I thought I was done for when the Bay Wolf went down," says Rich Salturelli, remembering his Cherry Creek hot spot. "I got a divorce, and I gave the restaurant to her, and then she ran it into the ground. Me and my brother, Thom, who has the Cricket on the Hill, had started the Bay Wolf together in 1981, when it was still the Kiva, and we came back and tried to salvage it in 1992, but it was really too late."
The brothers let Vartan Jazz use the space for a while, "and finally, we decided to sell the building to the Gart brothers," Salturelli says. "That way, we thought we'd be done with it."
Not so fast. Although Salturelli soon had a new restaurant venture, CityGrille, up and running (see The Bite, next page), the Bay Wolf building still held a special spot in his heart. "When my old friend Robby Hahn approached me, at first I said no," recalls Salturelli. "I didn't know if I wanted to do two places, 'cause we all know it's a lot of work. I go home between lunch and dinner sometimes and take a nap. But, you know, the place sort of called to me."
And he wound up answering that call, opening Manhattan Grill in the old Bay Wolf space earlier this year with the help of numerous backers, partner Hahn and another operating partner, Bruce Garrett, a former general manager of Goodfriends and the Rodney's in Tamarac Square. While Salturelli works the crowds a few days a week, he insists that Garrett is "the glue that keeps the place together." At the very least, he must be the oil that keeps the staff running smoothly, because Manhattan Grill's service is unusually efficient and knowledgeable and, rarer still, the servers seem genuinely happy to be there. Salturelli also recruited an old rival to do the cooking: David Brown, who had headed the kitchen at Bocalino's, one of the Bay Wolf's main competitors back in the day.
But while Bocalino's focus is Italian, Manhattan Grill gets right to the meat of the matter, with a straightforward menu that's steakhouse with a contemporary twist. The steaks themselves come from the highly regarded Allen Bros. in Chicago -- but not before the chef has his say regarding what cuts he will and will not tolerate in his kitchen. "I ask for some more stringent specifications than Del Frisco's and Morton's," explains Brown. "They get their meat from the same place, but I have more rules, like the porterhouse has to be cut from the smallest part of the short loin, to make a consistent product, so I know that every porterhouse someone orders here will be consistent. And the tenderloin has to be at least two inches in diameter, and the New York strips can only come from the center cut. I really wanted us to be competitive, and I went all over the country to look at different purveyors to make sure I'd get one that would do what I wanted."
Brown got what he wanted, all right, as do most visitors to the Manhattan Grill, whether they're looking for a full meal or plan to take all of their nourishment in liquid form. The bar -- every aspect of which seems unchanged from the Bay Wolf days, and that includes the bartenders and most customers -- pours a marvelous version of the Manhattan's namesake cocktail, with a splash of cherry juice adding an extra touch of flavor.
The biggest changes -- both in decor and dishes -- are found in the low-ceilinged dining room. Since the space is below street level, there's a certain element of airlessness, but simple lines, buttery colors and polished wood go a long way toward opening and warming things up. And once the food arrives, it's impossible to focus on anything else.
Our dinner started with some of the best escargots ($9) I've ever had, six snails drowning in an addictive, salty garlic butter that also worked with both Manhattan's spongy sourdough and its raisin-packed brown bread. The chilled lobster-and-crab cocktail (market price; in our case, $15) wasn't as impressive, however. The seafood obviously had been in the cooler for a while -- both crustaceans had a bland refrigerator taste that really needed warm drawn butter to draw out the proper flavor rather than the also-chilled cocktail, tartar and rémoulade sauces that came on the side. And the price was steep for a four-inch-long shard of lobster, one claw and five balls of crabmeat.
Although the Manhattan Grill's 22-ounce porterhouse is also pricey ($31), the superb meat was worth every penny. Grilled to pink in the center, exactly the way we'd ordered it, and adorned with only its own juices seasoned with a little salt and pepper, the steak was stunning. It completely overshadowed our second entree, the broiled halibut with citrus mojo ($19). The fish itself was impeccably cooked, slightly charred on the outside and wet and juicy inside, with a translucent center and a lovely mild taste. But we had to fight to get to that taste, because the "mojo" was working overtime. According to Brown, this sauce is supposed to be an uncomplicated purée of the major citrus juices -- lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit -- with chiles; what we sampled was more like a barbecue gravy. To further muck things up, a big blob of a vinegary, chutney-like substance sat atop the sauce-slathered fish.
The sides worked much better. Fluffy but still dense, creamy but not gooey, the mashed potatoes ($4) came in a big, salty, buttery portion large enough to drown several diners in spuds. And an order of asparagus ($7) brought a forest of al dente-cooked stalks with a bowl of textbook hollandaise large enough to ensure that every bite of vegetable had some sauce.
The desserts were super-sized, too. Although multi-layer confections often taste like drywall, the moist chocolate cake ($10) was marvelous, with a ganache-like icing that went well with the heavy whipping cream and hot fudge sauce that the server ceremoniously poured over the top. While somewhat less awe-inspiring, the strawberry brownie parfait ($5) boasted layers of ice cream, fresh strawberries and brownie chunks that made for delicious, dense bites.
At lunch, the portions were just as large but the prices less weighty, which made it seem reasonable to try eating our way through the menu. We started with the Manhattan clam chowder ($8), which featured a whole-clam garnish and soft-as-butter potatoes saturated with clam flavor. The Town Club ($8) mixed hearts of palm, freshly cooked corn kernels, slices of hard-boiled egg, many blue-cheese crumbles and chopped greens; a well-balanced vinaigrette tied the salad together. Nothing but a butter-soaked crust held together the lump crabmeat cakes ($12 for two); the cakes crackled at the touch of a fork to reveal big chunks of sweet crab, and the chipotle mayo on the side provided just enough spark. Brown also did a nice job with the farfalle with chicken, pancetta and blue cheese ($10). Although this pasta dish had the potential to go gummy, it was thick with flavor but sported a surprisingly light, blue-cheese-primed sauce.
This sure wasn't the sort of fare Rich Salturelli served at his first spot, Duffy's Cherry Cricket (the burger joint that the Salturelli brothers later sold to Ely McGuire, and which was picked up by the Wynkoop Brewing Company after McGuire passed away earlier this year). Or at the pizza place he owned in Vail called Blano's, or at the couple of Armadillos and Taco Bells he ran. But it's the sort of fare that fits just fine in this Cherry Creek space, and it should attract a loyal bunch of fans who missed Salturelli's efforts the first time around. And while they slowly discover the dining room, Manhattan Grill's bar is already one of the city's prime spots to see and be seen.
"You live your life and think it's going to go one way, and then there it goes another," Salturelli muses. "I never thought I'd be doing this again, and I keep running into people who were there in the old days of the Bay Wolf who say the same thing. It's great to be here again, though. It just feels like it was meant to be."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.