I'm still in a daze over Heavenly Daze, Denver's latest brewpub, and it's not because my meals there were a slice of heaven. No, I'm dazed and confused as to why an eatery would spend so much money filling a massive warehouse with a mass-production brewery and an eating area jammed with pool tables and metal sculptures of tortured-looking people with bedpans for heads--and then serve such lousy food.
It would have been smarter to put the words "Sports Bar" on the big neon sign that calls out to drivers along I-25. If people were just coming here to watch the game, play pool and drink beer, they'd probably be perfectly content. But everyone who is lured into Heavenly Daze by the word "restaurant," thinking they're going to actually enjoy a meal here, will wind up sorely disappointed.
Over the past six years, the original Heavenly Daze in Steamboat Springs has acquired a good reputation for its food. But with this second location, the owners decided to change the menu. "When we looked at the demographics of this neighborhood, we decided it would be better to skip the pastas and steaks we do in Steamboat and instead concentrate on pizzas and calzones," says Monty George, who serves as general manager of the four-month-old Denver brewpub and is one of four Heavenly Daze partners. (The others are Greg Anderson and brothers Guy and Pete Crider.) "The beer's the same, with Rick Whitehead, who oversees both operations but is here in Denver, as the brewer--but the recipes are different." And how.
When we first arrived for dinner, some confusion about our reservation left six of us standing for fifteen minutes. But the staff did all the right things--and then some. First they apologized, and then they bought us a round of drinks and appetizers. The drinks alone would have sufficed, thank you. They were Heavenly Daze brews, all fairly flavorful, with two achieving heavenly status: the Snakebite Scottish Ale and the Dog's Breath Brown Ale, which fortunately did not live up to its name.
The food, though, rarely lived up to its menu descriptions and was pretty much a bust from beginning to end. For starters, there was the order of twelve hot wings ($4.75) with blue-cheese dressing. Our friendly server had tried to steer us away from the wings. "They're really hot," he warned. "They'll make you sweat behind the eyeballs." But these were one-alarm at most, and that was more heat for heat's sake than a good, chile-induced burn. Maybe the guy who cooked these babies was sweating, but we remained cool to his efforts. Our second appetizer was a respectable if scallion-heavy take on the ubiquitous artichoke dip ($5.25), served with toasted baguette slices. And then there was the "brewchetta" ($5.95): prosciutto, red onions and mozzarella piled on more toasted baguette slices--but all we could taste was the red onion.
Those red onions continued to pop up throughout our meal. The prosciutto Phat Calzone ($6.95) wrapped Heavenly Daze's beer-spiked pizza dough around a few paper-thin slices of the Italian cured ham, as well as fresh garlic (by that, the kitchen means raw), a skimpy sprinkling of roasted red peppers, mozzarella and ricotta cheeses...and red onions. The Daze Deluxe pizza ($13.95 for a medium, about twelve inches) was that same dough--it worked better with a calzone, where it cooked through and gained flavor in the process--topped with pepperoni, sausage, green peppers, mushrooms, black olives and mozzarella, all glued on with a tomato-pastey red sauce...and studded with red onions.
More red onions did in the smoked-salmon salad ($6.50 for a large), greens topped by some nicely smoked salmon, romas, capers and a lackluster balsamic vinaigrette that wasn't up to fending off a too-generous helping of red onions. And the kitchen still managed to scrounge up enough onions to also ruin the meatball sub ($5.50). While the meatballs were very good, they couldn't stand up to the house-made, focaccia-inspired sub roll, much less all those onions.
There wasn't an onion to be found in the Bratwurzt ($4.95), but we couldn't find any flavor, either. Four of our group's six menus suggested that we ask our server what "flavor" the brats were that night, but when we did, our server looked at us as though we were insane. Apparently the kitchen had decided to offer no flavor at all. The tasteless brat arrived under a mound of overly drained--meaning dry as straw--sauerkraut and was sided by a bowl of minestrone. The crunchy vegetables appeared to have been put into the soup pot about twelve minutes before our serving was ladled up; fortunately, red onions weren't included in the mix. And while red onions also failed to put in an appearance on the white pizza ($13.95 for a medium) or in the Caesar salad ($5.75 for a large), the "fresh" garlic on the pie was strong enough to kill forty vampires, while the plain mayonnaise goo on the salad was in bad need of some.
