The Next Danny Meyer?
I'd like to offer both a stern warning for those who might be headed out to Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace (see review) and a helpful bit of advice for those who refuse to heed it:
At Centro, the bar mixes a caipirihna that could strip paint. The bartenders also serve ice-cold Modelos in the can with a smile. And while a lot has been made (particularly by me, in the March 16 "First, Do No Harm" blog entry) of how owner Dave Query got his bar staff to start thinking like chefs (considering their ingredients carefully, making a well-made cocktail as vital to a meal as any other course coming from the kitchen, and even going so far as to bring in Jim Meehan, the cocktail master from Gramercy Tavern in New York City, for inspiration), what matters here is that caipirihna and what effect it can have on one bantam-weight restaurant critic unwise enough to knock back two of them on an empty stomach in the sun.
They come short, served in rocks glasses, cloudy with hand-squeezed lime juice, simple syrup and five lime wedges. What they should come with are warning labels and business cards for the nearest cab service, addiction counselor and AA meeting. In keeping with the new Query formula for more gastronomic booze, they are unquestionably delicious, deceptively sweet and — after the first sip has effectively stunned you and filled your sinuses with the cold, stinging astringency of icy alcohol vapors — surprisingly easy to drink. But rather than being juiced with just a simple pour of cheapjack well booze as a caipirihna would be at most other bars, Centro's caipirihnas are made with the far more ethnically appropriate cachaca — a sugar cane liquor that most sources will describe (inaccurately) as rum, but which I will tell you is basically just moonshine: South American white lightning that, like the best small-batch mezcals or artisan bourbons, will sneak up on you, wait 'til you're distracted by something like the forty-minute flute-and-upright-bass duet being performed by the hippie jazz combo in the dining room, then hit you like a sledgehammer in the back of the head.
So that's the warning: Be careful when drinking the caipirihna, because it is made with a powerful party liquor created specifically to make poor South American cane farmers forget what shitty jobs they've got. But if, like me, you believe that your body is less a temple than a playground and that moderation is a cop-out best left to pussies, Mormons and macrobiotics enthusiasts, here's the advice. Just down the street from Centro is a large store selling Mexican furniture and peasant handicrafts, a place with few employees and many rooms — one of which is filled with woven blankets and carpets. If you're careful, you can weave your way back there, pick yourself a nice low pile and take a nap without any of the employees being the wiser.
On a slow day, you could probably manage a half hour or so. I was down for about five minutes before Laura found me and asked what I was doing. I told her I was resting. She said that when one is resting sprawled out on a stack of carpets in a public place with his mouth open and his eyes closed, that's actually called something else entirely. That's called passing out.
Meanwhile, back in Denver: I was standing outside the new Oceanaire Seafood Room (1400 Arapahoe Street) talking with Mayor John Hickenlooper...
What? I can hear you scoffing. You think a guy like me — with my lamentable habits and wholly undeserved reputation for highly public bad behavior (except for that nap thing) isn't the sort who gets to kick it with the 'Looper? Well, that's where you're right. Under normal circumstances, he and I don't exactly keep the same hours or roll in the same neighborhoods. And though I'm always willing to stand the man to a couple of beers or a taco platter at any hour of the day or night — his call — he has yet to take me up on my offer. Which is okay. I mean, he does have a city to run. And I've got...you know...stuff of my own to do.
So while Hickenlooper and I may not be BFF, last week I did find myself standing outside Oceanaire with His Majesty, telling all about the caipirihnas at Centro. (What, like I was going to discuss zoning ordinances or tax policy with him? Let's not forget that before he was Mister Mayor, Hickenlooper was an industry guy — a serious and successful bar-and-restaurant owner.) He laughed at all the right places, asked if Centro really was as good as all that (to which I responded with only a wide-eyed and fervent bobbing of my head), and then said, "Dave Query is Denver's Danny Meyer," speaking of the ungodly successful Manhattan restaurateur who, among other things, owns and operates more than a half-dozen houses in one of the toughest markets on earth.
"Although Query is more serious," the Mayor added. "And much more into fly fishing."
Now, I can't speak to the fly-fishing, and I'd also say that Query is probably the less serious of the two (if only because no one who takes his rep too seriously would pick a name like Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace for his restaurant, or decorate it with some of the strangest, best black-and-white portraiture I've seen in a while — all tattooed toughs, kids with guns, mangled old men), but still, the Meyer comparison is dead-on. Both chefs are multi-unit owners who somehow never lose track of any of their restaurants, who tinker endlessly, who succeed brilliantly on occasion, and when they fail, do so with a certain style. They've both got the legs to go the distance. They both know how to take chances. They both have a yen for bringing regional flavors to the unlikeliest locations (coastal fish houses in Denver for Query, pit barbecue in Manhattan for Meyer). Not only that, but in the same way that Danny Meyer defined a whole segment of the New York dining scene (most notably with Union Square Cafe and Gramercy Tavern's emphasis on uncompromising quality in a casual atmosphere), I think Query is now defining a broad swath of a new Colorado cuisine with Centro. Something about the place just moved me — and it wasn't only the drinks.
My first taste of Oceanaire was also impressive. Beyond the pure, stunning volume of incredibly fresh and expertly prepared sea critters I consumed while at table, there was one dish in particular that will soon be carved in bas relief on my tombstone: a bacon steak. Three bacon steaks, actually, beautifully marbled, fatty, each cut about three-quarters of an inch thick, fired in the pan, laid out in a row on a single plate, then served with a little bit of parsley and a really sharp knife. It's the ultimate indulgence, as deadly as it is delicious, and when it was brought to me, I was pretty sure I'd never seen anything so beautiful in my life.
Amazingly, most of chef Matthew Mine's menu is like that. Not made out of bacon (I wish...), but original, indulgent, well thought-out and capable of haunting your dreams. There are unbelievably good chicken-fried oysters in homemade sausage gravy (Mine makes not just the gravy by hand, but the sausage, too) served over a respectable Southern-style biscuit and enormous, icy plateaus de fruits de mer covered in shrimp and oysters, mussels, crab and lobster. Each daily menu has the day's fresh fish plainly marked, but honestly? I was so hung up on the apps and sides, I never made it to the entrees.
Leftovers: After a wild ride, Duy Pham has landed — for now, at least — at Aqua (925 Lincoln Street), where he is currently on the books as chef, general manager and partner, of all things, with owner Jay Chadrom. Just a month ago, Pham was hunting for a spot where he could put a new restaurant with a new concept — and no partners ("Space Case," July 5). "I always thought finding the money would be the hard part about opening your own restaurant," Pham says. "I never thought finding the space would be the hard part."
But it was, and Pham needed work while he was looking, so he wound up returning to Ninth and Lincoln, the site of one of his biggest successes (Opal, also owned by Chadrom and one of the best restaurants in Denver when Pham was the chef there several years ago) and worst failures (Aqua, which was born out of a concept he'd worked on with Chadrom). After just two weeks at Aqua, Pham has a new menu in place and a new crew on the floor (mostly from Kyoto, Pham's former restaurant that just became Eric Roeder's Table Mesa). There still isn't a kitchen — one of the main problems when I trashed Aqua ("On Ice," June 7) — but behind the central bar that serves as a kitchen, you'll find Pham and his right-hand man, sous chef Mario Olabera.
Pham says Chadrom offered him a deal he couldn't refuse: money and title plus a "huge" sweat-equity partnership. "It is my restaurant now," Pham insists. "It was my last resort, to be quite honest with you. But it was my concept. I felt bad it got the review it did. Not to say it didn't deserve it, but I felt bad. I kinda bailed out on him and let him suffer. Now, I want to fix it."
To find out how Pham is doing, check out Second Helping.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.