We have reservations for dinner -- just the two of us, prime time on a Saturday night -- but we don't need them. Three months to the day after the opening of Nine75 -- the high-gloss, high-concept, locationally challenged and oh-so-eager-to-please cafe/bistro that took over the former home of the disastrous Moda -- there's a hole in the middle of its dining room that's as big as its expectations.
The restaurant isn't empty, by any means. Four-tops fill the black-on-black banquette stretching the length of the far wall; deuces and ungainly triples are bunched at the weird, combination community table/chef's table/picnic table set just a few feet back from the glaringly bright, antiseptic box of a show kitchen where chef-owner Troy Guard, sous chef Ian Kleinman and a shifting, bouncing, ever-changing mix of brigadiers in spotless white jackets and ChefWear checks do a clumsy sort of box waltz, struggling to find a rhythm in this half-committed night. But the heart of the place -- all set for service, with the silver rolled and the Isaac-Mizrahi-for-Target plates with their big, colorful flowers arranged just so -- is hollow.
Nine75 has had it rough from the start, since before the doors opened, since before it was even conceived. The space that would someday be its home was built into the Tenth Avenue side of the double-barreled Beauvallon complex, with picture windows in the back bar/lounge space looking down on the grubby overflow parking lot for Gart Sports, Westword's roof and a gas station. The dining room is up front, with a narrow hallway linking it to the lounge; the kitchen is suspended in the middle, with storerooms and a pantry through a door off the bar, requiring cooks and busboys to walk out of the galley and through the service area to fetch bags, boxes and tubs of shredded cheese. When this was Moda, the floor plan was crippling, seemingly designed to make every dining experience as uncomfortable as possible -- an abortive concept in a space that wanted to be a tanning salon, a barbershop, a wine bar at best.
But then real-estate developer Jim Sullivan (who'd already opened Mao in Cherry Creek) stepped in, changing the place to Nine75 and installing Guard as chef and partner. Recently married to Sullivan's daughter Leigh (who handles PR and promotion for the family's restaurant business), Guard came with a resumé that put him in the stratosphere of Denver chefs. He'd done time in New York under Roy Yamaguchi, been airlifted out of the Hotel Raffles in Singapore by Richard Sandoval to work the burners at Tamayo and open Zengo here in the Mile High, and he had a proven skill for making the absolutely ridiculous (like Zengo's Latino-Asian fusion menu) work like natural magic.
There was nothing that Sullivan or Guard, or anyone short of God, could do about the physical backwardness of 975 Lincoln Street, but they did try to warm it up and give it some downtown funk. Hence the music -- all shattered and jumbled-up hits from the '80s, and way more Frank Sinatra than I would expect at a place without a single pasta on the menu. Hence the black paint and soft, buttery woods, the gauzy copper curtains that soften the view out back, and the cool leather couches meant for chilling with a Cosmo or one of the crew's custom cocktails: Ovaltine martinis (a goddamn crime against nature) and drinks made with Tang. Hence the small army of servers skilled at deciphering the all-things-for-all-people menu that includes much more than the "simple food" Guard initially promised: raw-bar delicacies, small plates, large plates, specials, a couple of sandwiches, two soups, three salads, separate sides, desserts, entrees and an entreaty from the chef that everything there is meant for sharing, passing and trading.
A cute, beaming hostess wearing low-cut black house livery and a green trefoil tattoo in the center of her chest greets us. Despite all the empty space in the center of the dining room, she leads us to the worst table in the house -- a two-top in the hallway directly opposite the kitchen's side door. We're offered water -- bottled, fizzy or "Chef Troy's Fusion Water," a sweating glass pitcher with sliced strawberries and cucumbers floating in the water. We go with the fusion, which is refreshing despite its idiotic name. We joke about the music, singing along with Journey, with Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)" until it fades away into something instrumental and awful we don't recognize.
A waitress materializes the moment we've settled in behind our menus, and we order a first round of food: barbecued baby-back ribs that come slathered in sweet sauce, a half-dozen of them stacked up on a plain white plate like Lincoln Logs, and the house-special ceviche shooters, made with yellowtail and mango in a spicy broth, served in shot glasses set in a bowl of ice lit from below with tiny lightbulbs. Laura and I attack the ribs -- the fat crackly, the meat tender -- with our bare hands, trying to ignore the constant passage of servers back and forth between the bar and the dining room, the constant opening and closing of the frosted-glass kitchen door.
After taking the worst edge off my hunger, I survey the floor again, and it suddenly strikes me that all those tables along the perimeter of the dining room are filled with AARP members, white-haired men in golf shirts, well-preserved ladies with cheekbones like terraced vineyards. The floorman in his immaculate black suit and tie is working the room, shaking hands, smiling all the way back to his earlobes, and he seems to know every single person by name. As do most of the servers. And some of the cooks.
I ask Laura to look around and tell me what strikes her as odd about the room. She gets it immediately: We're the youngest customers by twenty years, easy, thirty in most cases, with one very obvious exception. There's a single table of a half-dozen Golden Triangle hipsterati and Capitol Hill pretties (a bleached-blond girl with tattoos and a nose ring, a couple of club kids, young and fashionable) set front and center in the dining room, visible through all the windows, the first table you'd see when approaching the hostess stand. But everyone else -- or anyway, nearly everyone else -- probably didn't need to walk more than a block to get here. They're regulars, mostly residents of the Beauvallon.
