At the end of October, Samir Mohammad quietly departed the kitchen at Lala's Wine Bar + Pizzeria, a bustling open galley of pizza, pastas and Americanized Italian food that he'd spent the past year commanding. "I left because there was a difference in views between me and the owners -- they wanted to dumb down the menu a bit, and I wanted more authenticity -- but I want to make it clear that the parting of ways was very amicable, and they taught me a ton about running multiple restaurants and working on tight budgets," says Mohammad, who worked for John Ott and Mike Plancarte, who also own Marlowe's, Paramount Cafe and Govnr's Park.
Prior to Lala's, Mohammad was the exec of the Village Cork, a Platt Park wine bar, which has seen multiple chefs come and go since Mohammad was fired in June of 2012 after a three-year stint, during which he made a big name for himself in Denver's culinary community. And come January 1, Mohammad will be back on the block -- the South Pearl Street strip -- as the executive chef of Black Pearl, a long-standing neighborhood restaurant owned by Steve Whited. And Mohammad will take over the burners from current exec chef Mitch Mayers, who's leaving to travel and, he divulges, eventually move to Seattle.
"My last night is New Year's Eve -- I'm going out with a bang -- and then my girlfriend and I are heading off to various places in Mexico, including Oaxaca, Mexico City, Puebla and the Yucatan, and then the plan is to move to Seattle," explains Mayers, adding that his three years as the exec chef of Black Pearl was a "a really great run."
Mohammad will take over Black Pearl's kitchen the following morning, on January 1, unleashing a "detox" brunch to bleary-eyed wobblers -- and Mohammad is looking forward to cooking again in the same 'hood he calls home. "I'm incredibly stoked," he says. "I keep running into familiar faces on the street, and I have to admit that I've wanted to work at Black Pearl for a long time. I love the ambiance and rusticity of the place - there's just something about it that really feels good," he adds.
Once Mohammad gets behind the burners, he'll stamp the menu with his own dishes, leaving just a handful of popular mainstays -- the truffled fries, shishito peppers and calamari -- on the board. "I'm changing the menu pretty significantly, although a few of the favorites will stay," says Mohammad, adding that he'll focus on seasonally-driven food that's "technique-driven, peasant in style and created with a less-is-more approach," meaning that he'll simplify the number of ingredients he uses on the plate.
And while there's a New York strip festooned with a truffled butter on the new menu, Mohammad also has plans to take advantage of "low" cuts, or off-cuts, the more economically priced cuts of the pig, lamb and cow that, prepared the right way, often result in far better flavor than their more expensive counterparts. And Black Pearl's prices, he notes, will decrease, too. "We're doing weekly themed tasting menus -- three courses for just $36 -- and a lot of those dishes will allow the kitchen to work with off-cuts in some really creative ways, and it'll also let us play around with ingredients and proteins that have limited availability," he adds.
Mohammad, who has the walk-in space to butcher whole beasts in house, will likely do that, too, and charcuterie will be a notable addition to the menu: duck prosciutto, pâtés, rillettes, beef bresaola and saucisson sec are all on agenda, as are artisanal cheeses, including local cheeses from Fruition Farm and Avalanche. In addition, he'll parade a daily-changing selection of fresh oysters, along with broiled Gulf oysters smeared with a black-truffled butter; Southern-fried oysters topped with pickled shallots and sided with poblano pepper remoulade; and an oyster po' boy during lunch service.
"I'm really excited about the new menu, and I'm really excited to settle down here and have real creative freedom," says Mohammad, noting that he and Whited are contemplating the addition of a rooftop greenhouse and implementing raised beds behind the restaurant to grow their own herbs and produce. "I know this is a bold statement to make, but I want to make this one of everyone's favorite restaurants -- in Colorado and in Denver -- and I want to look at all the awesome things that other restaurants around the world are doing and bring that into play at Black Pearl," he adds. "When I say I want to be everyone's favorite restaurant, I'm talking about food, presentation, service and ambiance -- everything."
Mohammad stresses, too, that he wants to make sure that his staff stays passionate and committed to their craft. "It's really important the staff are involved in the community, that they take field trips to farms, ranches, wineries, distilleries and breweries, and that they have respect for the product, from start to finish. I want all of us to keep the passion alive," he concludes.