house, and almost always has a wait. People lounge here, eat and drink with their glasses set on nightstands and plates on the sideboards. The rest of the décor is run-of-the-mill rustic urbanism with a lot of exposed brick and ductwork. But the color palette -- earthtones coddled by dim lights, accented by the occasional splash of hypersaturated color -- and the gauzy curtains hung between seating areas, make the place a dead-ringer for Triana, a Boulder restaurant that met an ignoble and undeserved death a couple years back and is still mourned by many Colorado diners, myself included. The bar, with its expansive real estate and crowds of beautiful people packed three-deep during prime time, reminds me of the long oak at Vesta Dipping Grill a few doors away, and the menu is serious Weird Science, a Frankenstein's monster of best bites and great plates assembled from the boards of some of Denver's most noteworthy houses, both living and dead.

Am I accusing the 9th Door of outright thievery? Hell, no. If chefs and owners nicking good ideas off each other suddenly became a sin, we'd all be damned. As with any good zombie movie, you can't allow paltry questions of morality to trip up the action, and there's action to spare at the 9th Door.

I'd had Wahaltere's food before, at Moda, a bad experiment in reverse-ergonomics where everything was twice as uncomfortable as necessary and nothing seemed to fit the way it should. But the mid-range Italian food could be surprisingly good. I had red sauces he did there that managed the high-wire trick of being both smooth and pointedly savory; compound whites which, in their intensive application of butter and cream, held together like velvet. So I knew Wahaltere could cook, or at least make a menu and train a staff, because he's one of those Euro-style chefs who spreads his influence thin, consulting and managing across many houses. And when he bailed out of Moda (due to some mystery health issues, according to the PR spin), I knew the joint was doomed.

Wahaltere quickly signed on to give six months to the 9th Door, and while he went far and wide to acquire parts for this tapas restaurant, the one grave he didn't rob is the one where Moda lies. When you're bringing to life a multifarious creature like this, you want to work with parts that are fresh. Or if not fresh, at least really, really pretty.

And if the bodies you're plundering aren't even dead yet, all the better. Anyone who's ever watched a zombie movie knows that the living -- and preferably the healthy, the active, the beloved -- make the best living dead. To wit, the alcachofas a la Plancha -- fried artichoke hearts served with lemon aioli. Sean Kelly made a name for himself with a plate like this at Aubergine and reincarnated it at Somethin' Else. But here, rather than using piles of baby 'chokes like Kelly, the kitchen pulls the hearts from full-grown artichokes, slices them into flat planks, browns them perfectly in the pan to maintain their nutty savor, and serves them with a side of stingingly citric aioli. Wahaltere also put patatas bravas on the 9th Door menu, but while Kelly's sliced white potatoes come in a paprika ménage-à-trois, here you get a deep bowl of paprika-spiced, sliced, fried potatoes with a ménage of dipping sauces -- Spanish cabrales blue cheese, another aioli and a blazing romesco resuscitated from the old French Riviera cruise-ship menus of the 1960s.  

The 9th Door's pimientos del piquillo rellenos are what every ugly chain restaurant and bowling alley was shooting for when they started offering jalapeno poppers, but this plate is saved from ignominy because the roasted piquillo peppers are stuffed with murky, sour-sweet goat cheese, Spanish Serrano ham and spikes of piney rosemary. Everybody does albondigas these days -- veal meatballs in varying densities and sizes, from golf to tennis ball -- but the 9th Door's are better, served in a light, almost-but-not-quite creamed tomato sauce with an edge of spice, and accompanied by a big basket of bread that can sop up the rest of the sauce. This kitchen has a special gift for handling the saucier's ladle and an almost French obsession with sauces, and the success of most plates hinges on their proper construction followed by their proper application: rarely too much, never too little.

On a hot Friday night, I eat Serrano ham, fried into the shape of potato chips, topped with an overwhelmingly large slab of membrillo (quince jam) and manchego cheese, followed by another plate of more manchego and Serrano, this time mounted on garlic-tomato bread dusted with coarse salt. I have grilled asparagus spears wrapped in still more Serrano and served drizzled with more cabrales blue cheese sauce. There is repetition here, but to a purpose. Serrano ham is good. Manchego cheese is good. Why not use them as often as possible?

