At Grand Lux Cafe, the kitchen tries to cook a little bit of everything — the menu runs to over a hundred plates — and does almost nothing well. I don't blame the cooks for this sorry state of affairs. I mean, how could I? You walk into an Italian restaurant, you expect the guys in back to know how to make a carbonara, a piccata. You don't expect them to drop everything, turn around and knock out a perfect jambalaya or a Jamaican pork tenderloin with black-pepper jerk sauce and mango salsa. And yet at Grand Lux, that's precisely what these poor sons of bitches are expected to do every goddamn day. Weinerschnitzel. Hot dogs. Spring rolls. Kentucky hot brown. Frankly, I'm surprised the food wasn't worse, and that I didn't have to stop every two bites to pick bits of skull out of my chili from some poor, over-stressed and geographically freaked-out line dog who'd lost his shit and popped his cork mid-rush.
After my meals at Grand Lux, I needed a palate cleanser. So I called a guy who represents the polar opposite of the Overton business plan: Wayne Conwell, whose Sushi Sasa does just one thing — Japanese food — and does it extraordinarily well. (Sushi Sasa just picked up our Best Sushi Restaurant award for the second year running.) He and I spent a half-hour jabbering on like a couple of food geeks about everything from the scene in Portland, Oregon, and the state of sushi in Philadelphia (where Conwell trained under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto in his eponymous Philly digs) to how much the Citysearch restaurant listings suck. But mostly, we talked about Conwell's carefully plotted plans for the future of Sushi Sasa.
Here are some things you should know about Sushi Sasa (and those restaurant owners and chefs always complaining about the bad state of dining in Denver should listen up): Come July, the place will have been up and running for three years. When Sushi Sasa first opened its doors, most of the crowd was chefs and other food-service monkeys — word of mouth traveling fast about this guy who'd made his bones with one of the Iron Chefs and was doing all these crazy things with fish. "Kokoro bebop," was what Conwell called his style — a modern, jazzy interpretation of sushi that tweaked the classical Edo-mai presentations and focused heavily on the omakase (chef's choice) dining experience.
It wasn't long, though, before Sushi Sasa was packing the floor and seeing waits at the door of up to an hour during prime time. And two and a half years later, there are still waits for a table. Maybe not as often, and maybe not as long — but that's partly because of increased efficiency in the kitchen and speed on the floor. When I asked Conwell how his business was going, he put the phone aside for a minute while he shuffled papers, pulled up numbers and told me exactly how well it's going: 3.2 turns of an 82-seat dining room on a good night. Ten to twelve omakase menus — which run between eighty and a hundred bucks per person — served on a slow night, with a ceiling of about thirty when the floor is really rocking.
But Conwell's not content to hold there. Hitting those numbers was part of his plan from the beginning, as was a recent alteration in the special menu. "This was all mapped out long ago," Conwell told me. "This change? This phase two of the omakase thing? I knew about that from the day we opened."
On the surface, the changes do not seem that monumental. Conwell's bringing a French influence to some of the off-menu specials, adding his own palate cleansers. He's making ponzu-dashi jelly and using micro-herbs (which are deadly expensive); serving oyster with foie gras and quail egg, baked king crab wrapped in wasabi crepes with yuzu crème fraîche; offering sparkling sake with Japanese frozen yogurt as an intermezzo course and serving a carpaccio of bonito or amberjack, touched with a blond soy, as a first course.
"That reminds me," he said. "I've got to make more of that. We're out." There was another pause while he scribbled a note. "We finally reached a level where people had their stuff together enough," he explained, finally reached a level where he was confident that his guys understood what he wanted out of the original omakase menu. And as soon as they did understand, he knew it was time to change things up. "I'm very, very unforgiving at this point," Conwell said. "It's kinda like the Mafia here. Once you're a made man — once you prove to me you can execute 90, 95 percent of what I want — you can go off on your own a little. You can't change anything, you can't reverse anything, but you can do something better. That's what this is."
And now, just as Conwell's fish mob is starting to get comfortable with the new omakase, the new prep and product and presentation, he's plotting to change it up again. Conwell wouldn't tell me exactly what he had in mind, just that he already knows where he and Sasa will be going next.
"Once I'm comfortable that everyone is up there, that everyone is there with me, then..." His voice trailed off.
"Then what?" I asked.
"I'll tell you when we get there."
All in good time.
Fairy tale of New York: I spent a couple of days last week back in Manhattan having meetings and tracking the snail-like progression of my book, Whiskey Down, through the corridors of the publishing industry. Since the memoir-slash-confessional deals primarily with the years I spent as a no-account hash slinger and mercenary station chef, talking about it with a room full of civilians served to remind me (yet again) that while I may love chefs, their work, their lives and their language, not everyone else in the world does. There were moments, while discussing some particularly colorful scene or event from my own checkered past (like the door-to-door drug-delivery system in Florida kitchens or the guy I knew who fucked a chicken to death on a bet), when I was looked at like a strange dog who'd wandered into the office, sat down and started speaking French.
Still, while all of this cost me a few valuable days' worth of eating time in Denver, it also afforded me the opportunity to finally get my long-time-coming dinner at Le Bernardin.
I got to meet (albeit briefly) Le Bernardin's chef, Eric Ripert. I got to toss away the menu and have the kitchen just cook for me — whatever the chef chose, whatever was best that night. Me, my buddy East Coast Dave and his fiancée, Nikki, spent four hours having what was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience that, immediately afterward, I wanted to repeat all over again.
Which simply means that my book had better make me fucking ridiculously rich and famous. Because now that I've had Le Bernardin's sweet prawn-stuffed calamari, now that I've had the monkfish with truffled potato emulsion and lobster with sauce gribiche, I only want it more. I need to be in a position where I can just make a reservation, jump on a plane and be there in time for dinner, say, three nights a week.
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At this point, living any other way would simply be preposterous.
For those of you interested in a full run-down on my dinner with Eric (and Dave and Nikki), it's on our brand-spankin'-new dedicated food blog, Cafe Society, which can now be found right on the front page of our website, www.westword.com. While my From the Gut blog has been up and running for some time now, Cafe finally has its own little piece of real estate. A crash pad for gastronauts, Cafe Society is a place where Denver's food-obsessed can rub shoulders and catch up on the latest industry news and gossip or just screechy, ranting weirdness from yours truly. And I figure that a long piece about a long dinner at one of the greatest restaurants on the planet should kick things off nicely.
Leftovers: Barring any construction problems, Delite — the expansion of Deluxe, chef/owner Dylan Moore's restaurant at 30 South Broadway — is slated to open on May 14. Scott Durrah, chef/owner of 8 Rivers Cafe (3609 West 32nd Avenue), is in an expansive mood, too. He's opening a second restaurant, at 1550 Blake Street, probably by mid-July.