Cafe Society

A Beautiful Dine

Two things you should know about Opal right from the start. One, it's expensive. Not quite once-in-a-lifetime, mortgage-the-condo expensive, but to do it right -- to really kick out the jams with appetizers, flights of sushi, wine, entrees and dessert -- it's gonna cost you. And two, it's worth every cent.

And if, like me, you're eating on the company dime, it's worth every cent twice. On my life's list of memorable meals, dinner here slid with a Sapporo-and-sake-drunk lurch into the top five of all time, coming in ahead of my post-nuptial feed at Onda in Vegas and just behind the simple herbed-chicken pasta my wife, Laura, cooked for me on the first night we spent together. While I may go to my deathbed smelling the sweet, pine-needle scent of fresh-stripped thyme on the fingers of the woman I love, I'll carry the memory of chef de cuisine Rebecca Weitzman's pumpkin gnocchi and sushi chef Herry Fnu's raw quail eggs cracked over bright-orange tobiko (flying-fish roe) for nearly as long.

Dinner at Opal was flat-out stunning -- and surprising, because the restaurant itself could have been such a failure. It debuted its French-Asian fusion menu with the Tokyo-style sushi bar at that exact moment when the last thing the world needed was another French-Asian fusion menu with a Tokyo-style sushi bar. This past September, a year after 9/11, most experts were warning of a slump in the food-service industry as though it were the second coming of the Black Plague. Diners were returning in droves to mashed potatoes and mac-n-cheese comfort foods, business at the Olive Garden was up something like 12 percent, and high-end, fine dining, fancy-pants fusion joints nationwide were dying off at an alarming rate.

But Opal opened wide its doors anyway. And if the cuisine concept alone wasn't enough to spell doom, the owners decided to give the proverbial finger to that old axiom about too many cooks spoiling the broth by trolling the town for just about any chef or operator in search of a new house to settle in. At the start, the front-office team included Bucky Parker (who'd just closed Radex at the same address), club baron Jay Chadrom (of Club Sanctuary, among others) and Miki Hashimoto of Japon and Japango in Boulder. In the kitchen, they installed Duy Pham (late of Tante Louise, where he'd earned his AAA, four-diamond and Mobil four-star epaulets) as executive chef; sushi chef Jimmy Tajima, who'd recently fled the glitz of Nobu's Vegas location for the relative calm of Denver; and chef de cuisine Weitzman, a veteran of Mizuna and Bloom. And each of them brought along crews and baggage and an almost iron-clad guarantee of a knock-down, drag-out war, because that old axiom usually holds true. In the weird, insular world of professional kitchens, you should never, under any circumstances, have more than one general in the trenches. Chefs are lone-wolf types of creatures. They do not share well. The setup was a disaster waiting to happen, and I had bets out around town that Opal would self-destruct in less than three months, imploding spectacularly in a scene that would make the front page of the dailies with a headline like "Local restaurant evacuated by SWAT team after bizarre kitchen murder-suicide."

I lost that bet. Rather than doing the old crash-and-burn, Opal honed its concept and culled its ranks. "Initially, we had to bring in as many people as possible to make sure everything -- the sushi and the full menu -- were covered," Chadrom explains. "A lot of people who saw what we were doing didn't see all the angles."

Parker, who'd stayed just to help with the opening, took his leave. Tajima went to work with Hashimoto at both Japon and Japango, something he'd wanted from the start. And Hashimoto -- who "has so much going that he's not able, physically, to be here as much as I'd like him to be," Chadrom says -- backed off so that he's no longer as involved on a daily basis. Fnu and Mario Moscoso now ably man the sushi bar, and Pham has taken sole control of the kitchen. So while things didn't go down quite the way I figured, the result was the same. "There is only one chef here now," Pham says, laughing.

Opal's spare, elegant dining room has the feel of an exclusive 1940s supper club, with its white tablecloths, earth-tone plates, heavy silver, drawn curtains and lights hidden inside a swollen, purple, cloth parachute chandelier hanging from the ceiling. The servers are bound up in classic black and white that might have seemed stuffy had they been anything other than smart, happy people honestly pleased to be working their tables and truly in love with what was coming from the kitchen. The wine list was brief -- one page, double-sided -- but industrious, offering choices that, if not exactly assembled with perfect menu pairings in mind, were at least capable of standing up on their own beside excellent food. Laura had a workhorse Blackstone merlot, fruity but acidic. Sean, our sushi and pastry expert, went for the Momokawa Pearl off the artisan-sake menu. The sake arrived at the table in a curvy carafe with a blue glass ice reservoir that our waitress described as their "sake bong"; it was sweet, less spiky with raw rice alcohol than most, and finished with the flavor of coconut.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan