Cafe Society


It started with wine dinners at a handful of restaurants, monthly culinary happenings where cellared vino was uncorked and paired with complementary dishes. Next thing you knew, everyone but McDonald's was doing wine dinners. Then came the boutique wine sellers, a handful of small, focused stores that catered to the knowledgeable and the curious. Next thing you knew, there were specialty wine shops in neighborhoods where the most elegant eatery was Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Now, finally, the sure sign that Denver has arrived: restaurants created primarily for the serious wine drinker/diner.

It's no surprise that veteran restaurateur Cliff Young is behind one of these first efforts. Two years after he walked away from the establishment named after him, Young has not one, but two restaurants up and running. One is Mama Mia, a family-style Italian joint; the other is the Napa Cafe. With Napa, Young and his partners--oenophile Donn Hein (Young's landlord on 17th Avenue) and Burnsley Hotel owner Joy Burns--took the wine-bar concept and squeezed it into a tastefully decorated shoebox on Colfax, a space that once housed Messina Ristorante and, before that, deVine Cafe. They knocked out the deli counter, replacing it with an antique desk to serve as the wine-tasting bar, and stuffed as many tables as would fit into the rectangular dining area. And, on the advice of the duo that designed Cliff Young's and the now-defunct Ruby's, they filled that dining room with strong, Napa-inspired colors such as burgundy and dark green.

And then they brought in the wines. Hein, a member of the family that once owned Colorado Cash Register, began to collect and study wines fifteen years ago, and he jumped at the chance to bring his eclectic tastes to Denver. His unusual palate is displayed at the restaurant in two ways: a collection of 400 wines (some from a rotating list, others always in the cellar) that date as far back as 1955 and range in price from $19 to around $400; and a roster of forty wines available by the bottle, the glass, the half-glass and a two-ounce taster that costs from $1.50 to $3. The tasters are a huge draw, because they give you an opportunity to try fine wines without taking out a second mortage on your home.

With the cellars taken care of, Young started staffing up. Napa opened in May, after his non-compete contract with the current owners of Cliff Young's came to an end, giving Young the freedom to hire whomever he wanted. And hire he did. The chef, 25-year-old, kitchen-trained Tyler Wiard, is a graduate of Cliff Young's (but then, who isn't? Even Young jokes that his namesake place was the "BYU of Denver chefs"). Wiard went on to work for Dave Query and John Platt at Q's in Boulder, then for Kevin Taylor at Zenith American Grill before rejoining Young at his new venture. Napa's head of staff is Stan Soto, a former Cliff Young's manager who took time off from the restaurant business to produce America's Funniest Home Videos before he tired of the Hollywood lifestyle and returned two months ago to work for Young. The waitstaff is made up almost entirely of former Cliff Young's waitpersons, and Young himself is now a permanent fixture on the scene.

But Napa isn't Cliff Young's: This restaurant is better. The prices are lower, the atmosphere more charged and the food much more interesting.

Wiard says he wrote Napa's menu in two hours at the Auraria library (he's two semesters away from a degree in U.S. history), creating most of the dishes by free-associating. "I was sitting there thinking about scallops and black-bean sauce," he explains. "Then I thought, `Well, cumin is a natural here, so why not sear them with cumin?' And then I started thinking about green chile, and a hash made from potatoes and green chile. It just started to fall into place."

It certainly did. Wiard has a keen sense of flavors (learned, he says, while eavesdropping on Query's and Platt's discussions of ingredient match-ups), an eye for food sculpture and a big set of brass spoons. He throws things together and awaits the results--a gamble that usually pays off. Almost everything we tried at Napa contained at least one or two ingredients that made us think, yeah, that makes sense. For example, the charred tomato soup with a fontina-encrusted crouton ($2.95) had a faint tartness reminiscent of a summer salad that turned out to be sherry vinegar, which added a spark to the vegetable-based soup (Wiard tries to avoid cream and meat stocks). The twist in the simple Caesar salad ($5.95) was Asiago cheese, which isn't as hard as parmesan and is therefore less chewy; a large (too large) leaf of radicchio added color and a nice bitter bite that balanced the garlic-sweet dressing. And the black-pepper polenta ($5.95), a cornmeal pillow with a bite, was a miracle mix. The polenta was topped with goat cheese and briny black olives, which heightened the pepperiness of the dish, and a splattering of sun-dried-tomato pesto was just the touch to round out the almost-too-many tastes.

Wiard is fond of big flavors, as shown by those cumin-seared scallops ($13.95). Often the tender mollusks are swathed in an overwhelming sauce or left naked and alone atop a pile of pasta sprinkled with parsley. Here they were cooked until just done, matched with the potato-and-green-chile hash (which created a small fire but didn't consume the scallops) and beautifully adorned with a spicy black-bean sauce and cilantro pesto. More food-as-art arrived in the form of the scallion-grilled prawns ($15.95). A circle of prawns stood against a cascade of horseradish-heavy whipped potatoes, all tangled up in a lobster-corn relish--which contained actual pieces of lobster--and showered with crisp-fried leek strips. A bit less complicated but no less delicious, the oven-roasted free-range chicken breast ($13.95) came nestled against a potent gumbo draped with seared Swiss chard and topped by onion rings, of all things. That gave us pause until we tasted their cornmeal coating, a perfect companion to the rest of the flavors: Wiard says he wanted to put something on the plate that could be dipped into the gumbo. Even an order of pepper-grilled beef tenderloin ($19.95) served up welcome surprises. A hefty piece of beautiful meat was stacked on top of garlic whipped potatoes, then iced like a layer cake with a sauce made from meritage and chanterelle and lobster mushrooms.

When the preceding courses are this good, it would have been a crime for dessert to arrive as a mere afterthought. But Napa didn't disappoint here, either. Although pastry chef Jess Roybal's works didn't come out with Wiard's flourishes, they held their own. Even the least exciting of our batch was worthwhile: The raspberry truffle torte (all desserts are $5.95) was really chocolate, and more chocolate, with a little raspberry. While the New Mexico red-chile cheesecake could have used more red chiles to dramatic effect, the dense, not-too-sweet lemon cake with citrus curd was outstanding in its simplicity. And the unique concoction of fresh berries in a sort of liquidy creme brulee was downright ingenious--floating with sugar brittle and humming with an intense vanilla flavor.

Through the meal, the waitstaff showed itself to be exceptionally familiar with the wines and their differing affinities for certain dishes. But if I have any complaint about Napa, it's that the wines we tried from the tasters menu weren't as full-flavored as the food. We went with things we'd never tasted before and were disappointed by all but a few. Most of them were intriguing, but they weren't as outstanding as the wines available by the bottle, quite a few of which we were familiar with--at least on a research basis--and would have loved to try. For the wine initiate, the taster setup is ideal, but the experienced oenophile will probably want to delve into the stuff that's harder--and pricier--to come by.

Still, that first dinner at Napa was so across-the-board wonderful that I returned on my own dime to see if I could find why other reviewers had complained of inconsistency and production problems. My second meal, from a reworked menu (Wiard plans to change the lineup five times a year), was just as stellar as the first, with one exception. The black-sesame sticky rice cake that came with the seared ahi tuna ($15.95) was dry.

It took exactly one sip of an excellent wine for me to forget that flaw. Napa is the kind of innovative restaurant that Denver sees all too rarely. Salut!