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Oyster Barred

I wound up reviewing Guadalajara (see review) after a couple of meals went completely to pieces. Both were at Corridor 44, the six-month-old champagne bar in Larimer Square, and they were so awful and uncomfortable and mind-bogglingly bad that, after the second disastrous visit, I realized I couldn't review the place until I figured out what the hell had gone wrong there.

Several things, it turned out, including a change in ownership that left the galley crew adrift without a chef and stuck with a poorly tested menu that was nothing more than a copycat rendition of every other second menu out there, put in place by a kitchen that had failed in its first attempt at originality and was now desperately trying to make up for it. The first menu was the creation of Eric Laslow -- the vaunted chef who'd moved here from Oregon, opened the place, trained the kitchen and instituted the initial mix of champagne and crudo (raw or mostly raw fish and meats, done in the style of Italian small plates). This second menu was also Laslow's work, and he'd (ostensibly) trained his crew in the preparation of it before bailing out of the kitchen altogether.

In its original incarnation, Corridor 44 was not a bad restaurant. The crudo style matched well with the image of a champagne bar -- small plates and sips of bubbly, clean flavors and all that jazz -- and while it might not have been the best menu I'd ever tasted, it was at least interesting. But the space was (and still is) oddly shaped, with a front bar with banquet seating tied to a room in back by a long corridor (hence the name). It looked like a French revivalist house with a series of interconnected living rooms -- which, all things considered, was not a bad thing to look like. And when Corridor 44 was drawing a crowd, it had a nice flow despite the barbell-ish design.

But now? Well, first, it's tough to have any kind of flow when there are only six people in a restaurant -- unless all of them agree to take their dinner walking, moving constantly from room to room like children lost in an airport, juggling flutes of champagne and artful cones of gourmet french fries. And second, those fries were the only thing on the menu I found to be edible other than the cheese plate -- which was more to the credit of the cows and sheep and cheesemakers than the cooks who only had to worry about cutting and plating.

When I had my first awful dinner there a couple of weeks ago, I made the mistake of ordering the macaroni and cheese. I had to know why a champagne bar -- which, by definition, should be a bastion of refinement and tasty nibbles -- would even think of serving mac-and-cheese, that most overwrought, overthunk and overdone New American gimmick, particularly since even the most hoity-toity version would never pair well with champagne. Cheeseburgers and champagne? Sure. Chocolate pudding and champagne? Absolutely. Mac-and-cheese, though, does nothing but coat the mouth with gobs of melted cheese and pasta starch, which -- when put in contact with French bubbly -- just turns to mud in the most unappetizing way. Even something monstrous like the Perrier Jouët brut I was drinking didn't have the muscle to cut through.

To make matters worse, this mac-and-cheese was not just heavy, but bad. Done in a creamy white sauce weighted with parmesan and studded with chunks of crabmeat, it tasted very good on the first bite, less good on the second, hauntingly nasty on the third and, after that, was like eating macaroni and crabmeat off a foot. If the kitchen had tested this plate (really tested it, checking how the flavor profile held up after the initial shock, how it tasted as the dish cooled, how the first bite compared with the last), the mac-and-cheese would never have made the menu. When I got Laslow on the phone last week, he admitted that by the time this second menu was being rolled out, his heart wasn't in it. In fact, he was still pissed about how the first menu had diverged from his initial concept. "It was a whitewashed, diminished version of what I wanted to do," he said. "I never felt like it was what I wanted to do. I've never cooked by committee before." And this second menu was rushed. "Sometimes new concepts need time to grow," he added. "This seemed to me like a reaction to just one bad month. And I don't know, I just feel like you've got to stick with the horse that brung you, you know?"

I didn't know all that when I returned to Corridor 44, but even so, I decided to stick with something the kitchen couldn't ruin: oysters. An order of four came served on the half-shell (one butchered by whoever was shucking them, then clumsily reassembled in the shell), with a lovely frozen lemon mignonette. No, the kitchen couldn't ruin these oysters -- because nature had already done a job on them, and one poisoned me.

An oyster is essentially a garbage eater, an animal that subsists on sucking in seawater and filtering out all the tasty little bits that come with it. But oysters, not being the brightest critters on earth, are indiscriminate in what they eat (much like restaurant critics, now that I think about it), so in polluted or heavily trafficked waters, or waters with high concentrations of certain chemicals, a small percentage of these garbage-suckers can become infected with a variety of neurotoxic substances that, when ingested, can just flat out fucking kill you.

