Cafe Society


Driving through the new Landmark development in Greenwood Village is like moving through an incomplete Hollywood backlot. Eight out of ten storefronts are empty, but they're varnished with promises: a salon here, coming spring 2008; a bar there, pledged for 2009. There are parking garages and street signs, lights in the stunted, half-grown trees and broad sidewalks laid out in expectation of crowds that, best case, won't arrive en masse for months. There is a sense of the entire project sitting crouched, waiting to pounce on any early money that happens to negotiate the confused tangle of new streets, wind through the construction sites and office parks, and reach this small, rigorously planned retail zone invisible from virtually any approach. There is a feeling of forced optimism glossing an obvious, tense desperation as early adopters — those who leased their spaces here on the Landmark high street and opened fast in hopes of beating the slowpoke competition — start wondering if the promised throngs will ever appear.

Probably, they will. Probably, by the time the boutiques and strangely pan-ethnic white-tablecloth operations with their ahi tuna tartare and bowls of French onion soup make their openings six and twelve months off, Landmark will no longer seem as desolate and cut-off as it does on a bright Saturday afternoon when all the Denver Tech Center offices are empty and the businessfolk are at home. But for now, there is only that sterile air of vague hope and incompleteness.

And garlic.

When the wind blows just right, kissing the exhaust vents on top of Charlie Huang's new restaurant, Jing, all the oxygen on the street seems to be replaced, for just the space of a single breath, with the greasy, earthy, candied scent of garlic roasting, garlic frying, garlic oil gleaming on the blade of a knife. It's like a foodie come-on, and to those of a certain curious and ever-hungry disposition, it is undeniable. True, I'd come here specifically to eat at Huang's multimillion-dollar, fancy-pants nouvelle Chinese restaurant, but had I been headed to Landmark for any other reason, I would have been hard-pressed to resist the siren scent of mother garlic moving down off the roof.

Jing is so new, it squeaks and smells of plastic wrap and really high hopes. Everything is shiny, gleaming and pure. It's beautiful, of course. Throw enough cash at any space and beauty is a cinch. But it's also sexy, which can't be bought — which must either be a natural accident or meticulously, artistically designed. Jing is clearly the latter: premeditated sexy, a yin-and-yang split between virginal white-on-white in the dining room (white leather banquettes, white walls, swirls of white froth hanging from the ceiling) and dark indulgence in the lounge, glossy like a newly discovered sin, with black leather booths and tables and chairs and curtains as purple as fresh bruises. There are no sharp angles here, only curves and blunt edges, walls of falling water, sweeping planes and fine details. The chopsticks are black lacquer ringed at the top with silver filigree. The bathrooms, with their planar sinks and magical stall doors that go from clear to opaque with the turn of a knob, are enough to make me wish I still participated in the kinds of illicit activities once carried out in the bathrooms of fancy bars and nightclubs, because using the men's room just for a piss seems like a waste of such attractive and Blade Runner-y real estate.

Still, for a restaurant, having style without substance is a worse crime than coming to the game bearing neither — and over the years, I've had my issues with the lack of substance in Huang's operations. Matter of fact, as I was shown to my seat on the saint side of the dining room, handed my oversized menu and brought my first beer, I tried to think if Huang had ever been involved with a restaurant where I'd want to eat if I weren't being paid to.

Short answer: No.

I've never been to his original Little Ollie's in Aspen, but I've had the misfortune of fighting the crowds to get a table at his debased and dumbed-down Cherry Creek outpost, where the yuppies go for their fix of Szechuan and Cantonese standards so toothless and inauthentic they might as well have been squeezed from an extruder. And I spent too many nights a few blocks away at Mao, when he and Jim Sullivan had that paean to international socialism and candy-colored martinis up and running. But in my world, everyone gets a second chance and a third chance and a tenth chance when necessary. Every night is a new opportunity, and every new restaurant is a fresh start, another chance to be not just good enough, but actually good. Maybe even brilliant.