I've heard it said a thousand times, by tourists and by natives, by local chefs and national food writers — said ironically, in jest, in cold seriousness, in rage. When your new, million-dollar French-Asian fusion restaurant goes under in a flood of bad debt and worse reviews, it's what you say to put the blame on everyone but you. It's the semantic fallback of the truly beaten, and a phrase I usually avoid — culinarily inaccurate (for the most part, and at the moment) but historically true.
Denver is a cow town.
When they use the "cow town" descriptor, what most folks mean is podunk, provincial, lacking in the sort of taste and culture found in the big cities on the coasts. They're saying that while we, the people of Denver, may be urbane enough to understand that going out for a fine meal is a cause for dressing up, our idea of sartorial rectitude is pulling on our best pair of overalls and knocking the cow shit off our boots before stepping into civilized company.
I, on the other hand, will quite deliberately track manure on the carpets of the swells, but when I say that Denver is a cow town, I mean it in the best possible way. I'm saying that here in this town, we know a thing or two about cows — and one of those things is that the highest calling to which any bovine might aspire is being turned into a really good steak. Denver is a cow town because we eat more of them than almost any other city in America.
Even so, if you're a restaurant owner, an investor, a chef, someone thinking about opening yet another steakhouse in this city already overrun with steakhouses that vary in quality from abysmal to best-in-show, you need to think hard about the fact that Denver is a true cow town, and so diners here know from cows. Whatever you're dreaming up to set you apart from the dozens of high-end and low-end and middle-of-the-road steakhouses already out there? We've seen it before. Whatever gimmick you've got, it's not going to work, and you'd be much better served by either surrendering the steakhouse concept entirely and opening a taco stand (we also have plenty of those, but there's always room for one more) or focusing all of your energies and every ounce of your creativity on making good and goddamn sure that you're serving an absolutely perfect steak. Because if it's not, the people of Denver are going to forsake your cow palace, walk a couple of blocks and go to the next one in line.
Prime 121 opened last year in what would seem to be a pure-gold location on Clayton Lane, right across the street from the JW Marriott and at the center of some serious net worth. Provided you can afford the rent and the initial buy-in, you'd have to be suicidally stupid not to make money here — or maybe allergic to dollar bills. An entrepreneur could offer vegan spa cuisine and high colonics and make a mint. And a steakhouse that serves the type of stuff that makes you need spa cuisine and high colonics? That should be a cash cow.
But it didn't work for Bob's Steak and Chop House, the first occupant of 121 Clayton Lane, an outpost of a Texas steakhouse chain that decided, in a fit of incredibly ill-advised hubris, to set itself apart from the pack by being Denver's most absurdly overpriced steakhouse. And home of the giant roasted carrot. One night I dropped nearly three bills there on a dinner for two, and while I would gladly drop a couple hundred bucks at several restaurants in town, this was not one of them. The carrot was no consolation. Bob's lasted more than a year, but it was dead on arrival.
Its home didn't stay dark for long, though. Prime 121 soon reopened the doors with an apple of a concept that fell pretty fucking close to the tree, then hardly rolled an inch. The room was still darkly woody and classically clubby, but the racehorse-themed decor was gone, as were the giant carrots and the most murderous of the prices. In their place were baked pita chips with tabouleh and salted yogurt, and a menu that, though not creative, original, inventive or daring, did preserve Bob's single claim to fame: a butcher's board made up entirely of USDA Prime beef, the best you can get under the USDA's current grading system, which focuses exclusively on fat-to-weight ratios, the so-called marbling of a side of beef. Prime is a nice start, even though it doesn't mean nearly as much as the fattening, slaughtering, butchering, hanging and aging processes do. But the beef is not the problem at Prime 121.
The room is standard, lacking those tiny fillips of excellence. On the main floor, the red-leather booths are classy in a way that only red leather in a steakhouse can be. But the tables tend to wobble, and they're hard, not padded beneath the tablecloths (so that plates won't clank when set down) — which, maybe just for me, has always been one of the purest essences of steakhouse swank. The glassware is nice (as is the wine that gets poured in all those glasses), but the linens are cut-rate and scratchy, the silver light and flimsy, the steak knives an embarrassment of cheapness — splintery wooden handles and ugly, fat blades no doubt stamped out by the millions by some company that I've never heard of before.
Details like that matter in this environment. Opening a steakhouse in Denver is a lot like opening a sushi bar in Tokyo. With educated consumers and plenty of competition, the trick for making it is not to dress mascots like salmon-skin rolls, but to do every little thing just a little bit better than the best guy already operating. Where Prime 121 falls short is in being only good enough, and not really better than anyone. I noticed the cheap steak knife right away, and it wasn't even my steak knife — it was the knife on another diner's table that I spotted while I was being walked back to my table for dinner. One of my most persistent memories of my first meal at the Capital Grille was of the beautiful, weighty and perfectly balanced steak knives provided for every table. People discern these niceties, even if only subconsciously. To attack a twelve-dollar steak with one of Prime's knives would be a slight. For a fifty-dollar bone-in ribeye, it's flat-out insulting.
Fortunately, Prime's service is sharper than its knives. Sitting at the bar for lunch, I was well-served by an obviously new bartender who took it upon herself to educate me about altitude sickness and the bolstered strength of beer drunk a mile above sea level when I told her I was visiting from New York. Had I actually been a tourist, I might've appreciated that. And had I been less peevish when it comes to certain kitchen sins, I might even have enjoyed my unstemmed arugula salad made with wilted greens, oddly clotted goat cheese and dressing applied so sparingly it made me wonder if there were some national vinaigrette shortage of which I was not aware. Still, I had a good order of crab cakes doodled with exactly the same rémoulade featured at a thousand other restaurants, and a shrimp cocktail served in four different shot glasses that was quite unlike anything I've ever seen. And I appreciated the fact that Prime will serve anything off the dinner menu at lunchtime if you but ask. A sixteen-ounce, bloody-rare prime rib is an excellent midday snack for a hungry carnivore, and depending on what sort of man you are, puts you in the mood for either some afternoon business-world bloodletting or a nap.
I went for the nap.
When I returned for dinner, I skipped the beer. Behind the mirrored bar, there are probably twenty kinds of Scotch but only a couple of decent whiskeys. So instead, I focused on the sides, which take up almost as much space as the mains on the menu: good creamed spinach, blah potatoes in many incarnations, and absolutely fantastic collard greens slow-cooked with slivered garlic and smoked bacon — served a bit dry for my taste, but still deeply and powerfully flavorful.
At night, the waiters all walk around dressed like doctors in white coats, their breast pockets festooned with pens, order pads and, oddly, probe thermometers. Was I supposed to think that my waiter would actually check the temp of my steak when it hit the window? I could almost believe it, because when my fourteen-ounce ribeye arrived, it looked ready for its Peter Luger centerfold shot — well-cut, off the bone but nicely proportioned, flecked with parsley, showing a perfect sear of caramelization on the surface and cooked a perfect medium-rare straight through: pink without a hint of gray. It was a fine steak, a champion steak, a delicious steak that had earned its prime label — smooth and silky with fat, slightly earthy in flavor, redolent of wood and sugar and blood. So why, then, had the kitchen gone and messed it all up with that worst of steakhouse overkills, the seasoning rub?
I just don't get it. A steak, nicely cut and properly cooked, is one of gastronomy's minor miracles. It may not be quite up there with the loaves and fishes, but it's something to be celebrated. A great steak is already a great steak before it ever hits the grill. And once introduced to the heat, it is everything it needs to be: salty, sweet, savory and luscious. It requires nothing else. As a matter of fact, anything else serves only to detract from the steak's intrinsic excellence. And with a mere flick of the wrist and a pinch of spice, my Prime 121 ribeye became less of an excellent steak than it would have been had the kitchen just left well enough alone.
Which meant it wasn't quite good enough. And while I may be one of the few people who'll get bent out of shape over the knives in the dining room, there are many, many more in this city who understand what makes a truly great steak.
This is Cow Town, after all.
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