For as long as I have been doing this job, I have operated with one unbreakable rule: that absent everything else — decor and design and reputation and style and money and privilege and location and buzz — it is a restaurant's food that matters. Mostly, this rule has been put into practice going in a single direction. Restaurant X was started by a chef with no money, in a terrible location in a toxic neighborhood. He couldn't afford chairs, so every customer eats while sitting on empty peach crates or stacks of old phone books. And every fifteen minutes or so, a crazy bum comes in off the street and punches you in the back of the neck with no warning. Still, the chef at Restaurant X is a goddamn genius, and his risotto is so good that I would gladly knife my own mother if she were standing between me and the last plate of it in the house. That's the way my rule has traditionally worked.
Recently, though, I've had to follow the rule in the other direction. I've been finding myself in houses where the style and the decor and the weird bathrooms and bizarre backstory (rhymes with Weatrice & Boodsley...) have been so forward — so obvious and heavy-handed and intrusive — that I've had to hack through it all like a jungle undergrowth just to get to the food on the other side. Shazz (reviewed on page 35) is one such example: Its mission statements and discussions of personal ethos run hot and heavy, and the overarching gestalt of the place (some kind of weird, jackleg Zen philosophy mixed with a little '70s-style, Free to Be You and Me notions of following your own path and being the you that you really want to be) is so strange, convoluted and, frankly, goofy, that I kind of wanted to kick it around before I'd had a single bite of the food. Luckily, I restrained myself — because the food at Shazz can be fantastic.
But I don't want to go to a restaurant to join a movement or to make any kind of personal statement. I go to a restaurant to eat. That's it. And while tolerating such aggressive propagandizing has generally been worth it, God help the chef who one day comes up with some twisted, bizarre house full of strange decor and stranger philosophy and high-concept food that falls flat.
Don't get me wrong: I enjoy good design, and I like the weird, the quirky and the obsessive. But Denver of late has experienced such a boom in interesting, lovely, high-end and vaguely fusion-y restaurants, I think some owners believe they need to out-freak-show the competition just to be noticed. That is absolutely not the case. While a restaurant like Beatrice & Woodsley might actually have suffered without the storytelling and decor (because without it, the bizarre, turn-of-the-century French/American menu would make no sense), 99 percent of the restaurants out there need nothing more than talent and focus and dedication to stand out. Shazz would've been just as good without the statement of personal philosophy attached. Hell, I might've liked it a little more had I not been eating with the feeling that, at any moment, I might be bullied into signing some sort of locavore petition supporting the Hundred-Mile Rule.
Here we go again: Last week, word came down from Strings (1700 Humboldt Street) that executive chef Aaron Whitcomb had taken his leave of the kitchen. I was crushed. Crushed and a little bit pissed. I was so glad when the charms of the Mile High had lured the former Adega vet back from his Windy City sojourn (where he'd worked at Alinea, for fuck's sake!) that I'd shoehorned Strings into the review schedule, just so I could see what Whitcomb had learned in his time away.
And then, just like that, he's gone. According to his now-former boss, Noel Cunningham (himself ex of the Savoy in London and Harry's Bar in Los Angeles — no small achievements there), Whitcomb was lured away by the siren song of corporate work (read: a ton of money) and is now working in an executive position for the Yia Yia's Eurobistro chain. So Cunningham has promoted Lance Barto to the big-hat position, even though he's just 26 years old. Which means he's only a couple years older than Strings itself.
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"What's exciting for me is to see that young enthusiasm," Cunningham told me. "Lance was sous for Aaron. He's a Denver boy. My hope, in some way, is that I can help and support him." And Cunningham is speaking from experience. After all, after he was hired on as an apprentice at the Savoy, within three years he was appointed sous — at just 23 years old.
Although Barto got the official bump two weeks ago, right after Whitcomb's last day, the menu at Strings hasn't changed dramatically — yet. "I always tell people, don't make too many changes too fast," Cunningham explained. "Wait for the dust to settle." That said, Barto will be writing the spring menu himself and should be putting up the new board sometime around the end of March.
Still, when I asked whether or not his new boy would really be tearing things up, turning the joint into a sushi restaurant or whatever, Cunningham replied, "Good lord, no..."
Leftovers: Restaurateur Radek Cerny got his long-awaited Full Belly up and running at 2779 Iris Avenue in Boulder last week; here in Denver, Sweet Action started dishing up the sweet stuff at 52 Broadway on Friday.