Even by the admittedly lax rulebook I use in this job, Toast (see review, page 41) was not in line for a review. It's been open all of six weeks, and standard operating procedure for most critics calls for a restaurant to be open at least two months, usually three, before it's considered ready for a critique.
So why the sudden bump to the front of the line? First and foremost, Toast was ready -- simple as that. Although this is the first restaurant that partners Jason Parfenoff and Bill Blake have owned (Blake did stints with the P.F. Chang's and Pei Wei Asian Diner chain; both are veterans of Colorado's Peaberry Coffee), the service was on, the menu was tight, and everybody in the place was smiling, happy and competent.
When I talked to Parfenoff on the phone last week, he proudly copped to lifting everything he knows about how to make a restaurant work from the chain operators. "I stole from everybody," he said, laughing. But when you find something that works, you should use it. And Toast definitely works.
Had I found even one flaw, I would have held off on the review, given the joint the usual grace period and the crew time to pull things together. But that wasn't necessary. Over the course of my many meals at Toast, the worst thing that happened was that I got a cup of coffee from the bottom of the self-serve pot. (Toast uses Intelligentsia coffee, from one of the top roasters in the country, out of the Chicago area.) Seriously, that was it. Everything else was pancakes and rainbows.
Second, Robert Alfaro -- a hotel and fine-dining pro from Illinois lured away from a potential gig with McCormick & Schmick's by Parfenoff and Blake -- had brought a trained chef's eye for ingredients and combinations to a simple menu, turning it into far more than a rote recitation of runny eggs, burned bacon and ham sandwiches. Truth is, a menu (if not the kitchen) should be ready when a restaurant opens, from the minute people start paying for the pleasure of having said kitchen cook for them. And if a cook and his crew can't get pancakes and eggs Benny right after six weeks, they're never gonna. For proof of that, see my Second Helping on Snooze, page 45.
Finally, there was me. When I find a place I like as much as I liked Toast, I can't wait to tell people about it. Rules or no rules, I'd already blabbed about it to everyone I knew -- so why not let a few hundred thousand of my closest friends (that's you) in on the secret, too? Of course, if all of you out there get it in your heads to come looking for pancakes at the same time, there might be a bit of a wait for a table...
The fixer: The appearance of James Mazzio, one of Food & Wine magazine's "Best New Chefs" of 1999, at a line position in Denver is serious good news. Over the years, Mazzio has been everywhere from Range and Rustique -- both owned by Colorado's first F&W Best New Chef, Charles Dale -- to Mezzaluna, 15 Degrees (where he earned his own accolade), Triana, ChefJam and, most recently, a disastrous stint trying to open a fine-dining restaurant attached to a Chicago art gallery, the Studio of Long Grove. And about two months ago, hot on the heels of the departure of former exec Rollie Wesen, Mazzio started in Via's kitchen.
"You know, I read what you said about the place," Mazzio told me when I got him on the phone last week, referencing my last, less-than-glowing assessment of Via's cuisine (Bite Me, October 26). "And you were right. I'll tell you, I was kind of leery to take on a ship that had a few holes in it."
But that's exactly what he did, quietly stepping into the kitchen and running with a very light menu for a while, then adding to it, then adding some more. Last week he finally rolled out his new, full dinner menu -- and it sounds like a good one. "I wanted to do something approachable," he explained. "Comfortable. I want everyone to come in here."
The lineup is simple and straightforward: pizzas from the wood-fired ovens, PEI mussels arrabbiata with plum tomatoes, black-pepper frites served with horseradish cream, a cookbook-standard linguine fra diavolo muscled up with a lobster tail, gnochetti in a sweet sausage Bolognese and pan-seared gnocchi with braised lamb shank and Balsamic onions.
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While I was on the phone with Mazzio, he kept going away to talk to his cooks, to explain this, detail that. More than anything, he's excited just to be cooking again. That Illinois detour took him away from the burners for a year; he didn't cook at all. Sure, he was collecting a check, but "I wanted to be doing what I love to do," Mazzio explained. "Being lazy? That's up there. But I'd rather be cooking. It's these inexperienced people who think they can open a restaurant that kill me. It was a bit of a nightmare." The restaurant never did open.
But Illinois's loss is our gain. Welcome home, Jimmy.
Leftovers: Speaking of breakfast, Huddle House, a massive chain, is looking to expand into Colorado. Actually, it's looking to expand just about everywhere -- moving out of its traditional Southern stronghold and into the wider world. A Huddle House is like the secret love child of a Waffle House and a Gunther Toody's, all chrome and Formica with an open short-order line and a menu heavy on gigantic breakfasts, most of them covered in gravy. But there's one thing Huddle House doesn't have: pancakes. So the guys at Toast have nothing to worry about.
Matt Selby and Josh and Jen Wolkon of Steuben's and Vesta Dipping Grill will host "Plates for the Peak" on January 22 at Vesta (1822 Blake Street). Just $65 buys entertainment and unlimited food and drink, with all proceeds going to Urban Peak. For reservations, call 303-296-1970.