It was Saturday night in Littleton, and the wife and I were arguing. She was upset because she couldn't find her favorite pair of black strappy heels, so she'd fallen back on the black Doc Martens that dated from her days as a Philly punk-rock girl, and one of our cats had gotten into the trash and thrown up on the only jacket I own. Plus, ignoring her advice, I'd refused to put on a tie and had made no dinner reservations.
It was Saturday night 'round seven in old-town Littleton, though, and Main Street -- when we finally found it -- was deserted.
"You see, sweets," I said. "Not exactly a bustling metropolis, is it? I don't think we'll have too much trouble getting a table."
But because sometimes life is like a bad sitcom where the bumbling husband is never right, I said those words as we rolled past the big front windows of Opus -- centerpiece of a three-concept project that includes the more casual Main Street Tavern on one side and the Aroma Cafe, a full-service coffee bar and patisserie, on the other -- and discovered that the restaurant was packed. The valet sat on a folding chair beside the door reading a two-inch-thick paperback, every hook on his board hung with a set of keys. Through the glass I could see heavy white linen tablecloths, the gleam of polished silver, and well-pressed waiters hurrying back and forth through a full dining room. Apparently, there was no one on the streets of Littleton because everyone in town was having dinner at Opus.
As we drove by, my wife gestured broadly out her window like a game-show beauty showing off a lovely washer/dryer set. "You ever think that maybe you picked the wrong career, Jay?" she asked, exuding that sort of smugness that is the sole provenance of wives who are always right. "Because it's been a couple years now, and you really don't seem to have the hang of this one yet."
I didn't dignify her comment with a response; I parked the car myself, and -- in an attempt to give every appearance of a young couple in love -- took her arm as we strolled right through the front door of the restaurant. No reservation? We'd bluff it, I figured, because really, how busy could the place be?
At the hostess station, I learned exactly how busy the place could be. Confidently, I walked up and asked, "Two for dinner?"
The hostess smiled. "Reservations?"
I smiled right back. "No, but could you find us something anyway?"
She stopped smiling. "I'm sorry, sir," she said, pursing her lips and running a finger down the list in front of her. "Perhaps you should have listened to your wife and called ahead. And worn a tie."
Okay -- she didn't really say all that, but she might as well have. The hostess actually was very polite, but I was up against something increasingly rare in Denver's fine-dining scene: a reservation book with the second seating fully committed. It would be an hour, possibly longer, before there would be an open table, she explained, but did I want to go ahead and put my name in the book?
Honestly, I was ready to cut my losses, pick up a couple of Chipotle burritos and try again another night, but before I could say 'No,' she added, "I think it'll be worth the wait."
That stunned me. Granted, any hostess trying to shore up a dead spot in her reservation book would have told me the same thing, but I'd gotten a look at her book, and there weren't any dead spots. And while I also know that most front-of-the-house people have such responses programmed into them like messages on an answering machine, it wasn't what she said that stopped me from walking out, but how sincerely she said it. She truly believed that a table at this new restaurant (just three months old -- a baby on my critical timetable) in Littleton (hardly a hotbed of culinary action) was worth more than an hour's wait on a Saturday night. That said a lot -- I was intrigued.
And she was right.
Close to ninety minutes (which we spent next door at the Main Street Tavern; see page 74) had passed before we were ushered through the side door that connects the two very different spaces and shown to a table in Opus's still-crowded dining room. We were met at the table by a server bearing an amuse bouche -- a complimentary tease from the kitchen, like getting a peck on the cheek from a pretty girl before you even buy her a drink -- of skewered, marinated beef and cucumber lying across a puddle of spicy satay peanut sauce. It was a bite, no more, but a good one: a warm hello to welcome us into a room that I found almost instantly jarring in dozens of small details. The space itself was annoying -- too cold where it should have been warm and stiff where it should have been smooth. The soft colors of the walls, the flowing curtains and the honey-colored chairs didn't match the hard tile floors and the high ceiling with its exposed ductwork. The gentle glow spilling from hanging lamps that looked like alien flower buds was ruined by harsh point lighting, and odd acoustics made it hard to hear my wife but all too easy to hear everything at the table behind me. And while the tables were well-spaced -- giving diners a measure of privacy and waiters room to move -- the setup seemed more distant than open. This was a deadly serious room, lacking any humor at all. Like a set dressed by a very well-funded high school drama class, it boasted all the artistic elements necessary to let you know that you were in a nice restaurant waiting to be served an elegant meal, but none of the talent that would pull the pieces together into a seamless background. It was clumsy at best and absurdly pretentious at worst -- especially the miniature stage curtains flanking the window onto the open kitchen, which are thrown wide every night at the beginning of service, then drawn closed again at the end.
But still, an orchestra is not judged by the stage it plays on, and I could forgive every shortcoming of the space (except for those curtains) with my first taste of the kitchen's art.
