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Things Are Looking Up

Up and coming: The Tamayo team includes (from left) Amauri Moctezuma, chef Sean Yontz, Marco Colantonio, Jesse Marsters and Mauricio Piccone.
Q Crutchfield

Upscale Mexican food? Denver diners think they've been there, done that.

"I shouldn't have to pay $20 for rice and beans," we whine, even as we shell out the same amount for upscale noodles and tomatoes. "We already have plenty of Mexican restaurants here," we claim, then rush to try whatever's opened this month, only to abandon it for whatever opens the next. Granted, not every attempt at upscale Mexican has been worthy -- we were happy to say adios to Señorita's -- but others, such as the also defunct Cafe Iguana, had more going for them than Denver diners were willing to admit. Or support.

Now's the time to put our money where our mouths should be. An undeniably upscale Mexican restaurant, Tamayo carries all the key ingredients for success: a nationally recognized owner; a talented local chef; a roster of interesting, creative dishes; a kitchen that's capable of executing those dishes; a service staff that tries hard, knows its stuff and smiles a lot; and tequilas -- lots of tequilas. Not to mention the best view from a rooftop patio in town, overlooking the mountains from the edge of Larimer Square.

Richard Sandoval started preparing for his career as a restaurateur when he was a tyke in Acapulco, where his family owned two well-known eateries. With cooking firmly entrenched in his psyche, he moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and not long after graduation -- and right after earning Mexico's National Toque D'Oro, or chef of the year, honor -- he opened Savann and Savann East, two contemporary French spots that flank Manhattan. But Sandoval always felt the pull of his native cuisine, and a few years later he started Maya, a contemporary Mexican restaurant. He later sold both Savanns and focused on expanding Maya, opening another restaurant in San Francisco and, this year, launching Tamayo -- named for the late, much beloved Mexican artist Rufín Tamayo -- in both Denver and West Palm Beach. The Tamayos feature the same menu as the Mayas, and Sandoval jets back and forth between them all while also working on a soon-to-be-released cookbook and an as-yet-unnamed PBS cooking show.

To keep the center holding, Marco Colantonio, the director of operations who's overseen all four Maya/Tamayo restaurants from the start, has taken up permanent residence in Denver. He watches over a room that's been transformed from its days as Cadillac Ranch, with mottled-butter walls accented by artist Tamayo's murals, and an inviting, mosaic-dominated bar. Sean Yontz mans the kitchen, a smart choice given his good sense of taste and twist displayed over a decade spent cooking at Zenith, Cafe Iguana and other Kevin Taylor projects. Released from the inevitable constraints of the longtime Taylor collaboration, Yontz seems in his element. Although Tamayo's recipes all come from Sandoval, Yontz's unmistakable precision and tight execution are very much in evidence.

Yontz also brought a valuable knowledge of Denver's diners. "Richard's recipes are all great and well conceived," he says. "But there are a few dishes, like the lamb, that I don't think Denver diners are getting. So we're looking at that dish, and I think we're going to make some changes to make it more palatable to this market. And we may change a few other things to fit in better with the way Denver eats."

But Yontz has found himself pleasantly surprised by those same diners' willingness to try dishes well outside the usual Mexican repertoire of green chile, burritos and anything covered with cheap, gloppy cheese. Not that those things are inherently bad, but there's much, much more to Mexican cooking than the Americanized items we're so fond of in this town. Tamayo gives us a taste of what's out there: manchego cheese (a salty, nutty sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha, Spain), plantains, achiote, rajas (bell-pepper strips), jicama, crema fresca (Mexico's answer to crème fraîche) and huitlacoche (pronounced "wheet-la-ko-chay"), the black corn smut that's regarded as crop-ruining fungus by most farmers in these parts but is considered a delicacy in Mexico. For anyone who values the heady, bold flavors of Périgord truffles and foie gras, corn smut is nothing short of heaven. It's also expensive and sometimes hard to find, as is the case right now. Although Yontz has Maya sending a case out from New York, Tamayo was out of it when we visited. So we didn't get to try the huitlacoche dumplings that usually come in the sopa de elote, or maize soup, a dreamy-textured, creamy concoction made from roasted corn. The kitchen did have a bottle of huitlacoche-pumped vinaigrette, though, and it had been used to add a stunning, purplish-black decorative element as well as some earthy flavor.

