Cafe Society

I'm OK, Euro OK

While the rest of the country was making its way to Denver for the Oklahoma City bombing trial, two boys from another Midwestern metropolis slipped quietly into town to open a restaurant. Paul Khoury and Bill Crooks already had six successful eateries in their hometown of Kansas City and another in Wichita, but when the itch to add to their family struck again, they decided to head west. Market research told them the Denver Tech Center in Greenwood Village was ripe for the picking.

And how. The four-month-old Yia Yia's Eurocafe--yia yia is Greek for "grandmother," and Khoury has fond memories of his--is one jumping joint. Of course, this is a section of town so hurting for food, let alone decent food, that residents would probably pack the opening of an envelope with the word "restaurant" written on it.

But Yia Yia's has a lot more going for it than location. While it comes dangerously close to chain classification--manager Catherine Reeves says Yia Yia's "concept" is shared by two of the owners' other places, although she adds that the menu could change "as we find out what people here are looking for"--it comes across refreshingly different from anything we have in Denver. The interior decor looks like California's idea of a castle, with funky glass chandeliers overhead and walls covered in imported, flower-smudged fabric designed to look like enormous stones; there's also real limestone all over the place. The floor plan is unusual but flows well from area to area, and the seating arrangement--swankly upholstered yet comfortable booths--affords most diners a sense of privacy.

Even better, the food usually lives up to the sumptuous surroundings. Our first meal there started with superb cold-water shrimp wrapped in pancetta ($8.95) that had been cooked until the Italian bacon was just starting to crisp, which gave the first-class crustaceans a welcome fatty quality and a more robust texture. (In general, the colder the water they come from, the smaller, juicier and more flavorful shrimp are.) The shrimp arrived in a snappy roasted-red-pepper vinaigrette with enough garlic to taste but not so much that breath mints were a required followup.

Instead, we moved on to crusty rolls delivered warm to the table. Fortunately, the rolls weren't too crusty; we were in a talking mood that would have been ruined if we'd started spitting millions of bread crumbs at each other. Among our topics of discussion were the entrees, which sounded divine. Our waiter had described one, for example, as containing a "big ol' slab of swordfish."

That was a bit of an exaggeration: The succulent swordfish in that day's fish special ($9.95) was about four inches long and as thick as a mouse pad. It came with a huge scoop of couscous dotted with diced red onions, red peppers and basil that, in spite of all the additions, still tasted like plain couscous. We would have appreciated a more generous serving of the accompanying sauce, a rich beurre blanc; both the swordfish and the couscous benefited from a slathering of it.

The rest of our lunch went swimmingly. The seared salmon ($11.95), while also on the smallish side, was impeccably cooked so that the outside had crisp oily edges but the inside was just past raw; it was complemented by a pile of slightly meaty-tasting, creamy orzo flecked with red peppers and herbs. And while our oak-fired pizza topped with house-cured Italian sausage, smoked mozzarella, roasted red peppers and pineapple-basil pesto ($8.95) had sounded like one of those frou-frou California deals (you can watch the pizza oven from the bar, like some exotic home entertainment center), it delivered plenty of flavor. The sausage and pineapple was a particularly successful combination; the fruit balanced and cooled the sausage's spice.

When our waiter stopped by to ask about our entrees, we gave a few raves but also teased him about that "slab of swordfish." He sheepishly agreed the fish had been a tad puny and later came back to report that the kitchen had told him even though the fish looked small, "it was still the same weight" as the pieces of swordfish the waiter had been shown earlier. Even so, our waiter gallantly offered a dessert "on him" and promised a "nice surprise." It was a surprise, all right. The thing he set down on the table was bright white, two inches in diameter, and stuck straight up in the air six inches. I didn't know whether to eat it or take it home and hide it in my underwear drawer. Instead, we burst into laughter, then began gingerly stabbing the thing with our spoons before yelling "Timber!" as it fell on its side. It turned out that this semifreddo ($5.95) of white-chocolate ice cream drizzled with espresso sauce was subtle yet addictive. Not too sweet, it had a great, creamy mouth-feel.

When we returned for dinner, we started with another opulent offering: seared scallops ($8.95) in one of those sweet butter sauces so sultry it's almost like dessert. Although the perfectly cooked scallops weren't in the "date crusts" the menu had listed and instead were topped with the fruit, the plate was awash with the wonderful buttery liquid, which had been pumped full of champagne and enhanced with a date-based glaze.

The pampering continued with the soup-and-salad course. When restaurants include this course in the entree price, they usually don't put a lot of effort into it. Yia Yia's does. Our salad featured fresh, clean spinach tossed with pears, roasted pecans and a light raspberry vinaigrette, then sprinkled with blue cheese. The soup was a tomato-dense broth teeming with wood-roasted chicken. No skimping there.

Nor was there with our main courses. The Kansas City strip steak ($23.95) was so hefty--about fourteen ounces, I'd guess--that we couldn't finish it. And we wanted to. (My husband, who wears a size eleven shoe, said it was about as big as his foot--but this was no piece of shoe leather.) The excellent steak boasted a light, Madeira-spiked veal glaze strewn with shards of crisp-fried pancetta; on the side was an ample mound of creamy orzo studded with imported mushroom pieces and roasted onions.

The seafood shepherd's pie ($18.95) was another knockout. The lobster-cream-filled pie contained the flesh of two small lobster tails, a number of shrimp and several scallops (which hadn't been mentioned on the menu), as well as tangy artichokes and spinach. Piped on top were fluffy herbed potatoes, lightly broiled to form a nice crust. Before I'd eaten at Yia Yia's, I'd heard some complaints about the place, and several about this dish in particular; people said there wasn't enough seafood for the price. Either those diners had the wrong idea, or Yia Yia's has improved its recipe, because this pie was perfect.

We finished our meal off with a comparatively tame but still appetizing chocolate cheesecake ($5.95), as well as a fine apple cobbler with vanilla-bean ice cream ($4.95). We washed both down with a few glasses of Yia Yia's exemplary sweet-and-sour limeade ($2.25); although Yia Yia's has a decent wine list, its by-the-glass selection could be better.

Except for that slight failing and the skimpy lunch portions, my meals at Yia Yia's were just about flawless. When you throw in the lush decor and gracious service, you've got a restaurant that's a worthy addition to Denver dining--and one welcome in any part of town.

Yia Yia's Eurocafe, 8310 East Belleview Avenue, Greenwood Village, 741-1110. Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday.