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Pearl Bucks

Just up the street from their Black Pearl restaurant (see review) Sean Huggard and Steve Whited will soon have a new neighbor. Lola is scheduled to depart its spot at 1469 South Pearl Street on February 28 (with a closing bash on February 27); by the end of March, it should be back in business at the old Olinger Mortuary building, at 1575 Boulder Street. And sometime in May, BB's on Pearl will open in Lola's current home (which earlier housed Micole, and Greens before that).

Technically, Paul Blakley -- who already owns the eighteen-month-old BB's Bistro & Bar in Parker -- gets the space as of March 1, but he's planning a massive remodel that involves removing the bar and turning the Lola galley into a showcase kitchen sealed behind glass. He also hopes to put a martini-and-piano bar in the second-floor space that Lola never used, but there have been complications with licensing and the neighborhood association. In fact, when I talked with him last week, he was fresh from an appeals hearing but seemed confident that things will ultimately go his way.

Whether or not he can expand upstairs, Blakley says the new restaurant will offer "casual fine dining" with a menu that's "progressive American" (just another name for New American, really, although heavier on the "American," lighter on the "New"), featuring such dishes as crab-and-lobster-stuffed chicken breasts, pork tenderloin with a chile/hoisin marinade, and steaks of the Monterey/Oscar/au poivre varieties. Although that lineup sounds like it might overlap a bit with Black Pearl's menu, at least it won't duplicate what's already offered next door at the Pearl Street Grill, or just down the block at Sushi Den.

Just past Black Pearl, the space at 1551 South Pearl that had held La Ti Da -- an unusual coffee and dessert bar-slash-yarn and knitting supply store -- is being taken over by a crepe restaurant. Although there's no name above the door yet, there's a lot of construction going on inside and a menu stuck in the window listing dozens of crepes, both sweet and savory, some sandwiches, a couple hot entrees and bakery goods. This location -- a little house with a big front room, a kitchen in the back and a nice wrap-around patio -- seems just about perfect for a crepe place. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes of it.

Old American: Hot salmon with watermelon and cinnamon aioli, mussel jellies, gazpacho gelées, yuzu pudding with spearmint granité, flights of salt and sea scallop popcorn -- far be it from me to knock the genius of today's New American astronauts of cuisine. Who but Grant Achatz (formerly of the French Laundry, now at Alinea in Chicago) could've come up with something like bacon on a swing? The mussel jellies are his, too. And as for the braniacs behind those other dishes, if you know food, you'll know the names, and if you want to eat the food, be prepared to drop somewhere in the range of $200 per person.

New American -- essentially Alice Waters's California cuisine, plus ultra, as strained through the fine sieve of the French Laundry -- tries to reinvent classics of American cuisine by way of molecular gastronomy, ironic subtext and an artistic eye for plating. It twists and tortures foods into the culinary equivalent of Chinese foot-binding or Victorian corsetry, then serves it to a public that's supposed to appreciate it on so many deep and meaningful levels that the dogma tends to weigh heavier than the food itself. A New American PB&J can be (and is) served on a spike, as a soup, on wheat crackers milled by vestal virgins in an inaccessible Italian nunnery, as a puff of tapioca maltodextrin-derived peanut-butter powder paired with flash-frozen Concord grape sorbet.

But when I get home at night -- tired and stinking of gin and cigarettes -- and settle onto my couch to watch the Food Network or maybe a little Adult Swim, I am not reaching for my high-intensity, narrow-beam laser and bag of corn-starch pellets to make popcorn à la Homaro Cantu (of Moto in Chicago). No, I want popcorn made from popped corn and a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich made of peanut butter and jelly smashed between two slices of white bread. While some miracles of cutting-edge New American cuisine do seem interesting (the ahi tuna PB&J "sandwich" made by chef Mike Long at Opus a couple years back still stands as one of my defining moments in the New American revolution, and I would love to try Alinea's crème brûlée --a powdered custard contained within a bite-sized ball of caramelized sugar), I'm still out there pulling for places that simply make the classics as best they know how, rather than try to improve on them through a heavy-handed application of technology.

 

Places like the Old-Fashioned Italian Deli in Littleton, which brought Sahlen's dogs and Weber mustard to Denver -- all the way from the frozen shores of the Great Lakes. Like the Castle Cafe with its fried chicken. Like Chapter One with its barbecue. Like Steuben's, a spot at 17th Avenue and Pearl Street that isn't even open yet but has been going through regular Tuesday tastings of menu items since forever in anticipation of the eventual rollout.

Last week I got a note from Josh Wolkon -- the man who brought us Vesta Dipping Grill (see Second Helping) and will someday open Steuben's -- detailing the lineup at chef Matt Selby's most recent Steuben's tasting: Chicago-style hot dogs, egg-in-the-hole, egg creams, chile rellenos, classic fish and chips and a profusion of chocolate cakes. Wolkon said that staffers are planning to weigh themselves on opening day, just to see how many pounds each of them has packed on during the run-up.