These neurotoxins have no smell. They have no taste. They don't affect the look or shape of the meat inside the oyster shell or the sheen of the liquor. Writers of mysteries and thrillers are fond of using shellfish toxin as a murder weapon for these reasons. They're tricky for restaurants for the same reasons; the kitchen can't spot the bad ones. So eating oysters is a lot like playing Russian roulette using a gun with 10,000 chambers, only one of which is loaded. Your odds of hitting an empty one are very good, but with each oyster you eat, the odds shift infinitesimally in favor of the bang.

Now, I've eaten a lot of oysters in my time -- enough that I've become rather inured to their potential for murder (the only revenge they know). I've also drunk my share of champagne -- enough to know that I don't really have the head for it and ought to stop after about four glasses, because those little bubbles apparently do funny things to the Irish for which a lifetime of whiskey drinking leaves us woefully unprepared. But on this night, my number had evidently come up, because I knocked back one of those little bags of poison without even realizing it.

The first symptom of neurotoxic poisoning is a slight tingling or numbness in the lips or face. Unfortunately, that's also the same initial symptom (for me, anyway) of having drunk too much bubbly wine. I go all numb and tingly from the eyes down, like Jay McInerney on a coke binge. My nose itches. I have a tendency to pick fights with furniture or light fixtures.

The second indicator of having ingested a toxic dose of shellfish poison is a loss of balance and fine motor control. Ditto for drunkenness. The third is a kind of slurring lightheadedness and feeling of floating -- the terminal drift of neuronal misfires and a snarky lack of communication between chemically offended nerve endings. Again, same for a bender. And if the poisoning proceeds from here (which it does only rarely), the next symptom is an inability to breathe, a sudden quiet in the chest where previously a strong thumping heartbeat had existed, and then death. From what I've read, it's not the worst way in the world to go -- but it was a trip I was not prepared to take.

By the time I left the restaurant, I was feeling somewhat drifty myself, a sensation I initially chalked up to the champagne. Hoping to sober up, I walked around Larimer Square, checking in at Rioja next door (it was slamming), stopping by the new Rioja/Bistro VendÔme operation across the street (it looked lovely), picking up a good-looking menu at Cru, a new wine bar, and poking my head into the bar at the Capital Grille. By the time I'd finished my rounds, a good hour had passed since I'd had a drink, and an hour is usually enough time for me to get on the road to recovery. I have a wicked metabolism -- like a lab rat juiced on bennies -- so I burn through a good drunk fast.

I made it home, and then things got worse. I was having trouble walking. Standing still was out of the question, because the floor had become treacherously unstable, rolling like a ship in heavy weather. I had the uncomfortable feeling that my brain had become unfixed inside my skull and was rolling loose -- a small, gray marble in a very large box.

It wasn't until about two o'clock in the morning (by which point I'd come thoroughly unmoored and washed up on the floor in front of the television, bathed in the blue light of an infomercial for Urine Gone) that I realized the oysters were probably doing this to me. The experience was cruel, but not altogether unpleasant -- rather like getting loaded and then smoking a joint or trying to fight off a NyQuil coma. And truth be told, I appreciated the irony of the situation. I've made a career out of proudly eating any animal slower and dumber than me -- and now to be brought down by a form of life just one step above a rock and one step below a Hooters waitress? C'est la guerre, man. I was at peace.

Of course, that was probably just the shellfish toxin talking. Seriously, if they sold that stuff in a bottle, I might consider doing it recreationally.

Needless to say, I lived. Most people do. It took a full day to shake the effects -- and then my first thought was that, having survived the bullet, I could go back to eating oysters again in relative safety. Because what were the odds that I was going to pick up another rock full of poison meat any time soon?

Even so, I opted for burritos and beer the next night. And while there was no way that the oyster was the fault of Corridor 44, it clearly wasn't the only thing that had gone bad there. So I made a call, and learned that chef/partner Laslow had suddenly left, which explained some of the kitchen's problems and also ruled out a review: It simply isn't fair to lay into a place that's recently taken such a crippling hit as the loss of a chef.

"Apparently, it just wasn't working out." That's what Larimer Square honcho Joe Vostrejs said when I asked about Laslow's departure. "You know, this is the restaurant business, and not every match is made in heaven."

