Weed It and Reap

He's one of Denver's best-known restaurateurs and nationally recognized as well. He's been featured in the most prestigious cooking magazines, lauded with all the important cooking awards. His pride and joy, Zenith American Grill, just received the much-coveted Mobil Guide four-star rating.

He's Kevin Taylor, and you're not.
But that means that if you decided to open a new restaurant, you'd probably have an easier time of it than Taylor did. You wouldn't suffer the inevitable comparisons, analyses and restaurant-critic scrutiny that Taylor had to deal with when he took a gamble on his sophomore venture, the now-defunct Cafe Iguana. "We had to deal with expectations at Cafe Iguana," Taylor says. "I'm not saying that's what did us in, and I've moved on from that whole experience. But people have an idea about Zenith, they know what goes on there, and they thought Iguana was going to be the same thing, even though I tried to make it clear that I was trying something different. But they wanted another Zenith."

To avoid running into the same problem with his latest eatery, Dandelion, Taylor opened it quietly. No public-relations firm. No press releases. No grand-opening party for starving journalists and Cherry Creek scene-seekers. To know that Dandelion opened this past December, you had to be related to Taylor or live in Boulder, just down the street from the building that houses the joint. A building that sported little but a dirt floor and a lot of windows before Taylor and his new bride, interior designer Christina Elmblad, went in there and created an inviting, decidedly untrendy dining room featuring the colors of smoldering fireplace embers--or sun-kissed dandelions.

"We wanted nothing intimidating," Taylor says. "I didn't want to do sleek and glass again. There is so much window going on there, anyway, that we had to warm it up. And, again, we're not trying to be Zenith in Boulder."

So Taylor keeps saying. But the proof is in the pudding--or, in this case, the sashimi tuna tartare with avocado, cucumber slaw and wasabi tobiko ($7.50). Although chef Bob Allison, formerly of Ward's Gold Lake Ranch and a graduate of the Dave Query (Zolo Grill) school of cooking, has free reign over the daily specials, Taylor makes the menus and calls the shots at Dandelion. The food doesn't fall into the "architectural" genre that Taylor left behind ten years ago--the tired food-as-art theme that he wishes more local chefs would jettison--nor is it as involved or as impacting in the culinary sense as Zenith's offerings. Still, the fare here has Taylor's sensibilities stamped all over it.

The tuna tartare starter was a prime example of Taylor's expertise. In hindsight, pitting the raw tuna with the cooling avocado and slaw against the sharp wasabi was obvious; at the time, it was too delicious to dissect intellectually. The tuna, in keeping with Taylor's commitment to quality, fairly shone with freshness, and the avocado looked as though it had been sliced with a piece of wire, so perfect were the cuts. More traditional thinking brought together the appetizer potato pancake with American caviar and "soured" cream ($6). This was bubbe's latke, slightly larger than a compact disc, adorned with a spoonful each of lumpfish, whitefish and salmon roe next to a splash of expensive-tasting cream. The combination was uncomplicated yet spectacular. The fried calamari ($5.50) was even more stunning: Expertly cooked squid swam in a spicy, chunky tomato sauce that simultaneously tasted of Tuscany and New Orleans. Although the sauce didn't seem to contain any of the promised lemon-caper remoulade, the dish worked so well that we didn't miss it.

The only hint of Zenith I found on Dandelion's menu was the infamous smoked sweet corn soup ($3.50), an incredible concoction I'd had several times at its place of origin. But Dandelion's just didn't taste the same. Taylor later reminded me that Zenith's version contains barbecued shrimp, which adds a special flavor that Dandelion's soup definitely lacked; the addition of an avocado salsa hardly seemed a fair trade. My companions didn't share my disappointment--having nothing to compare it to, they thought this soup was wonderful.

The substitution of more soothing ingredients seems to fit Taylor's desire to offer a sort of "comfort food" at Dandelion. "It's not mashed potatoes and fried chicken, no," he explains. "But I think it's the way things are going, countrywide. Less culinary chemistry and more simple combinations."

Wonderful-sounding combinations, though. After choosing our entrees, we spent a good fifteen minutes picking a wine that would complement all four--an intense discussion that the waitress was privy to because she kept stopping by to see if we were ready to order yet--only to be informed that Dandelion was out of our selection. Since I overheard the waitress telling another table that the restaurant was out of a different wine, Dandelion obviously was awaiting a delivery. It would have been thoughtful for the servers to inform diners of that fact before they picked up the wine list. But this omission was the only real flaw I found at Dandelion.

Our meals were certainly superb. The combination of Atlantic salmon with horseradish mashed potatoes ($16) wasn't anything new, but the accompanying poblano, sweet corn and clam "chowder"--really a soup-consistency sauce that tied it all together--was something special, a presentation at once old-fashioned and newfangled. Dotted with whole-kernel corn and bits of chile, the chowder tasted like a long-simmered stew. Although the mashed potatoes didn't scream with horseradish, they contained enough of the root to set off the impeccably grilled salmon, which arrived a perfect medium-rare, as the waitress had predicted.

But then, she also said the peppered ahi tuni ($16.50) would be served medium-rare. "Will that be all right?" she asked one of my companions, and when he replied that was fine, she said, "Are you sure?" Perhaps we should have caught the tipoff, but even so, we never would have expected the raw fish that soon appeared before him. It wasn't medium-rare, it wasn't even rare--it might have had the word "heat" spoken over it. Since we'd already done the raw thing with the tuna tartare, we sent the fish back. The dish returned bearing a piece of tuna cooked mostly medium with a strip of pink in the center: medium-rare. The fish was terrific the second time around, especially paired with a mix of chiffonade-thin cabbages and a well-melded, not-too-rich ginger cream sauce.

Sauces are where chef Allison shines, and further evidence arrived in an update on the country-Italian-style farfalle with roast chicken, fennel and artichokes in a porcini cream sauce ($11.75). The liquid was heady and heavy with mushrooms, a flavor the rest of the dish quickly absorbed. The penne, sausage and baby clams ($12.50) came swimming in a spicy tomato sauce redolent with caramelized onions that was just as palate-boggling. The ingredients were so dense, the flavor so intense, that the taste was evocative of a potluck on the bayou--hold the pasta.

By dessert, Dandelion was in full bloom. Made by Zenith pastry chef Bertin Jaimes, each delicacy (all $4.50) offered another take on upscale comfort food. We tried the lulling warm Venezuelan chocolate cupcake with vanilla-bean ice cream, the equally cozy upside-down peach-and-pear crisp, and a macadamia-brittle cheesecake that was interesting, if subtle. The passion fruit creme brulee with mango sorbet, however, just about knocked us out of our seats. No false advertising here--just both fruits out in full force.

Let Taylor downplay his "other" restaurant. Let him claim that this time he just wants to have fun; that this time he doesn't want to be taken so seriously. Truth is, while Dandelion may not be another Zenith, it's ripe for the picking.

Dandelion, 1011 Walnut Street, Boulder, 443-6700. Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5-11 p.m. Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.


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