So Stew Me

Cherry Creek isn't exactly overflowing with cheap eats.
Then again, a restaurant can't charge five bucks for an entree when it's paying top dollar for rent.
That's why David Francavilla passed up Cherry Creek when he opened a second location of his Chowda House Light House three years ago, opting instead for Littleton. But the two restaurants did so well that when he was casting about for a third spot last fall, he decided Cherry Creek might work after all.

The latest Chowda House occupies a space along Fillmore Plaza that was recently vacated by Stan's Metro Deli. An expensive space. A space that doesn't get an optimum amount of foot traffic. A risky space. But that doesn't seem to bother Francavilla. "I can make it work," he says. "And if it gets to be too much, then I'll move somewhere else. But I know we can do the job here."

That sounds like the kind of bravado that would be apropos for someone who, say, commanded a cavalry troop in Operation Desert Storm. Which, it just so happens, Francavilla did. Captain of the First Battalion of the Fifth Regiment of General Norman Schwarzkopf's "Blackjack Brigade," he rated a mention in SCUD Stud Arthur Kent's book Risk and Redemption as a member of Schwarzkopf's "toughest, best-trained troops." So how did Francavilla go from running his own show in the Gulf War to running a "clam shack," as he refers to the first Chowda House?

"Well, I took an early retirement out of the Army after eleven years," the fifth-generation Coloradan explains. "I'm a major in the reserves now, and I feel like this is what I should be doing." But he's not doing it alone--he has the help of friends and family, including his cousin Jamie Roll, who manages the Cherry Creek store, and his former platoon sergeant, Pat Kuberry, who acts as a sort of district manager for the three eateries. And then there are Louise and Gloria, two delightful ladies who are, shall we say, of a certain age and who greet customers at the door and fuss over them. "I like to hire wonderful people like them instead of teenyboppers," says Francavilla. "They tend to care about people more, and they take their work seriously."

And Francavilla takes fish seriously. In 1994, when he bought the thirteen-year-old Chowda House in Lakewood, he just wanted to get into the restaurant business--but he was soon hooked on seafood. At the original Chowda House, he kept the decor that evokes memories of ramshackle beachfront refreshment stands. When he decided to expand, though, he settled on a simple, cheery nautical theme--the requisite aquariums, buoys and nets hanging off the walls--that he's used at the Wadsworth and Cherry Creek locations. Although the latter is definitely the snazziest of the three Chowda Houses, it has the same casual feel, the same winning menu--and the same reasonable prices, which are especially welcome in Cherry Creek.

"Mostly, I've added a couple things to the menu and changed a couple of purveyors," Francavilla says. "But the recipes really haven't changed, and the chowder hasn't changed a bit."

The chowder does vary in consistency and content from day to day, however, fluctuating between oatmeal and milk, between choking with clams and potatoes and missing them altogether. On our first visit, the soup ($2.50 per cup) looked like hot cereal and had a reduced quality that could only mean we'd gotten the bottom of the pot. The stew was so thick that we could eat only half of it, and we watched the rest of it virtually solidify before our eyes. It needed salt, too. But the raw oysters ($12 for a dozen) were perfectly fresh and arrived quickly, despite the fact that the joint was jumping.

The service slowed after that and got a bit confused as several employees became involved in the operation. So while our drinks were replaced and our dishes were cleared efficiently, the salad we were supposed to get with the broiled sea bass plate ($16.99) got lost in the shuffle. The waitress wound up bringing it with the entree, but who wanted to waste time on an ordinary-looking dinner salad when sitting right beside it was a hefty hunk of sea bass? The fish had been grilled so gently that the exterior flesh hadn't begun to crisp, and it didn't even have marks. And the interior was so soft that it was like biting into butter. The flavorful fish didn't need any of the red-pepper pesto that came on the side. In fact, while the pesto was great on its own, the garlic-heavy concoction completely overpowered anything we put it on, making it a strange choice to pair with the delicate sea bass.

