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Night and Day

For a long time, restaurants have played a cruel game with diners, vacillating wildly between opposing schools of menu-writing theory. On one side are menus that seem compelled to describe in loving, verdant detail not only the basic ingredients in every dish, but the provenance of each ingredient -- where it was grown or bought, its age, social status ("heirloom," "virgin," "cured") and historic origin. Flowery eloquents are used to illustrate the plate's construction. Notes pertaining to the sociopolitical affiliations of the chef, owner or producer may be included, encoded in such phrasing as "organic" or "farm-raised." And God help you if the dish or sauce or garnish comes from an old family recipe; in those cases, the description can easily overtop a paragraph and begin to approach short-story length.

On the other side are the minimalists, the Hemingways of menu writing who conserve every word. Here, preparations are so economically and inadequately portrayed that you could easily order a plain green salad and be presented with a plate of mixed bitter leaves in a peach-Velveeta dressing surrounded by crisp bits of whale blubber and studded with bacon-wrapped olive pits. Complain about the hog-knuckle tapenade in the middle, and the chef will tell you that's how he's always made his salads, and it goes without saying that his greens will always come over a grilled pork chop.

But at Gelman's Gourmet Market and Bistro, the lunch menu retains a certain dignified poise, holding steady between these two schools. It's comforting rather than complicated -- despite the overwhelming number of sandwiches and salads, soups du jour and specials, flatbread pizza and pastries and baked goods. There's almost too much to choose from on this menu, and in a weird reversal of the usual rule -- whereby quantity generally denotes crushing mediocrity -- almost everything looks good.

On our first visit, we ordered several sandwiches. And soup. And a couple of salads (the chicken cutlet was the best -- very fresh, dotted with sliced mozzarella and served with a good balsamic vinegar). Plus baked goods.

Instead of mysterious fines herbes pastries buttressed by tuilles or braces of pulled sugar, Gelman's offers cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats and cookies. The sandwiches occupy that tricky middle ground between East Coast deli classics and West Coast lunchmeat ingenuity, their descriptions simple but not boring and blessedly easy to translate into an impression of what the finished item might taste like. Gelman's does three different roast beef sandwiches: beef with horseradish and banana peppers, barbecued beef served hot, and a wonderful version with roast beef on buttery, chewy, grilled rustic bread with caramelized onion, Asiago and rosemary aioli. There's a hot pastrami -- the classic interpretation with pastrami, Swiss cheese and yellow mustard on grilled rye bread -- and the scallion pastrami, with lettuce, tomato and scallion cream cheese. The very Californian chicken-and-asparagus sandwich could be disconcerting at first bite -- if the menu didn't plainly state that both bacon and cream cheese are included in the sandwich, and that the cream cheese is actually whipped up with more bacon and more asparagus.

We ate as much as we could, sitting by the windows at the front of the colorful, angular, casual-but-high-gloss dining room, left pretty much alone with our overabundant lunch while a slow parade of neighbors and friends came and went, looking for takeout, for a salad, for a glass of wine at the counter/bar. Some stopped to say hello to members of the Gelman family or the gaggle of kids who wandered around. The place had a nice vibe, very cool and neighborly, very come-as-you-are, and we had a good time.

When we were finally finished, Laura and I had the balance of our ridiculously large lunch wrapped in white butcher's paper for the road. On our way out the door, I grabbed a dinner menu, perusing it as we crunched through the leaves in the parking lot. The Gelmans moved here from Boston, and their eastern-seaboard roots are reflected in the menu's fish and chips, fried clams, simple Italian dishes, burgers and chicken parm sandwiches. Being an East Coast restaurant brat myself, my eye was drawn to these dishes -- as well as the Saturday special of five-dollar pitchers of draft PBR and three-buck house margaritas. We made plans to come back one Saturday evening.

The Gelmans opened their place early this year, calling it a "Gourmet Market and Bistro." People can call their businesses whatever they want these days, because -- as with menu-writing -- naming conventions have also broken down. I've been to trattorias that serve burritos and Mexican loncheras with egg rolls on the board. I've been to cafes that are only open for dinner, fish houses where the only edible thing is a cheeseburger, and diners where the meatloaf is deconstructed into three meatballs rolled in dry potatoes and served in a puddle of brown beef stock. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before every boulangerie starts selling soft-serve ice cream, chicken wings and Shanghai noodle soup. I've already seen markets where two shelves of dusty, dry pasta and some T-shirts were the only stock for sale -- but Gelman's has taken the concept to new levels of abstraction, planting pyramids made of boxed DeCecco penne and cans of extra-virgin olive oil on shelves up near the ceiling, where they are neither reachable nor for sale, and at night placing bottles of wine on every table that are removed as soon as drinks are served.

And as a bistro? Well, that's where the trouble starts -- late in the day, when Gelman's unwisely throws off all the plainspoken simplicity of the lunch menu, dims the lights, lays out the cloth napkins and magically makes all the uncomplicated descriptions and easy comfort disappear. At lunch and then at dinner, Gelman's is like two completely separate restaurants, split along the meridian, existing in the same space but bearing almost no relation to each other. If the transformation from very good neighborhood soup-and-sandwich lunch spot to one-off yuppie-trap martini bar weren't so disappointing, I'd think it miraculous. The difference is literally night and day.

Our dinner started out with a waitress -- very friendly and accommodating in all other ways -- who had absolutely no idea what Laura and I were talking about when we mentioned the drink specials. Despite the fact that they were listed on the bottom of the menu, displayed on the counter and written on the dry-erase board by the front door, she looked at us like we were trying to get away with something.

When Laura asked about the house marg, the waitress tried to get her a martini off the list of dozens of specialty martinis from the bar. We didn't bother pointing out that nobody in their right mind would screw with the mathematical perfection of a classic martini by adding sour mix, lemonade or butterscotch schnapps -- because Laura hadn't asked for a martini. Laura doesn't drink martinis. She drinks tequila. I'm the martini drinker in the family and loathe nearly any version not constructed of gin, gin, gin and an olive.

We gave up and, out of morbid curiosity, ordered a Mandarin Blossom martini, because this bar seemed to be on a single track and unwilling to derail. Not surprisingly, it tasted like floral mouthwash laced with orange juice and simple syrup. It was so innocuous it should have come with training wheels and a helmet.

When assembling its appetizer lineup, Gelman's inexplicably tossed aside any semblance of its East Coast regional/neighborhood character. For no good reason other than it could, the kitchen mixed influences with harebrained abandon, cramming Mediterranean olives and roasted garlic cloves alongside chips and guac, nachos, chicken satay, teriyaki shrimp, indestructible bacon-wrapped scallops and a cheese plate. The peanut sauce served with the chicken satay was good, but the chicken was charred like a burn victim, and the "jalapeño cucumber salad," listed in the menu was, well... Look, when something is described as a "salad," I don't think it's unreasonable to expect it to arrive bearing at least a passing resemblance to a salad. It could be a slaw, a wedge, even a relish. Or a pickle. At minimum, you'd expect it to be a solid.

But not this salad, which appeared as a small tin cup holding a clear liquid in which floated some rounds of sliced jalapeño. It tasted like spicy cucumber water, actually very good spicy cucumber water, but it wasn't a salad. Not even close.

I couldn't find teriyaki anything -- not a glaze, not a sauce, not so much as an essence -- on the teriyaki shrimp. But then, the shrimp were burned almost beyond recognition. The tails crumbled to a greasy black smudge when I picked them up, and the flesh tasted only of char. And the promised wasabi cream sauce was nothing but a Nagel squiggle on the hip rectangular plate, used only to give the scattering of totally pointless sesame seeds something to stick to.

The fried clams were undercooked, which was better than burned -- but only by a little. They'd been covered with a light cornmeal batter, too light to stand the fryer heat long enough for the clams to become anything more than lukewarm. The pasta in the chicken puttanesca was also underdone -- but amazingly, every other individual element in this rubbery dish had been overcooked by about ten minutes.

The kitchen had done an okay job cooking the fried chicken -- but it had also slipped in some ginger, which I didn't appreciate. Yes, the ginger had been mentioned on the menu, but not emphasized. At least, not enough. There should've been more warning. The menu description should have shouted, in all caps, something like "fried chicken WITH MOTHERFUCKING GINGER and mashed potatoes."

Fried chicken by itself is a wonderful thing. Fried chicken with ginger is just fried chicken with ginger. In other words, wrong.

On return visits, we found that the kitchen is capable of making very good french fries when it wants to. The burgers are solid workhorses, and the flatbread pizzas, of all things, are superb. The pesto with artichoke hearts is commendable, the fresh basil and tomato a wonder of forthrightness, and the pancetta so good that it immediately moved into my top ten pizzas in the city -- especially when there's some left for breakfast the next morning.

But if you don't have any cold flatbread pizza at home, Sunday brunch at Gelman's is another time when the kitchen skips the weird experimentalism and does what it does best: cooks simple food that real people actually want to eat.

When we dropped by one Sunday, the floor was crammed with customers knocking back espressos and cups of loose-leaf tea, reading newspapers and eating bagels with smoked salmon, breakfast burritos, chilaquiles, basic American fry-ups of eggs, thick-cut and fatty bacon, toast and mounds of golden potatoes. The challah French toast is lovely just to look at -- like a glossy centerfold in my dream magazine, Breakfast Arts Weekly -- and served with whatever fruits and nuts the kitchen has on hand (bananas and walnuts one day, berries the next). And the eggs Benny are superb. There are two versions: one with a mustardy hollandaise over poached eggs that break across fat baby crabcakes in a killer display of pure luxurious excess, the other pairing asparagus, smoked ham and poached eggs with a complicated asparagus/bacon cream sauce that the kitchen pulls off brilliantly -- showing more talent than I would've thought possible after tasting its blackened faux-teriyaki shrimp briquettes and puttanesca brusciato alla pollo di gomma.

Now if Gelman's can just find something useful to do with that cucumber water, it might have something. I'm thinking maybe a martini...

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Gelman's Gourmet Market and Bistro - Closed

2911 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211

303-458-1163

www.gelmansrestaurant.com