The gazpacho was another wonderful soup, a tangy, avocado-based take on the traditional Spanish recipe that boasted a well-melded blend of all of the flavors except for the cucumber, which brought a sweet undertone. More sweetness came from the mound of lump crabmeat shreds that adorned the top of the soup, along with tiny puddles of chile mulatto oil. Dried, the mulatto chile looks kind of like an ancho, but it's darker and has a faint sugariness, as well as an earthy quality that cut the gazpacho's richness.

The convivial atmosphere, along with the intriguing appetizer roster, makes it tempting to graze your way through a Tamayo meal -- especially after you've tried a three-shot flight of tequilas (check out the ultra-smooth Chinaco Anejo in the Suave flight) or a few margaritas. (Tamayo recently introduced Hora Feliz, a happy hour that offers free botanas, or Mexican hors d'oeuvres, as well as tastes of tequila when you order a marg.) The frozen Margarita Zarzamora, with coconut juice and a splash of raspberry liqueur sparking the house Herradura Silver tequila, proved just the thing to soothe the faint bite of the chile relleno, a starter that's one of Sandoval's signature dishes. Rather than the usual limp, cheese-stuffed-pepper blob smothered in green chile, this roasted poblano had been left largely alone, bare on the outside and split open to reveal a center crammed with shrimp and scallops mixed with manchego; it sat atop a purée of chile de arbol salsa crisscrossed with crema fresca and dotted with chive oil.

Other appetizers featured similarly savvy combinations. The tamal al chipotle brought a corn husk filled with steamy hot corn masa and bits of juicy, shredded chicken, all draped in a deeply smoky, spicy chipotle sauce, with dots of crema fresca cooling things off. The ceviche was brilliant in its simplicity: mahi mahi marinated in lime juice until just done, then gently blanketed in a tomato sauce that was the gourmet version of the sweet-and-sour shrimp-cocktail liquid you find at Denver's more authentic Mexican restaurants. The quesadillas surtidas put flour-tortilla types to shame; these corn masa wrappers cradled Oaxacan cheese (a salty white noted for its melting qualities), rajas and zucchini blossoms, with a fresh salsa, crema fresca and cotija cheese (an aged cheese reminiscent of feta) offering little taste treats all around the plate's perimeter.

Even the simplest entrees seemed exotic. A true mole is hard to come by in this town, but Tamayo prides itself on taking the eight to ten hours necessary to create a multi-layered mole. (The name comes from the Nahuatl word molli, meaning "concoction," and the sauce has as many family and regional variations as marinara.) For this mole poblano, chocolate, a hint of cinnamon, garlic and chiles all melded into a raisin-colored sauce that gave a sweet, slightly spicy taste to three fork-tender slices of chicken breast. The bird, a traditional vehicle for mole, was placed against a mountain of large-grain rice so soft and perfectly moist it was like eating pasta; three slices of plantain and a few sprigs of cilantro rounded out the plate. Like all of the entrees, the mole poblano came with a side of more rice and a bowl of soupy black beans, the least interesting item we sampled at Tamayo.

But just consider what those beans were up against. A plate of tampiqueña held filet mignon grilled the Tampico way, with an ideal char and moist, juicy center, as well as a rajas-studded potato gratin, a mole-poblano-drenched cheese enchilada and just-mashed guacamole studded with fresh tomatoes and tiny bits of onion. The pork tenderloin (pipián de puerco), which had been marinated in a tamarind vinaigrette that was all sweet and sour, showed what put the tender in loin. The pork came on a rich, super-sweet roasted corn purée and was ringed by a musky sauce made of pumpkin seeds; all in all, this dish made it seem like you were gnawing on freshly roasted pig while sitting in the middle of a ripe cornfield.

The average Mexican eatery might have flan and a dish of vanilla ice cream on its dessert list, but Tamayo completely skews that average. We devoured two amazing creations by pastry chef Fernando Delgado, who worked with Yontz for seven years at Zenith: crepas de cajeta, thin pancakes layered with caramelized goat milk so rich and sweet you wanted to bathe in its warmth; and tamal de chocolate, with a steamy, cakelike chocolate substance sitting in for the masa in a "husk" made of phyllo, and hazelnut sauce and vanilla ice cream adding extra sweetness.

Tamayo has everything you could want from an upscale Mexican restaurant -- or from any restaurant. So be there. Do that.

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Tamayo

1400 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

720-946-1433

www.richardsandoval.com