When Coors Field set up residence by LoDo, the area came down with a bad case of baseball fever--as evidenced by an outbreak of sandwich-serving sports hangouts and frat-boy brewpubs. Several years later, these symptoms show little sign of abating.
Considering the sheer number of eateries that have opened in LoDo, you'd think there would be something for everyone. But up until a few months ago, there was very little for the non-sports fans: the urban professionals and serious foodies who wanted something new but didn't want televisions hanging in their faces as they ate, who weren't looking for love in all the thronged places, who didn't want to have beer spilled on their shoes when they met their spouses for dinner after work.
Then Jax Fish House got into the swim of things. This is the second fish house of the same name from Dave Query, whose first Jax opened in Boulder at the beginning of 1995, a year after he'd introduced his successful Southwestern spot, Zolo Grill, in the same town.
But where Zolo has always attracted a diverse crowd--primarily because of its surprising afford-ability, considering the location, and the high quality of the food--the original Jax became a Pearl Street Mall headquarters for hip, waify people who looked like they'd just stepped out of a Calvin Klein ad. On my visits, I found Jax's food pretty good (with a few execution exceptions), but the prices were up there, and the scene was so hectic that it was hard to relax and enjoy the meal.
The LoDo Jax, which resides in the former--and hardly recognizable--Terminal Bar, has a much less harried feel than its Boulder sibling, and the decor is refreshingly snazzy without being smarmy. (Designer Arch 11 did both Jaxes and Zolo.) Like the interior, the menu has been custom-designed for LoDo's more informal crowds and features a wider range of prices, although they still run to the higher end. But for anyone sick of burger-flipping micro-lounges, Jax is worth the price of admission.
It's also worth the hefty wait you'll invariably find on a weekend night. Jax doesn't take reservations, and even on weekdays there's often a line during peak dining times. If you're game, you can usually find a spot at the raw bar, where you can down a few hot-blooded oyster shooters ($3.50) to kill time. To keep from killing your tastebuds, though, order the mild version; the oyster in Jax's fiery peppered vodka (the restaurant infuses its own alcohol) likes to bite back.
And you'll want full command of your senses for such treats as the "damn good Dungeness crab cakes" ($7.50) which weren't just good--they were damn great. The two spicy, crab-swollen cakes had been griddled to a sweet, buttery brown and came with a cooling red-pepper coulis. We followed them up with a cup of exemplary lobster bisque ($2.75) that was creamy, rich and peppery, and teeming with lobster meat.
The cioppino ($17.50) was even thicker with seafood. A bowl of Jax's version of this fish stew--the original was created by Italian immigrant fishermen in San Francisco--featured several each of clams, mussels and shrimp, along with chunks of salmon and succulent crab legs. The base, which was part cooked-down tomatoes and part heavenly broth, had been darkened in color and deepened in flavor by red wine, and the fresh fish and shellfish had contributed their own essences.
The true catch of our day, though, was the "filet mignon" of tuna ($15.25), an extraordinary marriage of sweet and sour underscored by the rich, softball-sized hunk of tuna that had been grill-seared but left nearly raw in the center. Pickled ginger provided the tangy punch, scallion-flecked grilled potatoes the starch, and the whole exquisite dish was tied together by a thread of sweetened soy sauce. This menu item was created by chef Paul Schutt, who's worked with Query for years and was responsible for opening the new Jax while Query tended to other things--which may include more Denver restaurants in the future.
The tuna was a tough act to follow, but pastry chef Tim Harris did beautifully. His pecan torte ($4.50) packed a toothsome shell with gooey, sugary pecans; the luxurious creme brulee ($4.50) was so rich we couldn't finish the large, heavenly portion. We'd been steered to these confections by our waiter, Mark LeGrand, one of the best servers I've encountered. Throughout the meal, he was knowledgeable, informative, helpful and extremely detail-oriented, down to remembering to bring extra utensils after one of us made a comment about tasting the other's dish.
The server on our second visit wasn't quite as awe-inspiring, but she was still above average. And the food was just as impressive, starting with a round of impeccably fresh raw Penn Cove oysters ($1.80 each) and steamed Prince Edward Island mussels ($7.95) in an excellent red curry cream sauce, and ending with another slice of that pecan torte.
In between, we sampled Jax's robust crawfish-and-andouille gumbo ($2.75 a cup), which was chockful of snappy sausage chunks, long-grain rice, red peppers and onions and sported a zippy cayenne bite. With so much going on, the crawfish got a little lost, but we didn't miss them. Even busier was the linguine carbonara ($12.50), which added smoked salmon (not lox) and wild mushrooms to the conventional pancetta in a cheesy cream sauce. The earthy mushrooms dominated the dish, a fine example of the innovations that can come from experimentation backed by experience and good taste. Although the composition of the oyster po'boy ($7.95) was more familiar, the six plump, cornmeal-coated bivalves became something special with a slathering of celery-seed-studded sauce that fell somewhere between tartar and cocktail; the po'boy came with a vinegar-tart coleslaw and oniony red beans with long-grain white rice.
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You can keep your ballpark hotdogs; I'd rather bite into a sandwich like this. Jax is just what the doctor ordered to fix LoDo's eatery ills.
Let's hope the cure is contagious.
Jax Fish House, 1539 17th Street, 292-5767. Hours: 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 4-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday.