Last fall, chef Bradford Heap (late of Full Moon Grill and the Chautauqua Dining Hall) and his wife, Carol, bought Le Chantecler from Liz Darling, who had taken the place in a settlement after she split with former owner Radek Cerny. For the past several months, they've continued to run the place as Le Chantecler while they prepared their new venture.
Why? Because it kept money coming in. And having a working (and staffed) restaurant at his command gave Brad a chance to test out much of the new menu he'll soon introduce. Finally, the space is so lovely and the kitchen so good that there was really no reason to shut things down. But on April 15, the restaurant will officially become Colterra.
I called Carol last week to ask what the Heaps had on tap for the place, and was frightened right from the start when she started talking about their "mission" and "beliefs" and the Latin translation of the new name (it means "to cultivate the earth," by the way). Now, it's not that I think there's anything wrong with having values and a sense of duty in one's life; it's just that buzzwords like "mission" and "beliefs" and anything translated from the Latin make me nervous. They smack of politics and proselytizing -- two things that make me itch when they start rubbing up too close against the food world.
"It's all part of our mission here," Carol told me. "Local, organic, sustainable, ingredient-driven. A real farm-to-table concept. Seasonality. We believe this is absolutely what that place calls for, in that rural community."
I asked if she thought that they'd be able to go 100 percent in that direction -- a standard question for anyone in Colorado who starts talking about greenmarket menus and organic produce, since the supply chains are not yet sufficient to provide enough natural, organic, sustainable, straight-from-the-garden items to make up a full menu. The response I anticipated was the one that I get from everybody: a simple "no," usually followed by laughter and the occasional lecture on the infant state of sustainable agriculture in Colorado. This is where Carol surprised me.
"A few things -- butter and salt, you know, that we'll have to get from the main guys," she said. "But, yeah, we're going to be pretty much 100 percent."
"Yeah." No hesitation at all.
When I asked how this was possible, Carol explained that they had very good contacts among the farmers and ranchers in the area; that Colorado's Cure Farm was going to put in a series of organic gardens on the Colterra property so that they could grow some of their own produce; that they'd found suppliers for all-natural, grain-fed meats and sustainably harvested seafoods; and -- perhaps most important -- that the menu itself would be styled after those done in the restaurants of Southern France and Northern Italy, where local produce, market-driven menus and sustainability were not political or social stances, but simply the facts of life.
Still somewhat suspicious, I delicately asked Carol where all this was coming from. Honestly, I found it hard to believe that a chef like Brad Heap -- a serious pro, classically trained under the likes of Ducasse and Georges Blanc -- would willfully put himself into a position where he'd be complicating his supply lines, depending exclusively on purveyors who themselves operated at the whims of nature and the market, hamstringing himself by promising something that (as I saw it) would be virtually impossible to deliver. Maybe I'm somewhat backward when it comes to these things, but I simply couldn't understand why a chef would intentionally put politics and principle before cuisine.
"Well, Brad read this book..." Carol said.
"Omnivore's Dilemma?" I asked, interrupting her thought.
"Yes! Have you read it?"
Of course I've read it. Many people I know consider it not just the most important food book of last year, but possibly the most important food book of a generation. No one who reads it is unaffected (I shared my response in the June 22, 2006, "Survival of the Fittest"), and I know many people who were profoundly changed by it. Hell, I was profoundly changed by it.
All of a sudden, what the Heaps were doing made sense. Brad may be the first chef I've heard of who's opening a restaurant specifically as a response to what he learned in the pages of Michael Pollan's book, but I'm sure that he won't be the last.
At Colterra, as inspired by Pollan, informed by the French and trained by Ducasse, Brad will be doing a mix of small plates and large ones, tasting menus and more traditional app/entree arrangements, all focused on seasonality, locality and the available stock of the markets and his farmer-partners. He aspires to a thoroughly French system of using every scrap of everything his kitchen purchases (meat for meals, bones for stock, etc). He and Carol have put a French cuvée system behind the bar that will allow them to pour single glasses of wine from expensive bottles and then reseal them -- making available a huge number of vintages for wine pairings. And soon enough, they'll also have a new patio open: a nice, flagged affair set under the walnut trees beside the building, looking out over the town, the gardens, the land from which Colterra will draw its supplies.
"This was one of our big impetuses for buying Le Chantecler," Carol told me as we were finishing up our conversation. "We could have the building, the land. We could do what we wanted to do."
No one from the Chautauqua Association would have a say, no other partners would have a say. "We would control the land, control everything that we wanted to be," she concluded. "And now, to have all of our values, our beliefs line up with how we spend our day? Brad tells everyone that he's living his dream. And how many people get to say that?"
Leftovers: With the coming of spring come the new spring menus. They're popping up everywhere -- all sweetness and light and microgreens and lamb in myriad preparations. One of the more noteworthy new boards is at Euro (231 Milwaukee Street), a fresh turn for chef Marc Carmean, who took command in the galley after the departure of chef Olav Peterson. Though Euro has never been the most stable restaurant in Denver (having shuffled menus, chefs, concepts and staff faster than even the hottest card sharp could follow), this spring menu (full of lamb T-bones with sweet-pea orzo, soft-shell crab cioppino and simple steak frites under a veil of maître d' butter) represents the second full change executed by Carmean.
Also in Cherry Creek, Mel Master has handed down the word: The final dinner at Mel's will be on April 28. But after that, he'll give Denver diners plenty of other options. His new joint, Montecito, has been going for several months now at 1120 East Sixth Avenue, serving great California-style cuisine courtesy of chef Adam Mali (check out the blog for details). And the Master family (Mel, wife Jane and son Charles, late of Brix) are set to open both another Montecito in the former Ventura Grill space, at 5970 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village, and Anabell's -- upscale American comfort food, rather like Brix without the Continental accent -- right next door, at 5960 South Holly, in the former home of Ocotillo.
Finally, Jason Parfenoff, the owner of Toast (2700 West Bowles Avenue in Littleton), dropped me a line to say that after his place won this year's award for Best Breakfast, it did its best business to date that Sunday: 380 covers. You read that right -- 380 covers in a dining room that can't possibly hold more than fifty, in a restaurant that's only open until three in the afternoon. And Parfenoff said that Toast is now averaging 350.
In order to cope with this massive upsurge in business, Parfenoff said he's "in the planning stages" of a remodel on the attached space next door that will give him thirty or forty more seats on the floor and a new prep area for the guys in the kitchen.
Jason, let me give you a piece of advice: