Cafe Society

The Name Game

What's in a name? Well, for a Boulder restaurant trying to overcome the bad taste left by a previous ownership, a new name could mean the difference between the business's life and death.

Until last week, that restaurant's name was Diva, bestowed on it when chef Marietta Sisca opened the place over a year ago. Sisca's first solo restaurant endeavor, Diva quickly became known around Boulder for its kitchen problems and a chaotic atmosphere; many customers walked out swearing never to return.

And that's what's bothered the new ownership group that took over the restaurant in April. "We wound up at Diva because a customer at one of the restaurants some of us had worked in, Terra Bistro [in Vail], ran into me on the street and said, 'Help!'" says Bryan Wachs, who now owns the place with partner Tom Voskuil. "He said he'd invested in this restaurant that was going all to hell, and he wanted to know if I would come give them a hand."

But it turned out that Diva needed much more than a helping hand--it required major surgery if it was to survive.

At first the new owners tried to keep Sisca in the kitchen. "We thought, 'Let's try to give her her dream back,'" Wachs says. "But then, after ten days, we started hearing more and more negatives about the food--and everything, really--so I said, 'I can't do this,' and now Marietta's back in real estate."

Even so, Diva was a tough sell to diners who'd gotten burned in the beginning. "We just decided it wasn't worth it," Wachs continues. "We kept the name at first because we wanted Marietta to feel like it was still partly her restaurant. But then we started realizing that it had gotten this reputation as Diva, so we have to make it clear to people that this is a very different operation."

Indeed it is. As of last week, the restaurant became 15 Degrees--a name the owners chose because, as Wachs explains, "it's obscure, we're on 15th Street, and the 15th meridian goes through the Mediterranean"--but the change is more like a 180-degree turnaround. Where once there was confusion, there is now calm efficiency; where once food was haphazardly thrown on the plates, there are now elegant presentations. And where there were major food-production problems, there is now exceptionally well-executed, innovative fare with flair. Credit that to the new chef, Juan Martinez, late of some of the same restaurants where Wachs and Voskuil worked: Tra Vigne (in St. Helena, California) and Ajax Tavern (in Aspen), both part of the Real Restaurant Group, which is infamous for its distinctive styles and high-quality philosophy. Also crucial to 15 Degrees' transformation into a real restaurant are the efforts of Ralph Cautella, former chef de cuisine of Mary Elaine's at the Phoenician in Phoenix, and James Mazzio, former sous chef at Renaissance in Aspen.

Not only do the people in the kitchen have their reputations at stake in making this place work--Wachs, who runs the front of the house, says, "Everyone has a sense of humor, which keeps the egos in check"--but all of the employees have a vested interest in its success: 15 Degrees is a communal setup in which everyone gets equity.

That sense of ownership is most obvious in the service. These guys aren't just working for tips--they're working for the big bucks down the line. As a result, the staff is a pleasure to be around, full of enthusiasm (but not in a puppy kind of way) and quite helpful. During our first visit, we were torn between several appetizers and asked our server about them. Without a second's hesitation, he provided accurate descriptions of each dish that unerringly guided our choice. An order of the ahi tuna salad ($7) brought three rectangles of tuna rare on the inside and seared on the outside, drizzled with a vinaigrette that was more a sweet, lavender-honey-kissed sauce than vinegar dressing, and garnished with homemade potato chips and a smattering of greens for sopping up the leftover liquid. And the Haystack Mountain goat cheese ($7) was a deliciously upscale version of cream-cheese wontons, delicate packages that were all about crunch and squish, crunch and squish. The cheese-filled packets had been toasted golden-crisp and set adrift, alongside islands of chilled baby beets and frisee, on a sea of oregano-dotted oil.

Like all of the starters at 15 Degrees, these appetizers were the appetite stimulants they should be. So we had plenty of interest in--and room for--the hefty entrees. The cavatappi ($15)--the Italian word for "corkscrew"--featured the curvy pasta that's recently begun to pop up in Denver restaurants but is still seen only rarely. The pasta's popularity is certain to grow, though, because it's an ideal vehicle for rich, concentrated sauces that get caught in the wiggles. In this case, the sauce was an ultra-rich reduction of balsamic that coated not just the cavatappi, but chunks of braised rabbit, leaves of wilted arugula, soft chanterelles and thick, chewy bits of smoky bacon as well. The dish was so wonderful that even though we knew we couldn't eat it all, we kept working at it and working at it because it was such a great oral experience.

Not as fun in a tactile sense but just as rewarding in flavor was the Alaskan halibut ($19), a fine piece of filet that had been seared, plunked onto a bed of pureed roasted eggplant and surrounded by a ragout of red lentils and smoked tomatoes that was just shy of being inedibly garlicky. (We mentioned this to the server, who told us, convincingly, that he would let the chef know immediately.) Garlic or no, the ragout and the halibut were particularly well-suited to each other, and a squirt of basil-infused olive oil added a richness that kept the dish from seeming too health-foody without making it fatty.

When it came time to order dessert, we threw aside any lingering good intentions--the "exhibit in chocolate" ($7) sounded too fun to miss. A sampler of chocolate items (of course), the exhibit featured a shell of chocolate filled with an espresso-laced chocolate mousse, a brownie topped with warm chocolate sauce, a brownie topped with warm caramel-bourbon sauce, a chocolate-dipped hazelnut biscotti, a chocolate ravioli stuffed with cherries, and two chocolate-covered strawberries. Such a sinful conglomeration rendered chocolate unnecessary for the next three days.

At which point I returned to 15 Degrees. This time we went with the two interesting-sounding appetizers we'd skipped the first round: the house-made mozzarella ($7) and the hot-smoked salmon salad. I had seen Michael Chiarello, executive chef at Tra Vigne, make his own mozzarella at last year's Aspen Food & Wine Magazine Classic, where I'd also gotten to taste the cheese; this mozz was just as smooth and creamy, layered with slices of truly ripe tomatoes and laced with a slightly sweet balsamic reduction. The salmon salad was a beautiful timbale of applewood-smoked salmon and softened Yukon potatoes, kindled with a shot of tart citrus vinaigrette.

More Yukons--fluffy and whipped this time--appeared with the lamb medallions ($21), three mild lamb loin slices that had been laid over the tubers, decorated with house-dried tomatoes and sauteed spinach, and soaked with a cabernet-spiked olive jus. Less rich but just as tasty was the roasted chicken breast ($16) in a thin but flavorful chicken-perfumed broth swimming with pancetta, fresh sage and spinach; beneath the bird was a mound of tender cannellini and fava beans.

Two noteworthy meals, superbly prepared and smartly served. The restaurant's smarts don't end there, either. The martini list is adventurous, the wine list carefully chosen and fairly priced. And the Sunday and Monday night $35 prix fixe dinners are a real bargain, with five courses and a list of a half-dozen to a dozen wines from which diners can taste as many--and as much of--as they wish.

Now the only thing that separates 15 Degrees from real success is Diva's lingering reputation.

"Tom and I had been talking for years about forming a communal company. We had long ago decided that money is not as important as following your dream," Wachs says. "We knew that if we wanted to outdo other restaurants in the area and attract a loyal clientele, then we were going to have to make everyone involved committed to providing good service, cooking top ingredients and, in general, making people happy."

And that's the real name of the game.

15 Degrees, 1965 15th Street, Boulder, 442-4222. Hours: 5:30-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5:30-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.