It was long after midnight, and I was hours late for home, but it had been a great party — the tenth or thirtieth or fiftieth in a row; I'd lost count. We'd closed the restaurant, seen the last lingering tables out the door, then occupied the place like a conquering army, helping ourselves to wine from the bar, snacks from the kitchen, seats that, during business hours, none of us could have afforded to occupy. It was a perk, recompense for fourteen-hour shifts seven days a week and paychecks that some gas-station attendants would've laughed at — a nightly bacchanal that went far beyond the traditional shift drink and staff meal because the owners' bookkeeping was atrocious, and the restaurant was making so much money that our pilfering was a cinch to hide.
Matty and I were drunk, and we had been for hours. We'd already moved from our restaurant to the bar down the street, where we'd shot pool, bragged and weighed our balls (figuratively, not literally) against those of the dozen other crews propping up the long oak. Then we'd come back to the restaurant, unlocked the doors and hosted a second, private party: industry-only, French omelettes (not an easy thing to cook when drinking) and California merlots and our bar manager's good hydro. Morning bakers and porters were due in around six, which meant that we'd have to get the mess cleaned up and shuffle all the victims along soon, but we were stalling, talking about the only things that cooks really care about that isn't pussy or pay or what station the galley radio is turned to: food.
At the other bar, the biggest balls had been ours: most covers per capita (about 180), most turns (four or more of a forty-seat floor), worst conditions endured (tiny kitchen, ridiculously small staff, worst heat because of an unfortunate over/under arrangement of flat grill, sauté four-burner and blasting, face-level salamander). But our thunder had been stolen by the crew from a new restaurant a few blocks away that was in every way cooler, luckier, better-looking and more bad-ass. These guys didn't slouch into the bar in their bloody whites and bandannas, because their restaurant had a proper locker room. They walked upright like champions, swaggering and smiling, because they had enough staff on their line and their chef was a genius, and everything in the back of the house was clean and cool and calm.
"A hundred and eighty?" they'd said, pitching their voices like they were talking to small, slow children or someone's doddering aunt. "Well, that is a lot. We only did, what? Sixty, maybe? But you know..."
But you know...
But you know, we're better than you, was what they were saying. But you know, that's 180 stuffed foccaccia pies, buffalo carpaccio, moules et frites and ploughman's plates of sliced prosciutto and grilled bread and rillette du porc — in other words, 180 plates of nothing. Their sixty? Braised rabbit with caramelized shallots and demi. Roasted duckling with port-wine reduction. Sea scallops in an Allemande sauce and vegetables forestière. Seriously, when was the last time anyone cooked a fucking Allemande sauce?
This was what Matty and I were talking about in the depths of night, the depths of our good drunk. We'd made fun of them at the bar, the new crew. We'd laughed and acted like numbers — the pure, raw volume of tables and turns and plates to the rail — were what truly mattered. But it was all bluff. We knew they were better than us. We'd studied their menus, drooling and marveling over what they did every night, the kind of plates they were able to sell. And at some point during our hushed, intimate conversation on the patio, Matty finally said what we'd both been thinking — admitting to the betrayal that was already in our hearts.
"Jesus, I wish I worked there..."
That's the ultimate compliment a cook can give a restaurant, the ultimate admission of being outworked, outcooked and outclassed. To say that your own house will never, could never, rise to that level and that you covet the menu of another? That's like looking your wife right in the eye and telling her that you really, really wish you could fuck her sister.
It's twelve years later. I'm in Boulder, sitting at Radda Trattoria across from Laura, my wife. Our table is a mess — evidence of terrible gluttony and a complete inability to stop ordering at anything even remotely resembling a reasonable amount of food. We're surrounded by half-eaten pizzas and plates of Tuscan salami, bowls of olives, scraps of prosciutto-wrapped pork loin with braised peppers and artichokes, and bruschetta with white-bean purée. I am eating mascarpone polenta, drooling with butter and speckled with tiny bits of chive, off the tip of my finger while still smelling the delicate, sweaty, earthy stink of black Italian truffles from a plate somewhere on Laura's side of the table. I pull my finger out of my mouth, look her right in the eye and, from the bottom of my heart, say, "Jesus, I wish I worked here..."