Which, in the restaurant business, is what you call putting a friendly spin on things. I've known (and have been party to) splits between chefs and owners, chefs and sous chefs, sous chefs and line cooks, that ended just short of murder. I've seen the dissolution of ten-year partnerships during one bad night, and guys who were best friends five minutes before rolling around in the parking lot five minutes later, trying to strangle each other over how to properly clean a dish machine. (For the record, I won that fight. I got one of my teeth broken, but I was right: You clean the gunk out of the trap first, then squeegee the ramp -- because if you don't, the drain will clog and back up all over the nice, shiny stainless.)

Anyway, these things rarely end nicely, and the higher up the food chain you go, the less likely it is to be a clean break.

Vostrejs assured me that Corridor 44 will carry on. Although the back-of-the-house crew (people who've been cooking there for years, according to Laslow, and carried over from Josephina's, which once occupied the space now filled by both Corridor 44 and Rioja) may be asleep at the switch, the place still kills Thursdays through Saturdays from about ten at night 'til last call, when the floor is standing-room only and the bar is packed three deep. In those three four-hour stretches, the joint brings in enough cash to keep afloat no matter how quiet it gets the rest of the time. And to its credit, Corridor 44's champagne bar is as commendable as its kitchen is lamentable, with bottle service, an impressive number of bubblies by the glass, splits in the cooler and a reasonable mark-up on full-size bottles. Eighty dollars for Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label is nothing to sneeze at when you're in the mood to get snockered with some class.

As for Laslow, Vostrejs concluded, "He was interested in doing other stuff."

That "other stuff" included a deal for a restaurant at 32nd Avenue and Perry Street, which also involved Corridor 44 partner Jeff Hermanson (who previously owned Josephina's and still has a piece of other Larimer Square properties). The project had gotten far enough that an ownership group made up of Laslow, Hermanson and Cliff Bausch (who owns the building) had applied for (and received) a liquor license in all three of their names. But now Laslow is out of it, trying to tie up loose ends and decide what to do next.

"I'm still trying to figure that out," he told me, adding that it would definitely be something "more food-oriented, more of a restaurant than a bar."

He has some concepts. He has some ideas. He wants to do something that's focused around the kitchen, something local -- something like the restaurants he was known for in Oregon. And while one of his issues about the 32nd Avenue project was how slowly it was progressing, he's now taking his time.

"You learn with every experience," he concluded. "This time I just want to make sure I get it right."

Leftovers: The former home of Las Margaritas at 1066 South Gaylord Street is about to become Chi Bistro. During South Gaylord's Memorial Day weekend festivities, the building was tented over and the owners had a small booth set up, where they passed out business cards and took job applications. (Chi also had job openings plastered all over the chef and food-service message boards, listing the restaurant as a "ground-floor opportunity" or "the first of many.") I took the card, turned down the application, then listened while one of the girls working the table tried to explain how the spot would be doing "contemporary American cuisine with an Asian flair" and "unique Asian fusion" -- apparently different from all the other Asian fusion being done in this city, where the actual Asian food kicks the crap out of any "fusion" yet attempted.

Seriously, if you're a restaurateur looking at Denver as a place to make your mark, you should spend a couple of weeks eating your way up and down Federal, Colfax and Havana. Try Sushi Sasa (2401 15th Street) or Cuba Libre in Littleton, where chef John Daly's lobster ceviche is one of the most beautiful examples of Asian plating I've seen. At both of these restaurants, the fusion is so smooth it disappears totally into the cuisine. And unless your take on culinary Asiana can stand up to the food offered at Super Star Asian, Domo, JJ Chinese, Sushi Den, Japon, Han Kang, Pho 79, Pho Ha Noi, King's Land and elsewhere, you'd better try something else. There are a lot of cuisines that haven't been fused yet. How about Indo-Bulgarian? Swedish-Canadian? Italo-Peruvian?

Speaking of all things Asian, Mee Yee Lin -- my hands-down favorite dim sum in the city until I discovered Super Star ("Sum More, Please," April 6) -- has closed its doors at 3090 West Alameda Avenue. Also gone is Dragon Garden, which I fell in love with just a few weeks ago (Second Helping, April 6). But here's the good news: Mee Yee Lin has taken over the former Dragon Garden space at 2295 South Chambers Road in Aurora, where it's dim sum all day, every day. And I couldn't be happier. The move means longer hours, which means more chicken feet and shrimp dumplings -- and the new Mee Yee Lin is a hell of a lot closer to my house.

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Corridor 44

1433 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

303-893-0044

www.corridor44.com


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