By Design

My problems with Second Home went beyond the short and affectless menu, the sense of a kitchen running on autopilot, and really elemental mistakes in both prep and presentation of several dishes. I was also bothered by the apparent lack of any overarching concept, any theme (for lack of a better word, and not to draw comparisons between Second Home and the innumerable "theme" restaurants out there that exist for no other reasons than to sell hats and T-shirts and cram awful fried foods down the throats of dumb-ass tourists) that would string together, however tenuously, the room, the design and the food.

Yeah, I know: comfort food, home-away-from-home, American classical, blah blah blah. I got that. But these days, merely being a "comfort food" restaurant is not enough. Five years ago, a restaurateur could maybe get away with that and seem, if not original, at least in tune with the mashed-potatoes-and-chicken-soup zeitgeist. But today? Jesus, if I were an owner and some chef (who really ought to know better) presented me with the idea of a comfort-food board, my first question would be, "What else you got for me?" And my second, "Hey, so how's that sous chef of yours looking these days? He got any good ideas for the menu?"

I'm not saying that comfort food (or, for that matter, classic Americana) can't be done well. It can. On a pure menu basis, Fruition (1313 East Sixth Avenue) is both of those things. Chef Alex Seidel (ably seconded by Drew Inman) had a rather famous chicken soup on his menu. He does pasta carbonara and oysters Rockefeller, mashed potatoes and pan-roasted walleye pike. But no one is calling Fruition a "comfort food restaurant" — because no one has to. The food doesn't need a label. And it's the kitchen's small touches (those mashed potatoes are actually smashed fingerlings soaked down in olive oil, the chicken soup a master's thesis on prep and pantry work, on clarification and composition and the value of hand-making every fucking thing that goes on a plate) that elevate Fruition above the crowd — something that Second Home does not seem to understand.

I could see intent in some spots. Second Home's lamb "French dip" was a nice plate — fairly original, well thought-out, certainly beautifully prepared, with lamb off the rotisserie, redolent with fresh rosemary, on a great, fresh roll. And even the trout that was so badly bungled by the crew had potential: Trout is a nice fish, too often overlooked in favor of flashier, more popular sea critters, and succotash is one of those great secret weapons that a chef can hold in his arsenal and then whip out in unexpected ways. But simply serving a big mound of the stuff, bulked out with badly chopped zucchini, was horrific. I've known hash-house line cooks who would've been embarrassed to serve that in their own joints, let alone in an ostensibly upscale dining room.

I expected better of Sage Restaurant Group. After all, this is the group that opened the Corner Office at the Curtis, that took over ops at the Rialto and O's Steak and Seafood when it snapped up the Marriott Courtyard on 16th Street and the Westin Westminster, respectively. Sage also has Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago (a Spanish/Catalonian restaurant specializing in tapas) and Temple in Providence (which, near as I can tell, has something to do with the Freemasons and their relationship to modern, street graffiti culture) — all powerfully individual and strongly rooted concepts. O's is a high-end chophouse with good steaks and fat businessmen throwing money around like it means nothing, and Sage could've gotten by quite nicely with nothing more than this — but instead it tapped into chef Ian Kleinman's penchant for molecular gastronomy and playing with liquid nitrogen in order to make a restaurant that is hotel-traditional, profitable (very...) and cutting-edge, all at the same time. The Corner Office's Mad Men-style, bang-your-secretary chic — with bowls of cereal at midnight and chicken and waffles at all hours — is the perfect example of a place defining its niche through careful manipulation of the menu. I went crazy for the chicken and waffles the minute I saw them, and being able to have a whiskey, neat, and a bowl of Cap'n Crunch at eleven o'clock on a Thursday night? Baby, that was just gravy.

But Second Home has no easy hook, no gestalt that drives it beyond bland, upscale comfort food. And that's unfortunate, because after eating at the Corner Office, I worshipped Sage's Peter Karpinski like a hero and would've given my left nut to work for him were I still wearing the white jacket. At the very least, I had high hopes for what would happen when Sage took over Mirepoix. After sex and Catalonia, Freemasons and graffiti artists, tapas and waffles and everything else that had come before, I couldn't wait to see where Karpinski could go next.

The fact that he chose to return home — to a five-years-dead fad and the lamest of catch-all concepts in the land — was bad enough. But to then execute the concept poorly, with no passion, and zero vitality in the back of the house? That was just unforgivable.

Japanese underground: This past weekend saw the debut of a new, late-night menu at Gemelli's (4363 Tennyson Street) — which you would have known if you're reading our food blog, Cafe Society. It's got everything: openings, closings, parties, gossip, tales from the cruise-ship trade, a couple of girls talking about candy, reviews of breakfast cereals, and more of me than anyone could possibly stomach. But while I was talking with Gemelli's partner Ken Griffin for that blog item, he mentioned that his other joint, Sushi Hai, at 3600 West 32nd Avenue, would also be throwing a grand opening last weekend for Hai Bar Below — the half-secret basement sushi bar and martini lounge that's been operating beneath the Chipotle and baby store next to Sushi Hai since the beginning of the year. Seem weird that he's throwing a grand-opening party for a place that's been open for several months? Yeah, it is. But according to Griffin, Hai Bar — which serves drinks, spins tunes, offers private tatami rooms for those desiring a bit of privacy and serves up a special sushi menu until midnight — had been doing so well on word of mouth in the neighborhood that no one saw any reason to throw a party.

Until now.

And while I couldn't make it myself, I'm sure that enough other folks did that word will now start to make its way out of Highland and into Denver at large. So next time you find yourself craving a little sashimi and a dirty martini at eleven on a Friday night, you know where to go when Izakaya Den is full.

Leftovers: A couple of doors down from Sushi Hai, Swimclub 32 (3628 West 32nd Avenue) will close its doors within a matter of weeks — and then turn the place into a pizza joint, of all things. One of Swimclub's challenges has always been its tiny kitchen, and while owners Chris Golub and Grant Gingerich and their crew have managed to get by with skillful menu design, small-plate formats, limited seatings and a lot of composed plates and Asian fusion, as soon as I heard about this new plan, I had to wonder how they thought they could cram a pizza oven into the space and still have room for the cooks.

I got the answer to this and many other questions during a long interview with Golub last week. You can find the details on the Cafe Society blog. For right now, and until the concept switch-up in July, SC32 will be cooking up a greatest-hits menu. After that, the emphasis will be green-market Italian and Asian fusion, with five "artisan thin crust" pizzas.

Finally, there's a new tenant in the former home of Michael's Italian Bistro and Brewery, at 5798 South Rapp Street in Littleton — right next door to chef Mike Long's still-up-and-running Opus Restaurant. The new joint, which took over ops about a month ago, is called the Old Mill Brewery — so named because the historic building started as the Columbine Mill — and is owned by Bill Frangiskakis. That name sound familiar? It should if you're a diner fan, because Bill (and his wife Kathy) owned and ran Kathy and Bill's Diner at 1050 South Havana in Aurora before selling the space and moving K&B's to 14197 East Exposition. Meanwhile, the original spot became Grace's Home Cooking, a kinda weird Korean-American version of a neighborhood diner.