I first encountered Theo Roe's cooking at Pinots, a restaurant that seemed to have everything going for it, not the least of which was a talented chef. Still, the place closed down in August 1997 at the ripe old age of nine months.
"It was just a combination of things that didn't work out there, many factors," says Roe. "I think some of Pinots' problem was the combination of the type of food and the neighborhood." Dazzle, the restaurant that Roe and partners Karen Storck and Mike Peterson opened five months later, has the same chef and is only a few blocks away from the old home of Pinots--but those blocks seem to have made all the difference, at least at night.
Much of the credit must go to Storck, who peeled away layers of grime and bad taste left by the space's previous tenant, Fuji-En, and converted former atami rooms into stage-like seating areas, a booth-lined bar and a semi-private, sofa-stuffed lounge. She cast the interior in the bold new Crayola colors of Mauvelous, Wisteria, Tickle Me Pink and Timberwolf (that's a lot of dark lavender, deep pink and gray, for those of you without kids) and added dapper touches like whirligig-scattered fabric on the walls and a display case full of vintage shakers and funky dining bric-a-brac. The result is a fun, urban-chic dining space. Toss in the jazz that floats overhead and cleverly concocted martinis that go right to your head, and Dazzle not only bedazzles, it often stuns the senses.
So does the New American food put out by Roe and his savvy staff. Roe, who grew up in State College, Pennsylvania, first learned to cook at his grandma's side; from there he moved on to a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and stints at Napa's Mustards and Manhattan's Cafe Luxembourg. But while he's quick to commend all the chefs he's worked with in the past, as well as his current kitchen mates, for the delicious dishes coming out of Dazzle's kitchen, Roe's clearly the man responsible.
Many of these dishes reprise items that were popular at Pinots, such as the crispy polenta with wild mushrooms, pinot noir essences and mascarpone ($6). Dazzle's version was upscale comfort food, creamy-centered cornmeal mush fried crunchy on the outside and smothered with an earthy, concentrated sauce thick with mushrooms and enriched by a dollop of mascarpone, the Italian super-soft double-cream cream cheese. The Prince Edward Island mussels ($8) were a new addition to Roe's roster, swimming in a lemon-caper butter that added an interesting, acidic saltiness to the bivalves. And I certainly would have remembered if I'd sampled the tomato-and-white-bean soup ($4) before: The thick, soothing puree of roasted tomatoes and cannelini beans bolstered by grana cheese was remarkable.
The lamb shank ($17), however, was definitely a familiar--and welcome--sight. The big ol' lamb shin had been simmered in a wine-based mixture until the meat nearly melded with it; a few spoonfuls of peppercorn aoli cut through the richness of the lamb and its juices. The shank came with a not-too-mushy carrot puree and one of Roe's most memorable sides, a mash of root vegetables heavy on leeks and fennel. Roe's attention to sides often makes the critical difference in his dishes. For example, his smoked Sonoma duck ($17), half a bird in a mellow, almond-chunky curry sauce, was fine on its own--but it really flew paired with a side of sharply tart mango chutney.
Although much of Dazzle's fare ventures into New American territory, Roe is also at home with more traditional dishes. His take on classic spaghetti carbonara ($12) was one of the best I've tasted (see Mouthing Off for the recipe). Carbonara is one of my favorite dishes, a foodie's cornucopia of all the important artery-clogging ingredients: pancetta (Italian bacon), cream, butter, eggs and cheese. Its origins, however, are widely disputed and, like the legend of the Caesar salad, hard to pin down authoritatively. Most of the tales revolve around American soldiers in Italy during the war--homesick fellows longing for their bacon and eggs--and the Italian chefs who improvised spaghetti alla carbonara to help them out (or, perhaps, to assist the enemy by giving the soldiers heart disease).
Whatever its origins, once the recipe caught on in this country, we managed to mangle it into a cheap jumble suitable only for people who eat regularly at Perkins. Most of the versions I've tried in American restaurants have included peas, for God's sake, and either American bacon, which is smokier and saltier than Italy's, or cheap deli ham. But Roe remains faithful to the original components, and his carbonara walks the thin line between too rich to eat and too rich not to.
After all that, we didn't think we'd still be hungry for dessert, but the waiter described "grandma's drunken chocolate cake" ($5) so appealingly that we couldn't resist. And since we were going there, we thought we might as well try the apple cobbler ($5) and the gingerbread ($5), too. The dense, bourbon-spiked chocolate cake was the best of the lot, with the flavor of bourbon coming just at the end of each bite. Oddly, the other desserts had both been drizzled with an alcohol-laced sauce--a bad move on the part of the pastry chef.
But that was one of only two quibbles I had with Dazzle. The other was that while October is designated as "oyster month" at the restaurant, only one oyster item was offered during each of my visits there--and neither was an attention-grabber. At dinner it was a dozen Malpeques--amusingly mispronounced by the otherwise knowledgeable staff, it alternately sounded as though the oysters hailed from Ireland (Malachy) or the Denver Zoo (Macaque). At lunch it was an oyster po'boy, which was much less intriguing than the rest of the menu.
Instead, we went with a tried-and-true repeat from Pinots: the Dungeness crabcakes ($9), which I'd picked as the best in town in the 1997 Best of Denver. They're still award-winning: two packages packed with crabmeat and herbs, held together by shells of crispy yet moist breadcrumbs. The cakes came with good fries and Roe's unique vanilla-bean slaw, a fresh, crunchy mix of red and green bell peppers and red and green cabbage with a fresh vanilla flavor. The country salad ($6) featured equally fresh mixed greens coated with vinaigrette and supplemented by grilled pears, roasted walnuts and Stilton cheese, a cheeky but welcome alternative to the usual gorgonzola. A creamy, zesty aoli topped the perfect medium-rare fillet in the excellent entree salad of grilled Atlantic salmon with chilled Yukon gold potatoes and baby carrots ($11).
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This time the dessert offerings were more varied and more remarkable, in keeping with the rest of the fine meal. While the decadent chocolate chip cookie ($5) was topped with chocolate ganache, the New York-style cheesecake ($5) boasted a thick coating of a sour-creamy creme frache that added a tangy jolt to each bite. The combination was, well, dazzling.
What wasn't was the tiny lunch business. Although Storck and Peterson, who run the front of the house, have managed to staff the place with refreshingly astute, efficient and downright charming servers and bartenders, their efforts often go unappreciated outside the late-night and weekend crowds. At lunch and during weekday dinners, Dazzle is sometimes so quiet that, amid all the brash colors and dramatic furniture, you feel like you're eating in an art museum--alone.
Fortunately, Roe creates dishes appropriate for the setting: They're masterpieces.
Dazzle, 930 Lincoln Street, 303-839-5100. Hours: 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday.