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Shazz has a seriously bad name, and seriously good food

See more photos of Shazz at westword.com/slideshow.

I was at the diner. My cell phone rang. It was Laura.

"So where are you going to dinner?"

"I already told you."

"Yeah, but I can't remember."

"Shazz," I whispered.

"What?"

"Jesus, don't make me say it out loud in public."

"Just tell me the name, Jay."

"Shazz," I said a little bit louder.

"Shazz?"

"Yeah."

"I can't find it online."

"With two z's."

"Seriously?" she asked, laughing. "Oh, my God..."

Shazz. It's got to be one of the goofiest names out there — a name that's embarrassing to say out loud, and sounds even funnier when you say it in a breathy whisper and add some Bob Fosse jazz hands. Shazz opened last November, at a time when so many other oddly or unfortunately named restaurants opened around Denver that I can only assume all the good names were taken. Someone snapped up Root Down (bad enough). Someone else got the Fainting Goat (so bad it's funny). After that, all that was apparently left at the Office of Restaurant Name Availability and Registration were Shazz, Zymurgy, HullyGully's, Taste of Pacoima and The Cryptosporidiosis Cafe. Benny Kaplan went with Shazz for the place he opened in northwest Denver, right by Billy's Inn and Tocabe and Cafe Brazil.

But what does Shazz mean? "If you threw out all pre-conceived notions and societal pressures and became the person you always wanted to be, you would be Shazz," chirps the restaurant's website. "Shazz is that rare harmony between what is and what is desired, or that equally elusive state of finding ourselves exactly where we want to be. Shazz is a place or time where everything comes together just right — a ripeness of moment, a synchronicity of elements — and this is what we bring to every aspect of the dining experience at Shazz Cafe and Bar."

That's a direct quote: the philosophy of Shazz, as espoused by owner/executive chef Kaplan. Reading that, it's tough to take anything that comes after seriously. It's kind of like that time in college when your roommate became a Buddhist for a week, or that other time when your best friend went in to have his warts cured with crystals and herbs and Gaia water, or that time your ex had one wine spritzer too many and suddenly started spouting off about her belief in Xenu, Martians and the Illuminati. After something like that, it's hard to listen to anything a person says without filtering it through the knowledge that, at one point or another, they took the crazy train all the way down to the last stop at Cuckoo Junction. It's hard to watch them do anything without thinking, "Dude, you can do whatever you want, but I know for a fact that you once paid $400 to have some woman in Jesus robes and twigs in her hair tell you how certain colors in your life were keeping you from financial success — and frankly, every breath you've taken in my presence since then has been highly suspect."

That's Shazz: the culinary equivalent of the friend who still gets high and talks endless circles about how particle/wave duality means that nothing in the world is really real, the friend who still wears crystals and Birkenstocks and believes that she's the reincarnation of an Amazonian priestess, the Shirley MacLaine or Anne Heche of the restaurant world.

When a restaurant operates under such a crunchy ethos, the whole greenmarket/foodshed/organic-and-all-natural-and-locally-sourced paradigm inevitably follows. Thus does Kaplan, owner and executive chef, proudly list Shazz's sources and suppliers and the website: beef from the sustainable River Ranches in Steamboat, organic chicken from Eastern Plains Natural Foods in Bennett, seeds and microgreens (which get used here a lot) from Altan Alma in Boulder, hand-picked produce from Growers Organic right here in Denver.

And, of course, once a man starts down this path, there's no way he can come up with a normal menu, bound by the strictures of fascistic artificial borders and oppressive culinary classicism. No, he must be free to fly — to cook what he wants, when he wants, without concerning himself with petty political boundaries and thousands of years of tradition. If he wants to make a surf-and-turf, why can't it be French beef tartare, Japanese tuna tartare and Italian truffle oil together on one plate? If he likes lentils, then he should have a lentil soup alongside Italian gnocchi, Israeli couscous, pea tendrils, bread pudding and a vegetarian cassoulet that, by strict definition, can't even really exist inside any known canon, but does here because this is Shazz, and Shazz doesn't recognize things like definitions...

