Chef Sean Yontz says he was prepared for some scuttlebutt surrounding his departure from Zenith (815 17th Street) two weeks ago. After all, his exit signaled the breakup of one of Denver's most successful culinary pairings -- Yontz had been working for and/or with famous, sometimes four-star, restaurateur Kevin Taylor for the past eleven years.
Still, Yontz didn't expect anything near the amount of talk that his leaving inspired. "I've been hearing all kinds of things, and I can't believe the stuff people make up about other people," he says. "The bottom line is, I have a seven-year-old son who I want to spend more time with, and you just can't do that in the restaurant business. I went to my son's soccer game the other day, and it was so wonderful to be able to do that."
His decision to leave was really two years in the making, Yontz adds. "Kevin and I could see that we were starting to go in different directions as far as what we wanted to do with the food and the focus of Zenith," he explains.
Sounds reasonable enough, but what about all of the rumors that he walked out in an angry fit in the middle of a Saturday dinner? Not true, Yontz replies. "It was a bad night, but I had already made the decision," he says. "And I didn't just walk out. And Kevin and I didn't have a screaming match or anything like that. It was an absolutely dead night, we had done only thirty covers, and it was the end of my shift. I never stay past eight o'clock on Saturday nights. Since it was so dead, I decided to leave, so I talked to the staff and told them my decision, and I called Kevin and said, 'I need to be done here.' He knew it was coming; I knew it was coming."
If he has plans for his next career move, Yontz isn't revealing them. All he knows for sure, he says, is that he wants to take some time off. "I don't even know if I want to keep working in restaurants," he says. "I figure just being with my family and sleeping a little will help me clear my head and figure out what's next."
(Hmmmm. Sounds just like what another chef named Sean -- Sean Kelly, to be precise -- said when he closed Aubergine last month...after closing The Biscuit the month before. Already open in the old Aubergine space, an intimate little nook at 225 East Seventh Avenue, is Mizuna -- a joint venture by Frank Bonanno and Doug Fleischmann.)
While Yontz is kicking back, Taylor's working harder than ever, running back and forth between Zenith and Restaurant Kevin Taylor (1100 14th Street), while also remembering to stop by jou jou (1106 14th Street) and Palette's at the Denver Art Museum (100 West 14th Avenue Parkway) from time to time. So far, Taylor hasn't picked anyone to replace Yontz at Zenith. And maybe that's significant: Taylor has tried twice now to make this elegant, interesting space work (the first time as Brasserie Z), but thirty covers on a Saturday night just doesn't cut it.
One place that's been doing some bang-up business recently is Basil Ristorante (846 Broadway), which just celebrated its five-year anniversary by welcoming chef David Oliveri back into the fold. Oliveri, who'd elevated Basil onto the list of the town's best Italian restaurants during his two years in the kitchen (he'd also cooked for Basil owner Peter Wolfgang Schlicht at Baci in Genessee Park), more recently had been working at the Denver Buffalo Company. But after the Boulder Concepts Restaurant Group bought that restaurant and installed its own chef, Oliveri let himself be wooed back to Basil. Good move: Oliveri has a deft hand with sauces and likes to create food that's well layered with subtle flavors.
Sadly, another worthy Italian restaurant has poured its last ladle of red sauce. Little Pepina's (3400 Osage), one of the few remaining vestiges of north Denver's Little Italy, closed this month after 61 years (and lots of osso bucco). A mile or so to the northwest, Hilario's (4835 West 38th Avenue) now occupies the space that was Chavez Mexican Foods for 26 years.
Other restaurants would be lucky to last half that long. Señorita's Cantina (1700 Wynkoop Street), for example, barely made it past its second birthday before it was closed for taxes. This great-looking space across from Union Station didn't make it as the Italian Sostanza, either, but I'll always have a soft spot for Señorita's triple-milk cake. Last year, it snagged a well-deserved award in our annual Best of Denver issue.
Which, in case you've somehow missed the announcements, will be coming out again next week. Let the best-hamburger fights begin!
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The Heart of the matter: Before next week's Best Of issue inspires endless debate over the town's best restaurants and dishes, let's all agree that Denver put its best foot forward earlier this month, when "Dining Out for Life Day" raised well over $200,000 for Project Angel Heart, which provides meals for people living with HIV/AIDS. For the March 8 fundraiser, 174 area restaurants agreed to donate 25 percent of that day's food sales to the charity -- and customers were only too happy to do their bit in helping to ring up big, big sales.
Support for the event was so strong, in fact, that many restaurants were completely booked that night, including Dazzle (930 Lincoln Street) and the Fourth Story (2955 East First Avenue). And Goodfriends (3100 East Colfax Avenue) reported the best day in its 21-year history. Goodfriends' sibling eatery, Dixons Downtown Grill (1610 16th Street) did big business, too -- and that's not counting the lunch booked there by City Auditor Don Mares, whose office deemed his support of Project Angel Heart so noteworthy that it sent out not one, but two releases touting it (and both misspelling the name of the restaurant where he chose to eat).
If you'd rather eat in than out -- unless it's for a good cause, of course -- Cook Street School of Fine Cooking (1937 Market Street) is offering a real deal next month: the April Crash Course. The $1,220 program includes four hours of instruction per day, four days a week for the four weeks of April, plus three night classes on bread -- enough time to learn most of the basics of cooking, including knife skills, simple egg cookery, basic stocks, and pastry and bread techniques. Call 303-308-9300, or visit cookstreet.com.