The garlic would not have been so disastrous if the bulb had been cooked. Ditto for the almost-raw red onions, which were hacked into hunks larger than most sports watches. Our table was having such a bad, burpy response to those onions that, unrehearsed, several of us asked our server if they were included in the desserts that night. The cheesecake ($3.50) could have used something; the kitchen was out of the "flavored" version, and the slim sliver of plain was nothing special. And a root-beer float--even one that costs $3.95 and is made with root beer handcrafted on the premises--is still a root-beer float.
The signs were not auspicious when I arranged a return visit. When I called for a reservation, I asked if the Broncos were playing at Mile High, since that would have made for quite a traffic jam on I-25. The woman who'd answered the phone laughed. "They're playing out of town tonight," she said. "Do you live in Colorado or what?" Well, yes--and I later found out that the Broncos were off for the weekend, toots.
This time we tried to avoid ordering anything that listed red onions as an ingredient. As that ruled out most menu items, we opted for the wings again. Our eyelids didn't sweat this time around, either. The Greek brewchetta ($5.95) came bearing so much raw garlic mixed in with the black olives and feta that the appetizer was inedible. We ate just four bites--but our server could not have cared less. She was way too busy to pay attention to us; after all, she had a whopping two other tables to tend to, one of which was occupied by a Heavenly Daze employee.
Our server also didn't care that we were only a third of the way through our wings when she plopped down the entrees, which left about two inches of unoccupied space on our table. "The food comes up really fast here," she said. Could this be the only restaurant in the universe at which a server has no say in holding off the kitchen--especially a kitchen that has little to do, as was the case that night--from starting the entrees?
As it turned out, the kitchen could have held off on these forever. The Reuben sub ($5.25) would have made Arthur Reuben, the man generally credited with inventing the sandwich that's supposed to contain a generous heaping of corned beef, Swiss and sauerkraut, turn over in his grave. This version held about a half-inch of almost tasteless corned beef, along with one slice of Swiss, a smattering of sauerkraut and a dab of Thousand Island dressing that wasn't nearly large enough to give the sandwich any flavor.
Another drab item was the cup of three-fish chowder ($1.95). Although our server said the three fish that night were swordfish, halibut and tuna, the soup tasted of nothing, nothing and nothing. If those good fish were indeed in there (we did see teeny shreds of a white fishy substance, which looked like it had been put through a food processor in an effort to disguise its lineage), they were wasted. I'd ordered the soup to complement the Santa Fe salad ($4.95)--and it did, since the salad was just as bad. Cold refried beans sat on a big mound of tortilla chips, topped with a few diced tomatoes, three jalapeno slices, pre-shredded Monterey Jack and cheddar cheeses, black olives and, yes, red onions. Meanwhile, the promised sour cream was nowhere to be found, and the tomatoes in the side of salsa had a canned texture and flavor.
The red sauce that came with the three-cheese calzone ($5.25) tasted like nothing more than tomato paste thinned out with a little tomato sauce. It didn't disguise the fact that the outside of the calzone had spots that hinted the package had come close to burning. Mysteriously, the cheese inside--mozzarella, parmesan and too much ricotta--was an unsettling, uncooked mixture of runny and rubbery.
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We thought the kitchen might redeem itself on the brownie à la mode ($3.95), a dessert that's hard to mess up too badly. But Heavenly Daze did. The edges of what was supposed to be a "soft" brownie resisted the tines of a fork--and who wants to eat a sundae with a knife? When we finally got to the very center of the brownie, it had softened under the ice cream, but we found it too bland to bother with.
Just like the rest of the food we sampled at Heavenly Days.
The preponderance of disappointing dishes was surprising, since Heavenly Daze's Denver kitchen is headed by Jeff Hawkins, formerly of Broadway Brewing and Pasquini's--two places where I've always liked the food. But this brewpub's fare is in bad need of seasoning, celestial or otherwise.
Pray for divine intervention.
Heavenly Daze, 208 South Kalamath Street, 303-744-8000. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. daily.