D for Denver

Last week, after I'd finished my review of D Bar, I called chef-owner Keegan Gerhard to ask the Food Network star a few questions.

First and foremost: How the hell did he end up in Denver?

"That's funny," he replied. "That's a result of a few things, really." And then he listed all of them. For starters, there was that time he spent as a bike racer. Colorado has always been a mecca for that sort; I think it has something to do with our thin atmosphere and very reasonable prices on Lycra shorts. Or maybe it's the beer. I don't know. The last bike I was on was my Huffy when I was ten. I'm really more of a car guy.

Then there was the fact that Gerhard did a couple of years at the University of Colorado. He didn't mention what he studied there. I'm guessing girls.

Then there's his wife and partner at D Bar, Lisa Bailey. She's from Texas, and like all wise Texans, she wanted to get out of Texas as soon as possible. Like most Texans, she wanted to go to Colorado. But Las Vegas was where she ended up, as pastry chef at Corsa at the Wynn Las Vegas, where Gerhard was on the books as second-in-command for the hotel and part of the opening team. They did three years of making desserts in the desert. "After that," Gerhard told me, "Bailey and I decided that we never want to work that hard for anyone else again."

What they wanted was a place of their own. In Denver. Because Colorado was where Gerhard was working the most. He'd been doing the Taste of Colorado for years. High Noon Entertainment (which produces the Food Network Challenge shows that put Gerhard into millions of living rooms) is based in Centennial. While on one of his Mile High gigs, Gerhard met Noel Cunningham, owner of Strings (1700 Humboldt Street), and it turned out the space next door to Strings had been standing empty for some time, and the two of them got to talking...

"He's had that space open forever," Gerhard said, "and I was telling him, you've got to get some kind of revenue-generating thing in there." And eventually, the concept that Gerhard and Bailey had of a small dessert bar and pastry shop became that thing.

"See?" he said. "I told you it was a few things."

That's how D Bar wound up in Colorado. And D Bar itself, Gerhard explained, is really "an amalgam of everything I've done." He talked about his time as a regular chef — before his turn to pastry — and how that's reflected in the lunch and dinner menus; how, when he was working for Dean & DeLuca, he learned to watch the people coming in. "That's where I saw people's delight in a good pastry case," he said. "You know, us chefs, we're pretty guilty of having these huge egos," wanting to use ingredients that no one's ever heard of, creating plates that no one wants to eat in order to scratch some kind of mad-scientist itch or just prove that one really can make dinner of hobo wine, Styrofoam peanuts and shredded back issues of Saveur. "But this is not rocket science," he added. "My plan is to win people over with things they know and then cook them things that I think they might like, off the menu, fruits that are in season."

And then I confessed that, before seeing Gerhard in action and tasting what he was capable of, I'd made fun of him a little — lumping him in with all the other celebrity chefs out there. "Good," he told me, and we talked about the modern phenomena of chefs who put their names on restaurants, their stamps on menus, and then are never seen again: Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Vegas, Wolfgang Puck everywhere. Gerhard said that he wasn't going to do that, that overseeing a kingdom is not part of his plan (at least for now). "I understand that what's going to pay the bills is the lady in Cherry Creek who wants the birthday cake for Billy to be cooked by Keegan Gerhard from the Food Network, but that's okay," he said. "People want to see their celebrities. And if that will let me do what I enjoy, I'm okay with that. I mean, I'm no Keller or Wolfgang Puck, but I'm going to be there, doing the food. It's rare, but it's what I love. That's my passion: cooking like a cook."

He's told the Food Network and High Noon that he and Bailey have their shop now and are dedicated to making it work; that he has to be here as much as possible, not on the road, shilling. "We're on hiatus with Food Network Challenge until October," Gerhard told me, adding that even after that, he'll be working close to home as much as he can. And until then, except for one weekend when he has to be on the road for a pastry competition, he's going to be exactly where he wants to be: standing behind the bar at D Bar, making cookies, salting avocado — and soon, pouring wine.

Because come the end of August, D Bar should finally be in possession of a liquor license, something it didn't have when it opened two months ago, even though that was part of the original concept. "There was some shenanigans with the first [hearing]—something with the floor plan," Gerhard explained. The shenanigans apparently involved a small square of pavement between the front door and the entrance to the patio that, in the original plans, showed up as unlicensed space. And one can't have customers (or servers) carrying drinks through an unlicensed space. The error has since been corrected, and with a lot of help from friends in town, D Bar has a second hearing scheduled for August 25 — after which the owners plan to introduce a twelve- to sixteen-bottle wine list, arranged by style (bright whites, big reds, bubbles, et cetera), as well as a few dessert liqueurs (Baileys, Kahlúa and their ilk) and, every night, a different pastry-inspired martini.

"Things work as they should," Gerhard told me. "If we'd had the license right from the beginning, we would've gotten our asses handed to us. We wouldn't have been ready at all."

Now they're ready to serve booze, and also to make some more changes. Come fall, Gerhard and Bailey hope to introduce a Sunday brunch: homemade Danish and croissant, booze and coffee. They'll switch up the schedule at that point, closing on Mondays and staying open Sunday — a day the two of them usually spend working anyhow. Said Gerhard, "People come by on Sunday, and they see me working inside and they ask, 'Hey, why can't you cook for us?' I'm here anyway, so..."

Spoken like a true chef — a true cook. A man who really wants nothing more than to feed people and to spend his days playing with food.

Hardly like a celebrity at all.

Leftovers: Not surprisingly, Hue Asian Bistro, which took over the failed (and hibachi-less) Thai Thai Hibachi space at 1312 East Sixth Avenue, has gone dark. A sign on the door says the place has closed for renovations, but it's dated from early May and, when I peeked in the windows Friday night, it didn't look like anything inside had been touched since the doors closed.

But there's news of a surprising, and sad, closure, too. Mori Japanese Restaurant (2019 Market Street) is also flying the "temporarily closed for renovation" sign, and while there's no one who'd argue against Mori probably being the Denver restaurant most desperately in need of a serious renovation (unless, of course, broken ceiling tiles, exposed wiring and ragged, blackened carpets are your thing), it's clear that this is not the kind of renovation that Mori will come back from. What gave it away? The For Sale sign hanging just on the other side of the chained-off parking lot.

This is not just another restaurant closure, but the end of an era. The building that housed Mori had been a Nisei veterans post, and the restaurant itself had been around since 1948, dating back to the very beginning of Denver's post-war fascination with all things Japanese. Before that, the building was a brothel — one of the most popular in the 1890s, according to people who know that sort of thing.

Unfortunately, I don't know a lot more about Mori's fate after a call to the agent handling the property, Mathew Abraham. "We could sell or lease the entire property," he said, adding that the owners are prepared to go either way, depending on interest. Given the property's proximity to Coors field, we're betting the building will sell, then disappear.

And with that, another big piece of Denver's past will go dark.