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Z Whiz

After eating at Kevin Taylor's Brasserie Z, I have only one thing to say: Kevin, you can hold that banana between your knees.

Correction: I have only one negative thing to say, because that banana was the only flaw I found during three otherwise stellar meals at Taylor's new restaurant. And the only thing wrong with the banana was that it was an unnecessary accessory to toffee ice cream that was perfectly fine on its own.

And to be absolutely accurate, the banana wasn't really Taylor's fault. The desserts are the responsibility of his longtime pastry companion, Bertin Jaimes, who's been creating stunning finales for Taylor's menus for eleven years. Jaimes runs the private, off-premises bakery that Taylor opened to supply his restaurants, which now number exactly two.

Taylor's Dandelion is still blooming in Boulder, but last month he closed Zenith in downtown Denver because it was "too Eighties" and he wanted to move on. "We looked around at the highest-grossing restaurants in Denver--Marlowe's, Rock Bottom, the Rocky Mountain Diner," Taylor says. "And while we're not copying them, we are trying to achieve some of the same things they're popular for: big, fun places. We want to be fun and affordable."

The three-month-old Brasserie Z certainly qualifies as both. Taylor took the ground-floor atrium of the historic Guaranty Bank building and turned the cavernous, formal space over to designers. "Do not make this fussy," he says he told them. "I've had fussy. I do not want fussy here." Instead, he got something much better: a seductive eatery. The main dining room, garnished with fifteen-foot-tall palm trees and topped by a skylight, has great acoustics that create an electrifying atmosphere. Turning up the juice are whopping wall murals--painted by San Francisco's Les Seymour--of subjects based on the famous eighteenth-century prankster clown of Italian comedies, Punchinello, as well as what appear to be bosomy Punchinello groupies. They're all engaged in lusty, sensual scenes involving the major hedonistic pursuits: eating, drinking, making music, making merry and making whoopee. All in all, the setting is as appetite-stimulating as it gets.

So it's a good thing the food can satisfy almost every appetite. Taylor's affordable menu--an average $8 for lunch entrees and $14 for dinner--emphasizes the current craze of so-called New American food, dishes that rely on classic international cooking techniques and styles but use American ingredients such as organic beans from New Mexico and shiitake mushrooms cultivated in Colorado. Although another longtime accomplice of Taylor's, Sean Yontz, does the actual cooking, Taylor drew up the roster with one crucial rule in mind: three things on every plate. "This isn't architectural food we're doing here," he says. "At Zenith we had five or six things on a plate, but I wanted this to be very approachable."

Well, "approach" isn't quite how I'd describe what we did to an appetizer of crispy fried artichokes with basil aioli ($4.50). We fell on the dish, devouring every last slip of the paper-thin slices of artichoke hearts that had been powder-puffed with seasoned flour and flash-fried. Pausing to breathe between bites would have meant my husband might have gotten more of them--and hey, this is my job, not his.

Just as addictive were the onion rings that came with the garlic steak on country bread ($6.50). The onions had been sliced into Os so skinny you could see through them, then barely coated with batter, leaving the rings succulently salty but light on oil. The kitchen had also gone easy on the garlic, which meant you could eat the chewy sandwich--the steak had a wonderful flavor--and still cozy up to your dining companion for some mural-majority-type behavior. First, though, we savored another sandwich, Parma ham (also known as authentic prosciutto) with arugula and chevre ($6.25), a sinfully delicious combination. The saltiness of the ham and the goat cheese's tartness played beautifully off plenty of bitter greens.

The sandwiches were huge, but we couldn't pass on Jaimes's bittersweet chocolate pistachio páte with pistachio custard sauce (all desserts are $5 at dinner, $3.50 at lunch). The luscious, rich dessert was everything we could have wanted. So, for that matter, was our entire meal. Even though we'd gone during a busy dinner and ordered the cheapest main courses on the menu (a test of Taylor's claim that he welcomes you to stop by anytime for anything), we'd been treated as though we were spending top dollar.

So I had no apprehensions about returning there for a business lunch a few days later. This time, though, we were banished to the drab side room that's quieter and much more serious, with no busty babes on the walls. "We're planning to dress that room up a bit," Taylor says. "But it is perfect for business." Yeah, all right--and the food was still superb. I didn't know my companions well enough to start stabbing at their plates, but my crisp potato Napoleon with buttermilk whipped potatoes, roast squash and herb butter ($9.50) was a three-tiered triumph of homemade potato chips atop fluffy, tangy potatoes atop a nest of spaghetti squash, all mortared together with a slick of butter. And I did get to taste a bit of the exemplary creme brulee ($3.50); the person who'd ordered it was trying hard not to be possessive, but she kept making such gustatorily pleasurable sounds, I hated to interfere.

My third visit was no business and all pleasure, starting with a nicely seasoned steak tartare ($6.95). The lovely presentation came minus the traditional raw egg (salmonella rears its ugly bacterial head a little too often these days) but plus capers, finely minced onion, chopped hard-boiled egg and grilled olive bread that held only hints of olive and tasted exquisite when piled high with the other components. The fried calamari ($5.50) was another fabulous starter: Rings of thinly battered squid had been flash-fried and tossed with diced tomatoes, then served up with a caper mayonnaise.

We followed those up with a stunning, creamless forest-mushroom soup ($3.75) that tasted like a handful of clean, musty earth had been put through a food processor until it liquified, and an excellent grilled vegetable salad with garlic aioli ($5.75). But the best thing about the salad was how well its Roquefort crumbles went with the Honig sauvignon blanc we'd ordered for our entrees. This was one of those celestial food-wine matchups that connoisseurs dream of, a time when the planets converge and the heavens open up--or, at the very least, when mere mortals feel it necessary to say "Wow."

Which we did. We could have quit there and been satisfied with another great meal, but we still had the charbroiled salmon ($15.95) and the roasted sea bass ($15.50) to go. Both pieces of fish had been cooked to that ideal medium-rare, when the very center remains plush and moist, and paired with unerring sides. The salmon came nestled next to a rich gratin of roasted artichokes and potatoes, gently grilled asparagus and a delicate, lemon-kissed creme fraiche; the sea bass, which tasted nothing like the low-grade stuff I've gotten from local markets, was surrounded by grilled fennel and tomatoes and a small scoop of mashed potatoes moistened with basil oil.

We could have quit there and been very satisfied, but two desserts sounded irresistible. The raspberry cream Napoleon (that makes two of those on the menu--does someone have a complex?) with hot chocolate sauce featured a magnificent raspberry-moussy concoction. And then, at last, came the grilled banana "split" with toffee ice cream and caramel sauce, in which that unnecessary banana detracted from the exceptional ice cream. But everything else at this boffo brasserie was right on target.

"When I visited Paris, I was intrigued by all the brasseries--every corner had one," Taylor explains. "I asked myself: What is the attraction? Then I realized their customers liked the comfortable room, cozy chairs and simple yet quality food. Brasseries are accessible."

They're also the Next Big Thing in American dining, which means Taylor's new place has hit the Z-spot. No wonder he's one of the town's top bananas.

Brasserie Z, 815 17th Street, 293-2322. Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Friday; 5-11 p.m. Saturday; 5-10 p.m. Sunday.