I thought I knew a lot about Shazz before I stepped through the door, with every expectation of terrible things being done to helpless ingredients, of vintage '80s plates of food stacked and doodled with squeeze-bottle sauces, of soft jazz on the radio and expressionist art on the walls and pamphlets about the Swami Vivekananda by the door. As it turns out, I was right about the jazz and the art, but that was about it. Because the food at Shazz is wonderful, and in the end, that's all that matters.

I went on a Sunday, because Sunday is generally the weakest day for any kitchen, and I went on the Sunday immediately following Denver Restaurant Week, when, following the exertions of that Denver-only food holiday, most chefs and crews are thrashed. I went early. I went when the cement-floored, nicely appointed room with its hanging doors and gleaming wine glasses was virtually empty. I basically did everything I could to stack the deck against Shazz because, for one, I'm a jerk, and for two, a kitchen should perform just as well under terrible circumstances as it does under the best. That's just part of the job.

But rather than getting leftovers, something a tired-out sous was throwing together while he prayed to whatever god was listening that the night would come to a quick and quiet end, I got Colorado's own 5 Barrel ale poured into a nice, straight-backed pilsner glass by a server who could actually answer all my questions about the menu (what's Haloumi cheese and what's the daily pizzetta, and where does the monkfish come from) and never tried to oversell the whole look-at-us-we're-better-than-you aspect of the all-local/all-sustainable menu. She was cool about it, too, offering some good suggestions, and then brought me a plate of braised oxtail and microgreens over Asiago grits that was just plain amazing. It was small — five bites, maybe — but great care had gone into the correct preparation of every element. The shredded oxtail was so tender it literally melted in my mouth. The dark gravy was rich and savory, an ideal foil for the whitewashed grits at the bottom of the plate and the thin, almost subliminal stain of what I believe was sage oil. Even the microgreens acted as more than just garnish, bringing a tiny bite of sourness to each mouthful that included them.

Shazz's kitchen does baby cockles rather than the more traditional mussels, putting them in a white-wine broth with garlic and leeks — the mussels' natural environment. It does a straight Californian beet salad with cubed red and gold beets (local, of course), sheep's milk cheese (local, of course) and a lemon-oregano emulsion as dressing. It hand-rolls its own orechiette every morning and makes parsnip gnocchi that are the gnocchi I've spent years searching for: stiff and dense, bland on their own but the perfect transport vehicle for a beef-cheek ragu with tomatoes (heirloom, of course, red and yellow, though not exactly in season in Colorado in February) and pea tendrils and shards of sweet-sour Asiago cheese. The bread that I used to mop up every last bit of that ragu was an excellent sourdough, made right in the back by what was obviously a very talented baker, and brought to the table not with butter, not with oil and balsamic, but rather a tiny dish of amazing scratch basil pesto and another tiny dish of scratch some-other-kind of pesto that tasted of vanilla and walnut and some other oddities perhaps pulled down off the patissier's shelf.

For my entree, I skipped the wild monkfish with Israeli couscous and Cara Cara oranges, the rabbit four ways (as a grilled loin, a sausage, a braised leg and a jus with candied cranberries) and the insane pork loin chop with beet risotto, sunflower-seed parfait, cipiollini marmalade and cider reduction in favor of the one highly classical presentation on the board: a chicken roulade. Naturally, Kaplan's kitchen couldn't be satisfied with something as simple as that, and turned the pounded (all-natural, organic, sustainable, heritage) chicken breast into a cigar, tightly rolled around a filling of Roquefort, arugula and sunchoke. It was the only marginal failure of the night — the footy, funky Roquefort overpowering the more delicate flavors of arugula and good chicken, the baby fingerling potatoes not just burned, but purple Peruvians as well, which don't taste good no matter what you do to them. The plate wasn't bad, just not quite as expertly prepared and rationally thought out as every other plate I tried that night and on subsequent visits. Strange how the most traditional, classical and canonical preparation on the entire board was the one that half fell apart, when the weirdest and most jarring juxtapositions worked in a wonderful, wedded fashion.

But that's just Shazz, baby. Say it with me and do the jazz hands: Shazz...


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