There was a time when I thought (and prayed) that New American was going to be a passing fad -- a blip on the culinary radar, the kind of thing chefs would look back on in years to come and laugh about. Rather than watch that happen, I have instead seen a deepening and widening of the gulf between actual food and food-as-art, or food-as-comment, or food-as-starch-and-lasers. But am I worried? Not so much. Being a liberal-minded and progressive fellow, I am fully in favor of all revolution -- if for no other reason than that the ludicrous fallout will always leave me with something to make fun of. I've seen New American done well, choked on it done poorly, and although I whole-heartedly believe that someday soon these young alchemists of cuisine will pack up their ray guns and maltodextrin and find renewed pleasure in charcuterie or baking or flipping eggs at a Denny's, I am anxious to see what gets left behind. After all, the fork was new once, too. So was the sauté pan, the pressure cooker, the Robot Coupe. So who knows? Maybe someday we'll all be eating our pork off a swing.

I just hope that someone thinks up a new name for all this stuff before that day comes, because I am sick to death of the words "New American."

Not quite Paris: For whatever reason, bakers and pâtissières have been exempted from my distrust of culinary innovation. Maybe it's because they're a different breed from chefs: chemists rather than grunts, scientists rather than rock stars. Or maybe it's that I'm fascinated by their skills because I don't possess them myself. Frankly, I've always been a little jealous, too. I mean, the prep work for a chocolatier is chopping chocolate, while the prep work for a station chef is often something far less attractive -- like pulling the membrane off the thalamus glands of a calf's brain for the sweetbreads special, or gutting and scaling a quarter-ton of fish.

Robert McCarthy is one of my favorite local pastry guys, so I was happy to hear that he'd snuck into the old Paris Bakery space at 1268 South Sheridan out in Lakewood and set up shop with his Red Elk Bakery (a business he'd been running out of a commissary kitchen -- meaning no retail -- for the past two years). "I've been kinda working under the radar for the last couple years," he explains, supplying desserts and pastry to dozens of restaurants around town, but doing it on the down-low because so many of those houses prefer that everyone think the desserts were made in their own kitchens.

In October, McCarthy finally decided the time had come to do a little front-door business, so he quietly took over the Paris space, keeping the bakery's name through the holidays and offering the same roster of cinnamon rolls, pecan rolls, croissants and scones that had been Paris's stock in trade for years, hoping that regular customers would be reassured. "They still freaked out," he tells me. "People would come in and say, ŒWhat happened? Who are you?'"

Now he's officially renaming the space Red Elk Bakery, and while he'll still bake the Paris favorites, he'll soon add his own cheesecakes, specialty tarts, two-layer cakes and breads -- maybe four or five different loaves a day. As for all the fancy-shmancy stuff he used to do when he was in the kitchen at places like Mel's, "I don't really have the clientele for that," he explains. "I've gone really rustic, you know? But that's been really cool."

This rustic streak has always been in him, he insists, even back in his time at San Francisco's Lulu in the mid-'90s, where he sat out the salad days of the whole New American thing, cooking simple, classic desserts while the industry boomed all around him. "Winter of '94, it was a great time to be there," he says. "But I really didn't get into any of that fancier stuff until I came to Denver, when that was what people wanted."

 

McCarthy estimates that he's doing about 85 percent of his business out the back door these days, supplying restaurants, cafes, coffeehouses and hotels; he's also working on a line of frozen products with a statewide distributor. And, of course, he's still got the cinnamon rolls, the scones and all that rustic stuff that makes him happy -- and keeps the regulars coming back.

Leftovers: The Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau has put together another "Denver Restaurant Week," scheduled to begin on February 25 and run through March 3. And though technically it's now the "Beringer Denver Restaurant Week," I'm going to ignore that, since Beringer is a Napa Valley wine producer and it just sounds silly.

The bureau has more than a hundred restaurants signed up to participate this year, and the deal goes like this: You make a reservation, you go to the restaurant, you get a prix fixe, multi-course meal, you pay $52.80 for two or $26.40 for one (not counting tax and tip). Simple as that. There's a list of the participating restaurants and links to their special Denver Restaurant Week menus at www.denver.org/DRW06/Restaurants.asp.

Congratulations to Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe and the Aguirre family, whose nachos just got picked for a Wall Street Journal food piece on the top fifteen nachos in the nation. Granted, that's a pretty lame idea for an article, but Rosa Linda's deserves props for the mention, as well as all the good food they've served -- and good works they've done -- over their twenty-plus years at 2005 West 33rd Avenue.

Up in Boulder, Nate Ready just nailed down his master sommelier's certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers, joining the ranks of just over a hundred people who've risen to this level in the grape-juice world. Also, for the moment, this makes Frasca one of only two restaurants in the country (the other being the Little Nell in Aspen) to have two certified master sommeliers on staff, since owner Bobby Stuckey got his certificate in 2004.

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Black Pearl

1529 S. Pearl St.
Denver, CO 80210

303-777-0500

www.blackpearldenver.com


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