Executive chef and co-owner Michael Long, a Culinary Institute of America grad and a veteran of several East Coast kitchens who came to Denver to open the nearby 5280 Roadhouse and Brewery (which explains the 5280 shirts on some of the staff and the matchbooks at the bar), has put together one of the more interesting -- and ethnically unclassifiable -- lineups in town. At Opus, he gleefully mixes East with West: Big lump crab cakes bulked up by Asian noodles and painted with a sweet Thai chile butter share a page with a new American/Italian inside-out bison ravioli that's rich with smooth cheese, a wine-dark red sauce and ground buffalo meat.
All that humor missing from the dining-room decor managed to find its way onto Long's menu, and the talent it took to create a dish as striking as the seared tuna PB&J absolutely floored me. Thick slices of ahi tuna loin, fire-kissed along the edges and sashimi-raw in the center, had been stacked between tiny doughy pancakes with the mushy consistency and blandness of Wonder Bread. The pancakes were smeared with a sweet, handmade peanut butter that had just enough flavor to overcome the dullness of the bread without clashing with the tuna, and the "sandwich" was served with an electric green dollop of wasabi jelly speckled with black sesame seeds. Although there was technical perfection in the balance between hot and sweet, dull and sharp, what really got me was the skill required to intellectualize such a dish. Fun like this does not come easy or cheap in the kitchen; it takes an original mind and a sense of humor that most chefs don't have the luxury or confidence to exercise. I don't know which muse it is that moves a cook to those occasional flashes of culinary brilliance that make or break them by name, but I'd put Long's tuna PB&J up against the best of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry any day. It was genius on a plate.
Whimsy, harmony and globe-trotting culinary piracy marked every dish we tried at Opus. Even the roasted chicken (the weakest dish I sampled, but still better by far than some of the best dishes I've had elsewhere) came speckled with black-and-white sesame seeds clinging to its crisp, fatty skin; these lent a nutty bass note to the workhorse bird. It was accompanied by a twist of julienne zucchini beside two halves of a brittle spring roll filled with buttery wild rice and blazing-hot chiles. I was also drawn to the most solidly middle-American entree on the menu: a simple tenderloin of lamb crusted with baked goat cheese. I say "simple" not because anyone could go out there and whip one up for himself, but because this kitchen realized the fantastic cut of meat could -- and should -- stand alone on the strength of its own flavors. Our server didn't even ask how I wanted it done, since there was no point in asking: As with duck, you get it rare, or you go to Burger King.
The lamb arrived at the table a ravishing pink, warmed through but still full of life, wrapped in a thick jacket of smooth, earthy goat cheese. The smell alone -- of lamb and spice and milk and earth -- would've driven me crazy had I ordered something else and seen this brought to another table. The flavors of the cheese blended with the juices of the meat, and each bite seemed to melt the moment it hit my tongue. Old people could have eaten this with their dentures out. The lamb was simple, beautiful, perfect, and though the cheddar-and-hominy-macaroni-hash concoction that filled the center of the plate was forgettable -- I was served some from the bottom of the pan -- the sweet red cabbage that came on the side was like candy. I mounded it up on slices of the lamb, and I put some on bread. And I don't even like red cabbage.
Desserts -- handled with flair and more humor -- are provided by pastry chef Anthony Polakowski, one of my new heroes, because while I have no clue how patissiers do what they do, I'm convinced that with the best of them it's just magic. Throughout the meal, our ever-helpful (and ever-present) waiter had offered suggestions, and he came up with another winner in the autumn fruit crisp: thick slivers of apple swimming in a syrupy reduction swirled with caramel and topped with a baked crumb crust and a melting snowball of vanilla ice cream. Imagine the best apple Betty you were ever served at a roadside diner, and you're halfway to how good this one was.
My wife and I forgot we were mad at each other. We forgot about the shoes, the cats, the reservations, the wait, the everything. I forgot about the room, the bad lighting, the weird acoustics. After the hour and a half we spent at the bar, we sat for another two hours over dinner, which brought the hands on the clock dangerously close to eleven o'clock and closing time for Opus. Yet the restaurant was still seating. As I was signing my name on the dotted line, tables were being pushed together for a party of six just coming through the door.
Finally, as we got up to leave, those ridiculous curtains over the kitchen window were pulled halfway closed, as if to say that the performance was about over. As I helped my wife with her coat, I overheard a sous chef talking to the hostess. He was pointing out the front windows at two couples looking at the menu on the front door, apparently debating whether it was too late for dinner.
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"We're done," the sous chef said. "Tell them that's it. No more tables."
I wanted to go right out there and tell the people on the street that while they'd missed the show that night, not to worry, there would be tables open in about sixteen hours, and did they want to put their names on the list?
"Trust me," I'd tell them. "I think it'll be worth the wait."