And although the ratio will change as the night rolls on -- with a few parties making their way to the bar in the back for snacks and candy-flavored girl drinks, and a couple more tables in front going to late-arriving deuces -- the heart of the place will never fill, those center-stage seats being held out for a crowd that steadfastly refuses to materialize.
Nine75 has yet to catch fire with the group it's obviously courting. The look, the feel, the menu and the music all appear tailored to that deeply ironic and disaffected market segment of cash-heavy thirty-somethings who'd get a laugh out of eating fine-dining potato skins and entrees with names like "Miso (excited about this) Black Cod" while listening to cut-down versions of the greatest hits of their misspent youths. The restaurant is deliberately designed to appeal precisely to the demographic into which I have recently slipped -- and it's populated by almost none of my supposed peer group.
That's the emptiness here, and finally recognizing what strikes me as so off about Nine75, I start chattering at Laura, who's working her way through a plate of chicken-pot-pie empanadas sauced with a yin-yang tarn of blazing red curry offset by a creamy white cracked-pepper sauce. She listens patiently for a moment, fork stalled halfway to her mouth, doing a poor job of pretending that she cares about my sudden wildcat lesson in applied consumer demography. I stop to take a breath. She narrows her eyes, points at the ceviche shooters.
"Shut up and drink your fish," she says.
Since it seems that Nine75 was constructed, staffed, outfitted and provisioned just for us (or at least some market-researched more perfect version of us), we take full advantage, knocking back beautiful Kumamoto oysters from the raw bar and the brilliant "#1 ORIGINAL won ton tuna tacos" off the small-plates menu: four deep-fried mini-taco shells packed with white rice, flash-seared tuna and mango, mounted upright on daubs of tomatillo guacamole.
The meatloaf sucks. But I have yet to find a place claiming to do modern comfort food or New American whatever that serves a meatloaf as good as any made by any greasy spoon in America. You'd think by now that all the smart young chefs would have figured out that meatloaf is an inviolate culinary icon that can't be improved no matter how many shiitake mushrooms, gallons of veal demi or fancy ketchup are thrown at it. But they haven't. Nine75's version is a grill-marked brick of meat, dense enough to balance the gimp leg on a wobbly table, and oddly flavorless once all the mushrooms and gravy are scraped off. But the garden vegetables on the side have been both steamed and grilled without either station botching them. The mashed potatoes, although lukewarm, are admirably plain -- not infused with anything, not whipped to death, not assaulted with garlic cloves or wasabi. And the french fries are excellent, twice-fried like pommes frites and crusted with a frost of sugar, Spanish style, and served spilling out the top of a paper-lined springform.
When our waitress comes by with my plate of Kobe-beef sliders -- three White Castle-sized burgers each dressed with a single pickle, a single leaf of lettuce, a single dab of strong mustard -- I almost laugh because they look so sad sitting all alone on their pretty glass plate. But then I taste them, and they're singularly amazing -- so tender and juicy and flavorful and full of that carnivorous savor of eating fat and blood and meat that I'm finally sold on the notion that Kobe (even American faux Kobe) can be used to construct a proper burger, as long as it's both served and eaten with tongue firmly planted in cheek.
Later, socked in at the bar on a slow night, I will try the house's sashimi, some ravioli, and the roasted chicken with lemongrass and sister sauces -- one a delicate jus, the other a bittersweet sesame-soy. Served skin-on, boned out and over nothing more complicated than fresh green beans and sliced baby carrots bathed in chicken juice, it's one of the best chickens I've tasted and the only truly "simple" entree coming from the kitchen. The seafood ravioli may be the most complex, with handmade, seafood-stuffed, impossibly thin-skinned ravioli washed in a light, buttery cream sauce, then accented by swirls of infused oils and emulsions that -- by some miracle -- flavor each other without ever actually blending. It takes me three minutes to finish the bowl, three days to get over the flavor of this truly remarkable dish.
Still, every moment I'm in the dining room or the bar of Nine75, I get the feeling that I'm being manipulated, that I'm being marketed to, not catered to. The restaurant's obvious approach could simply stem from the fact that Nine75 is so young -- at just over three months, the youngest I've ever reviewed -- but the approach is also intentional. There's a plan, a motive behind everything, from the up-sell on the free "fusion water" to the music, the costumes, the seating arrangements and the careful mix of tastes and memories that flavor the menu. Even the phone number -- 975-0975 -- is a manipulation. And the name. They're deliberately designed so that no one can forget where they're going, how to get there, or where they are. But then Guard works his magic in the kitchen, and I find myself forgetting all about the gimmicks as the food piles up, pulling my focus back to the beautiful slip of yellowtail or mound of flawless greens in front of me.
This is a dining room with a hole at its heart -- a few covers to the good side of tragic, a few covers shy of real success. It's not going to take much to tip the scales one way or the other, and everyone here knows that. So they're trying hard tonight, and Nine75 will never be better than it is right now, never show more genius than it does at this moment.
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