Sweet Smells of Success

In an industry where one out of every four new ventures goes belly-up within the first two years, Noel Cunningham has beaten the odds. He has not one, but three successful restaurants: Strings, Ciao! Baby and 240 Union.

"Actually, I don't know that I perceive them as being successful," Cunningham says with the slightest hint of an Irish brogue. "But I guess if I had to pin down a formula or something, it would be that I never forget who the boss is, and I try to make sure that the people I work with remember that, too."

The boss quit school at the age of fourteen to work in restaurants, and three years later he moved from Ireland to London for a job at the Savoy Hotel. In 1976 Cunningham headed to Los Angeles, where he worked in several restaurants before coming to Denver. He and his partners opened Strings here in 1986, and the restaurant was an almost immediate hit. "I'm a risk-taker," says Cunningham. "But I'm a nervous risk-taker."

And he was nervous in 1988, when he agreed to try to help bail his buddies out of what was then the faltering Fish Market, at 240 Union Street. "I told them I'd do it but that Strings was my primary concern," Cunningham says. In fact, it wasn't until two years later that Cunningham hooked up with chef Matthew Franklin, who was looking for something to follow up his work at the Rattlesnake Club. Cunningham was convinced that Franklin could make the food at the Fish Market work. But first, he took a sledgehammer to the interior. "I put a hole in every wall there," Cunningham recalls. "That way, I wouldn't be tempted to leave any of it alone; I'd have to make it all better."

And so he did, pouring $700,000 into the renovation of what was renamed 240 Union. Gone is the "pit," the term the former owners had used for an appalling sunken area; in its place is a bright, roomy dining room with an open-air feel, plenty of windows, and crisp white linens on the tables.

But when I first tried the restaurant, about three months after it reopened, the food wasn't nearly as snappy as the decor. Although the menu was ambitious, it wasn't as well-rounded as it needed to be, and several of the dishes suffered from production problems.

Today, all of that has changed. Although 240 Union gained immediate attention as a seafood house--putting the Red Lobster next door to shame--Franklin, now a co-owner, and sous chef Theresa Brink have spent the past two years defining and refining the restaurant's offerings. (Cunningham always gives credit where it's due by putting his chefs' names on the menus.) Although the overall emphasis is on Mediterranean, the kitchen has drawn from many other sources. And while there are still plenty of fish in the sea, Franklin's varied roster of pastas, pizzas and entrees features creatures from all walks of life.

But he and his staff have an undeniable way with the kind that swim. An appetizer of wood-oven-roasted mussels ($7) brought the most tender mollusks imaginable, like little pats of butter in their shells. Their flavor was further enriched by a shallot-stung Chardonnay broth; after the mussels were gone we tried sopping up some of the liquid with pieces of lightly oiled, poppyseed-studded bread, but the brew was so intense, so rich and concentrated, that we ultimately had to give it up--sort of a pleasure-pain thing. The Dungeness crab cakes ($8.75)--the best in town, claws-down--were amazing, their fragile, soft meat barely held together by a golden fried coating. Sweet red-pepper catsup and a tart celery remoulade (Franklin changes the accompaniments four times a year, with each new seasonal menu) made perfect sweet-and-sour sense.

Balance is one of Franklin's true strengths as a chef, and he displayed it again with the potato-leek soup ($3), a blend of strong stock, potatoes and leeks. This take on vichyssoise was served warm, but it carried all the richness of the classic--despite its modest billing on the menu as "soup of yesterday." Even more humble was the description of the salad: "some organic greens from the fields and a few croutons" ($3.25). The dressing on the exemplary greens was an unexpected bonus--a mellow balsamic vinaigrette flecked with fresh herbs.

The entrees also were exactly as they'd been described on the menu--a happy situation that I encounter less and less often these days. The grilled pork chop with pistachio crust, Cabernet plum sauce, green onion risotto and little carrots ($15.75) turned out to be just that, and what a beguiling dish it was. The pistachio crust added the right amount of crispness to the nicely cooked chop, and the plum sauce had a sweetness that complemented the nuts. The little-used lingonberry--a relative of the cranberry, it grows wild in Maine, where it is also called a cowberry--surfaced in an entree billed as duck with lingonberry sauce, stewed spinach and potato cakes ($15.50). The combination was stunning, with the berry enhancing the duck's own sweetness at the same time it proved the perfect counterpoint to the spinach's bite.

Our luck held when we returned for lunch. The saffron risotto with salmon, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms ($8.75) was truly too much of a good thing--you'd have to eat bread and water for weeks to be ready for this dish--but it was heavenly, with big hunks of barely cooked salmon in the saffron-yellow rice. More appropriate for midday munching were the two pizzas that emerged from the wood-burning ovens. We'd taken a risk by ordering one with prosciutto, portabellos and arugula salad ($8.50); arugula's bitter outlook can ruin your day. But here it worked, with the oil-slicked greens served room-temperature atop the hot pizza, their bite balanced by the salty prosciutto. And the wonderful air-pocket-puffed crust was good enough to eat on its own. Our second pizza was more traditional--three cheeses, roma tomatoes and fresh basil ($7.50)--but no less a masterpiece.

Although each pizza was large enough for two people, we couldn't pass up the almond tuile with mascarpone mousse and balsamic black-pepper strawberries ($5). The thin cookie tuile (pronounced "tweel") was shaped like a cannoli and filled with the mildly sweet cheese. The real trick, though, was hooking up these components with strawberries, spicy black pepper and tangy balsamic, opposites that made for an attractively unsweet yet satisfying finish.

But while 240 Union's food was consistently on the money (as was its down-to-earth wine list, which offered something nice in every price range), the service was spotty. During peak eating times, apparently the key is to make ordering decisions quickly; telling the waitstaff you're not quite ready could mean a ten- to fifteen-minute wait before you get another try. By the time dessert rolled around, we were competing with a full house, and we considered ourselves lucky to even get the tuile.

Obviously, the lag time doesn't bother too many people, because every time we've gone there the place has been hopping. In fact, 240 Union's gross has been high enough to place it in the top twenty independently operated local restaurants, with over $1.5 million in sales the year before last.

Apparently, nothing succeeds like success. But at this restaurant, Noel Cunningham deserves everything he gets.

240 Union, 240 Union Boulevard, Lakewood, 989-3562. Hours: 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m.; 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m., 5-10:30 p.m. Friday; 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.


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