The next night I try ensaladilla -- Spanish potato salad with asparagus, red peppers and slices of hard-boiled egg. The couple at the next table dissect their salad with knives, separating out each component, and then eat only the asparagus. I want to ask if I can eat their leftovers, but am distracted by the arrival of my next flight. The calamares, or fried baby squid, are tasty, slightly chewy, with both tomato and romesco sauces. The pinchos morunos is the only out-and-out dull plate of all my visits: skewered pork chunks with a pedestrian honey-barbecue sauce.

Nothing offered here hasn't been done before -- occasionally better, often worse -- at a dozen, two dozen, a hundred other houses. The industry is full up with tapas restaurants right now, but for all its hipness, the 9th Door is highly traditional, its menu full of classics prepared in styles abandoned by other kitchens that seem to find misplaced satisfaction in trying to fix something that isn't broken. Here, Wahaltere's kitchen never strays far from the Arabian, Moorish, Greek and European influences that shaped the cuisine of Spain over centuries. And the 9th Door actually went to the trouble of tying its fortunes to a historic tapas joint in Mijas, on Spain's Costa del Sol. "During the summer of 1969," the menu notes, "after having been made famous by James Michener's novel The Drifters, Mijas had become an expatriate community of writers and poets. On lazy afternoons, these expats would gather at their favorite bar -- one without a name, recognizable only by the number nine that was carved into the door. Behind the ninth door, they would imbibe on the local wine and brandy and share the tapas of the house, trading stories and reciting poetry to the local women until the early hours of the morning."

Personally, I can think of nothing quite so annoying as spending a few hours in a tapas bar crammed shoulder-to-shoulder with a mob of expat writers and artists all reading poetry at each other. And I'm sure the "local women" described in that passage were wondering where in the hell all these scruffy American scribblers had come from and, more important, when they would be going back. But if the crowds gathered here on Friday and Saturday nights are any indication, I don't think our version of the 9th Door is in any immediate danger of being overrun by poets.  

During prime time, the bar is packed with LoDo barhoppers getting happy-drunk on caipirinhas and sweet, iced red sangria ladled out of a huge jar set on the bar; the tables loaded up with millionaire loft-dwelling urbanistas and moneyed twenty-somethings dropping large chunks of change on flight after flight of small plates. I never heard a conversation revolving around anything more artistic than the eyebrow-waxing strategies of Frida Kahlo -- and yes, I know she was Mexican, but I doubt that many in the crowd could tell the difference between the national origin of the Spanish tortilla a la Española egg-and-potato omelette served here and the huevos rancheros on the menu at the local Denny's. Not once did I see anyone reaching for his Emily Dickinson or Wallace Stevens, but I did get a nice offer from a guy working the corner on Monday night when I stepped outside for a smoke between courses: cut-rate tickets to the Rockies game already under way down the street, or a sticky rabbit turd of opium-spiked hash if baseball wasn't my thing.

And though I am the romantic sort, even after four or five tall glasses of tinta de verona (cheap red wine mixed with orange Fanta, a combination making a serious bid to take the perfect summer drink crown away from the mojito), I didn't feel any urge to start spouting off lines from T.S. Eliot (the only poet whose work I've committed to memory, and the only one whose words are guaranteed to impress no woman into taking her clothes off). However, I will admit that by the end of the night I did feel rather like a patient etherized upon my table.

In adapting the theme of drunken, lazy, artistic Spanish dining, the 9th Door has deliberately painted itself into a good culinary corner -- forcing the kitchen to stay true to the influences of Spanish cuisine and the bar to the ideal of fully-tanked Spanish drinking habits. Perhaps the best trick Wahaltere and company borrowed in their creation of this eatery was the near-magical ability of some restaurants to generate a constant buzz in the frisson between a casual, comfortable space and a kitchen capable of performing just above the expectations of their customers. Nearly every plate on this menu -- from the tiny fried balls of goat cheese drizzled in spiced honey on the happy-hour menu to the plate of gambas al ajillo among the tapas calientes that mixes garlic, chile pequin and huge shrimp in a tangle of aggressive yet complimentary flavors, to blood orange sorbet drizzled with chocolate sauce for dessert -- offers something unexpected, some combination of flavor and texture you never saw coming.

But then, that's the last, best trick of the zombie movie, too. You never see the monsters coming until they're right on top of you. And by then, it's too late. You're caught.

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The 9th Door

1808 Blake St.
Denver, CO 80202


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