Raw Courage

Strange that Magnolia (see review) would have a sushi bar attached. Stranger still that Sushi Mara -- the only sushi bar in Lafayette -- is very good (see Second Helping, page 56). But after you talk with the restaurants' owners, you realize that the combination isn't that strange at all.

According to Peter Soutiere, he and his partners -- wife Mara and Tim Ackerman -- always intended to open a second restaurant, probably something Asian. Of course, they were thinking it would be sometime in the future -- not a year after they'd opened their first restaurant, just six months after they'd found a chef, Chris Pierce, and while they were still working out the kinks. But since that unused space was just sitting there (one of Magnolia's original, under-utilized dining rooms), it seemed like a natural move.

And the Soutieres aren't done yet. When I got Peter on the phone last week, we chatted about their next restaurant venture: Tahoma, scheduled for an April/May opening on the west end of the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder. "Restaurant row," Peter called it, explaining that he'd been looking for a way to get back into Boulder but waiting for the right moment.

Tahoma is going to be a modern Mexican restaurant. "Like Tamayo," he explained, "only without the tablecloths and the high prices." And while Pierce is already stretching his wings with the flighty, multicultural cuisine on offer at Magnolia/Mara, he'll stretch them even further when he moves into the Tahoma kitchen and concentrates on coastal Nuevo Mexican. When he goes, so will Peter and Mara: The three of them will babysit the new space through its infancy while Ackerman and Pierce's crew hold down the fort at Magnolia.

"We're hands-on owners," Peter told me. "We're out there doing battle on the floor every night."

Which is as it should be -- although operating three restaurants in two separate towns is quite different from operating two side-by-side restaurants. That's the dividing line between a neighborhood mom-and-pop operation and an empire in the offing. Ask Frank Bonanno how easy it was to go from running just Mizuna to running both Mizuna and Luca d'Italia right around the corner, then to running not just Mizuna and Luca, but also Milagro Taco Bar and Harry's Chophouse a couple of miles away on 17th Avenue. Ask Alessandro Carollo what it was like going from a single-outlet operation (Venice on South Yosemite Street in Greenwood Village), to a double (a new Venice on South Holly, with the original repositioned as Chianti), to a triple with the recent opening of a second Venice in the former Adega space at 1700 Wynkoop Street.

My advice to the Soutieres? Get some sleep while you can.

To Sir, with love: While rumors keep circulating that Johnson's Corner is in imminent peril from a proposed closing of exit 254 on I-25 (not true, says the Department of Transportation), Chauncey Taylor, who operates the place with his wife, Christy, is more concerned about my piece dissing the finally completed renovation of the 53-year-old truck stop ("Cornered," November 10, 2005).

Chauncey seems to be under the mistaken impression that I want Johnson's Corner to close. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, I had some not-so-nice things to say about the new look. For example: "There's nothing of the old place left except the menu, some of the staff, and ghosts in the form of faded, black-and-white pictures" and "When I first walked in ten years ago, I felt like I was coming home. When I walked in last week, it was like I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere and stepped into some Twilight Zone of maroon vinyl, clean Formica, burnished chrome and tile. It was all so slick and shiny and smooth, I felt like I was skating on Teflon."

Ouch, right? But hey, I was hurt by the changes at Johnson's Corner, the same way I was when I learned that Molly Ringwald isn't a natural redhead or that Andes mints are actually mint-flavored the whole way through, not just in the green stripes. I was hurt because the modernization of the place felt like a betrayal of something that I had once loved. I had a history with Johnson's Corner, and in one fell swoop, that history had been shitcanned. But we get over our hurts with time and with distance. And at least the changes at Johnson's Corner will insure that it sticks around for decades more.

And hey, Chauncey, here's how I ended the original piece, and it's still the way I feel today: "This place was new once before -- young when my father was -- and became mythic in its own sweet time. If it did it once, it can probably do it again. And so I'm already planning on coming back for the hundredth anniversary, when I'll be a very old man and both Johnson's Corner and I have had time to grow out of our second youths."

When I recently wrote about an even more venerable joint, the Bonnie Brae Tavern, at 740 South University (Second Helping, December 8, 2005), I started with this line: "Bonnie Brae Tavern has no windows, which may explain why few modern influences have slipped in over the past seventy-odd years to mess up the place."

Wrong: Bonnie Brae does have windows.

Fact is, when I sat down to write that piece, I didn't remember any windows -- because when I go to Bonnie Brae, there is no outside world. Over four generations, the Dire family has created a place that's whole on its own. I love sinking into a booth here, hunkering down over a table, living (if only for a moment) in the "submarine glow" of a dining room that has seen almost a century of history pass by without being affected in the least. Bonnie Brae feels like a sealed environment -- all pot roasts and pizzas, cigarette smoke and cold beer, a spot where the modern world can be held at bay and the past revisited for the price of a large pie, double cheese and green chile. And though the windows are indeed there, I just prefer not to notice them.

But I apologize for the error nonetheless.

Leftovers: Though there were some shipping hangups due to an unfortunately timed Chinese New Year and at least one signing canceled by Denver's newest cookbook celeb, the good news is that Frank Bonanno's self-published, oft-discussed, perpetually delayed tome -- called, simply, Mizuna -- is now on its way out the door, with recipes covering years of Mizuna classics, formalized, sketched out and walked through step by step for the home cook, along with photos by professional food shooter Bill Cooley that are just amazing. Food porn hardly begins to describe it. The book will be available -- soon -- at the restaurant, Tattered Cover stores and other outlets around town.

When I talked to him last week, Bonanno told me that Luca -- his next volume -- is already in the works, though this time he may think twice about having the cookbook printed in China.

A trio of new Italian restaurants debuted with the new year. On Main Street in Littleton, McKibbers is actually more of a pub, but its pizzas are getting great reviews. Undici Ristorante is now open at 1200 East Hampden Avenue, in the old home of Fratelli's. And a Bene Gourmet Pizza has taken over 2623 East Second Avenue, one of those subterranean locations for which Cherry Creek is so infamous. This is the second Colorado outlet for Bene (the original is on East Arapahoe in Greenwood Village, and there are three more in Oregon), which specializes in high-end artisanal pies.

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