We'd opted for a baked potato--standard-issue, with sour cream--to accompany the sea bass, so we went with the French fries for the "Ultimate Fishaman's Platter" ($17.99). The tasty spuds joined a large basket full of other fried goodies: oysters, clams, shrimp, scallops and cod. But the breadings were varied, so the packages didn't all taste the same--and you could taste the contents, because nothing had been overfried. While all of it was delicious--really, a fried-food lover's dream--the shrimp definitely stood out. Their buttery breading imparted a sweetness that was just wonderful.

Anyone watching his cholesterol can take heart: Francavilla says he uses only low-hydrogenated, cholesterol-free oil, which makes for a relatively grease-free fry. And since fried items account for about three-quarters of the Chowda House menu, he filters the oil four times a day, which would explain the clean taste that let the seafood shine through.

After all that fried stuff, it seemed ridiculous to want more, but we couldn't resist trying the fried candy bar ($2.99). Francavilla says the dessert was his dad's idea; I'd like to know what his dad's arteries look like. Under a large scoop of vanilla ice cream was a mound of fried dough holding a Snickers bar heated to just-melting--good God. More sensible, if no less fattening, was a slice of Boston cream pie ($2).

Since the place is called the Chowda House, rather than Francavilla's Fryer, on a second visit I focused on the chowder. This time the soup was thinner, with more clams. But it still needed salt. The raw oysters had a funky flavor; they tasted like a bad batch. And the honey-smoked salmon ($7.99) was so dry it wasn't worth eating. We gave up after making it through just a quarter; when the waiter came to take the rest away, we told him the fish was dry. "Really?" he asked, and then held up the piece so he was looking at it from the side. He examined it for what seemed like an eternity, then repeated, "Really?" When we reaffirmed our opinion, he said, "Sorry about that," and then walked away with the salmon. He was gone for a long time. Hope he enjoyed it more than we did.

When he reappeared, the waiter brought our fried oyster sandwich ($5.99), fish and chips ($5.79 for the small order) and crab cakes ($9.99). The excellent sandwich balanced a chewy roll with six tender oysters; it came with a side of coleslaw, an exemplary version that wasn't too mayonnaisey or too sweet. Those good French fries were the chips in the fish and chips; the fish was a nebulous white variety thinly covered with batter. The crab cakes were oddly gooey inside a hard, dry shell of breading. When I mentioned this later to Francavilla, he sounded as though he were going to have a heart attack. "I can't believe you didn't like those," he said. "And I can't believe you didn't like the honey-smoked salmon. Those are two of our most popular items."

He went on to describe both items in terms so opposite from what I'd tasted that I figured the kitchen had suffered some major production snafus during that second visit. So when I returned a third time, I ordered the honey-smoked salmon and the crab cakes--and to hedge my bets, more fried shrimp. (All of the fried items are available "by the boat," which means just the item priced according to weight--in this case, ten shrimp for $6.75.) The kitchen was out of the salmon, so I settled for an order of hushpuppies ($2.65), little balls of seasoned cornmeal that were even better moistened with honey. The crab cakes were much better this time: thicker, less fried, less gooey and tremendously flavorful. Still, the crab mixture was the mush you expect to find stuffed inside shrimp, not in a starring role.

This time the chowder was right on, with an ideal consistency and a perfect balance of clams and potatoes. It still needed salt, though. Francavilla says the recipe is "pure New England, Daniel Webster's classic definition of clam chowder, with cream, clams, potatoes, sauteed onions and seasoning salt. And no celery." So far, he says, he's had few complaints about the chowder--or any other dishes at the Chowda House, for that matter.

"I can change someone's opinion about a meal just by stopping by their table," Francavilla says. "Having a good experience all around is what makes a restaurant work, and when the food's good, too, it's all the better. But people love to get attention, and I love to give it to them."

Francavilla has the right strategy, but in Cherry Creek, the competition for customers can be a bruising battle. He needs to keep his kitchen on the alert for any production problems. Man the torpedoes--and pass the salt.

Chowda House Light House, 158 Fillmore Place, 316-0574. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.


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