Radda — which Matt Jansen, owner of Mateo, opened a year ago in north Boulder's low-rise sprawl — is a perfect example of the kind of restaurant that Colorado now does better than New York, San Francisco, L.A. or Chicago; the kind of restaurant I'm beginning to believe can only be opened in a place like Colorado, someplace where the expectations are a little lower, the potential for standout greatness a little higher, the clientele starving and just waiting to be amazed.
It's a great restaurant, but it's also a comfortable restaurant, an unassuming restaurant, a restaurant where families come to eat penne al cinghiale and chicken soup in a parmesan broth, made with winter vegetables, lemon and faro, and where rogue CU economics professors sit and argue vehemently about the Bush tax cuts over plates of golden-brown pressed chicken and small bowls of rosemary-roasted fingerling potatoes. In Manhattan, Radda would be wickedly successful — the sort of roots Italian joint that inspires the swells to fight each other in the streets for a place on the waiting list. In Chicago, it would be feted like the Second Coming — over-boosted by those foodies still pissed that they can't get Batali to open a place in their area code. In Vegas, it would be turned into some faux-Tuscan set piece complete with wandering shepherds and the smell of grape arbors pumped in by compressors. But in Boulder? It's just a little spot in a retro strip mall, with plenty of parking and always room for another table, another party, another restaurant critic waiting to sing its praises.
The board is made up mostly of small plates, little tastes, brilliant snacks and expert whetters of appetite, each given such loving attention that they seem to glow. The kitchen crew — led by Jansen and exec Don Gragg — executes it brilliantly, with a beautiful simplicity and a passionate understanding of ingredient over artifice. The food can be unbelievably good. The polenta is amazing. I want to bathe in it or, failing that, eat a bathtub full. So soft, so perfectly cooked (even to the point where, as it cools slightly, it begins to pull away from the sloped sides of its bowl) and swimming in a tarn of butter. On an earlier visit, I had gnocchi alla Bolognese smoothed with heavy cream to cut a sharp edge of spice and a polpette di vitello that actually stunned me at first taste — making me sit bolt upright, then leeching all the iron out of my spine until I was in danger of collapsing in a swoon like some kind of 1920s movie starlet gone goofy on laudanum. It was so Italian it was almost French, if you know what I mean — the hand-ground veal meatballs sitting on a bed of brothy braised kale and lentils and wild boar cheek, like collard greens in pot likker cooked in a Parisian soul-food restaurant by an expatriate Italian grandmother homesick for the gentle hills of Chianti.
There's a salumi menu offering bresaola from Lombardi, speck from Alto Adige, prosciutto from Emilia-Romagna and salami from Salumeria Biellese in New York — a complete culinary tour of Italian cured-meat history on one plate — and pizzas, five of them, that I would put up against any pizza in the area, made with Gragg's housemade mozzarella, housemade fennel sausage, Italian Grana Padano and (on my favorite) razor-thin prosciutto and a quivering, gently cooked, over-easy egg speckled with ground black pepper. For breakfast, there are croissants and plates of pancetta. For lunch, caprese salad made with bloody red grape tomatoes and twenty-year-old balsamic vinegar, fried rock shrimp with fennel or grilled rapini with garlic.
Not everything is perfect. In the bathrooms, for instance, the hand soap is a ridiculous hippie concoction of rosemary and lavender with a scent so strong that it intruded terribly on the flavors and smells of my dinner — a silly, amateur mistake on par with using scented candles on the table, but easily remedied with thirty seconds and a trash can. The risotto all' aragosta (Arborio rice, Maine lobster, concasse tomatoes cooked so long they almost melt on the tongue), while lessened by the overuse of saffron and underuse of an acid to cut the muffling starchiness, still takes a place among my favorite risottos. And there were early issues with the service (rude waiters, vapid hostesses, long waits for no good reason), but most of these have been remedied, and those that haven't are now apologized for profusely, occasionally attended by comps, always resolved.
But these are really minor snags, nothing that would keep me from returning, from coveting the jobs of these cooks and this menu and Gragg's post on the open line overseeing it all. In the cramped, hot and sometimes cruel world of kitchens, there are menus that are all about pain and volume — about hanging and banging and mindless repetition for the civilians. And then there are menus like Radda's, which aspire to something finer, which inspire cooks to want more from a shift than bragging rights and free booze, which make even ex-cooks and line dogs like me jealous of their innate poetry and those hands that move nightly to their rhythm.
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