Meating a need: After a recent trip to New York, Mayor Wellington Webb came down with a bad case of the corned-beef blues -- the inevitable result of eating big, fat sandwiches filled with the good stuff in NYC and then returning to the vast deli wasteland that is Denver.
When a desperate Webb aide called for a corned-beef cure, I recommended two eateries: New York Deli News (7105 East Hampden Avenue) and The Corporate Deli and Grill (510 17th Street), both of which serve the kind of salty, well-seasoned deli meat you get in the Big Apple. Apparently the Corporate Deli got the order, because, the aide told me, the mayor "has to have it right now, and fast."
I know how he felt: When I was in Phoenix last week, I was desperately seeking a good bowl of green chile. At Los Dos Molinos (8646 South Central), the green was all about heat (and lots of it), with no flavor beneath -- perhaps because the kitchen used beef rather than pork. Worse, the eatery's operation was maddeningly sloppy: There was no system in place for folks awaiting tables; our change (from a $50, mind you) was given to another diner, who promptly left with it; the whole meal, which in Denver at Benny's Restaurant y Cantina (301 East Seventh Avenue) would take about 45 minutes, stretched over nearly two hours.
In fact, the service I encountered at Phoenix eateries made Denver restaurants look sharp by comparison. I'd heard great things about chef Charles Wiley, a past Food & Wine Top Ten Best New Chefs winner, at elements (5700 East McDonald Drive, Paradise Valley). But while his food was mostly wonderful (although my overcooked scallops were a bummer, and the plates all looked like they'd been overly fussed with) and the night view was stunning, we were so worn out after three hours of sitting there that we tried to cancel dessert (it came anyway). We finally walked away from the server trying to give us after-dinner chocolates -- we just had to get out of there.
It didn't help that this otherwise snazzy, just-short-of-pretentious space -- very clean lines, all chrome and black with a jade bar -- was in a hotel that caters to large groups of loud people from Texas; our meal, then, was punctuated by drunken toasts and a lot of cell-phone activity (including a phone that hit the back of one of our heads). On top of that, Arizona's official state historian, Marshall Trimble, who was at the table next to ours, began strumming his guitar and singing, which under any other circumstances might have been delightful. Here, it just added to the hellacious atmosphere. I did admire one nice touch: Each diner gets a steamed, lemon-scented towel to wash with when he sits down.
We had a better meal with better service at Nonni's Kitchen (4410 North 40th Street, Phoenix), a new "comfort Italian" that cooked up several stunners: a sweet butternut-squash soup, killer carpaccio, a plateful of grilled focaccia so addictive that we ordered a second helping, and, for dessert, some unique Italian doughnuts that had been rolled in cinnamon sugar and sat in a sticky, super-sweet strawberry syrup. Still, we were stuck at Nonni's for several hours, too.
Our favorite meal was a surprise: We went to El Chorro Lodge (5550 East Lincoln Drive, Paradise Valley) because we were tired after a day of hiking and it was close to our hotel. This 65-year-old spot still makes the heavenly sticky buns it offered when it first opened (they come in a complimentary, bottomless bread basket). The menu was so old-school -- Châteaubriand, lamb chops, orange roughy, prime rib -- that we rolled our eyes, but between the impeccable service and the dead-on cooking, I'd go back in a heartbeat. My lobster tail was flash-fried instead of broiled, which left the flavor in and the texture soft, and my partner's New York cut was a stellar piece of meat. The margaritas were wonderful, the tangy, cheese-packed Roquefort dressing so good that we loaded it onto crackers, and the pecan pie was the best I've had outside of New Orleans.
In fact, I have a craving for it right now. I wonder if Mayor Webb knows where I can find a good pecan pie in Denver?
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Ch-ch-ch-changes: Alice, we hardly knew ye. After less than a year, Alice Cooper's Cooper'stown (1909 Blake Street) gave up the ghost. And the ink was barely dry on Jeff Cleary's first contract with the Pinnacle Club (555 17th Street) when the board at the semi-private spot (the former Petroleum Club) decided not to give him another one. Although Pinnacle officials will not share the reason for their decision, two spokeswomen said the place plans to launch a nationwide search for a new executive director. "We will be changing some things," added one. "Interim management will take care of the day-to-day until we find someone new, and we'll be changing the dinner menus."
The menu at Bravo! Ristorante (1550 Court Place) has also changed -- for the better -- since former Fourth Story chef Chris Cina signed on with the Adam's Mark eatery. Cina, who left last spring to work for the Palace Hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, says the September 11 attacks were partly responsible for his decision to return to Denver. "I was there to eventually replace one of the chefs, but he decided to stay," Cina explains. "They offered me a job elsewhere in the hotel, but there was nothing else there I really wanted to do, and I felt like I'd really covered the job I'd been working. So I started traveling around a little, in Germany and London, and thought about doing something there. But then September 11 happened, and all I really wanted to do was come home."
But when he got here, he found that things in the restaurant business had tightened considerably. "I spent about six to eight weeks knocking on doors, asking around, but there aren't many positions available right now," he says. "Then a friend told me about Bravo!" The restaurant had lost its chef, Doug Ganz, in August, and Cina decided to check out the opening. Now he's glad he did. "This kind of thing, European-Italian food, isn't something I'd have thought of doing on my own, but it's definitely turning out to be a challenge, stretching me," he says. "That's always a good thing."
Since Bravo! was still using its summer menu, updating it was Cina's first order of business. He says the hotel's executive chef, Patrick Delaney, gave him free rein, which Cina has used to assemble a roster of intriguingly updated Italian classics, including char-grilled salmon with red-wine truffle sauce, lentils and cippolini onions, and veal loin stuffed with artichokes, tomatoes and garlic with zucchini "spaghetti" in a lemon-caper sauce. At lunch, the sweet Italian-sausage panino with fresh mozzarella and marinara could be good enough to catch the mayor's attention.