An Open Book

When the people behind Aji (see review) decided they wanted a second restaurant -- or, in the case of Sara and Lenny Martinelli, a fifth -- they didn't have to look any farther than right next door. Leaf -- an organic, seasonal, global vegan and vegetarian concept offering everything from Japanese kombu to Indian thali, eggplant rellenos to beet gnocchi with paneer, pizza with English peas -- opened a couple of months ago at 2010 16th Street in Boulder, with the two operations separated by one shared wall and a million miles of ideology. At 1601 Pearl Street (Aji), you'll find pork loin and fat steaks served rare and bleeding all over the plate, various sea creatures in various states of deconstruction, and chickens offered pulled, shredded, sliced, roasted and sautéed. Meanwhile, next door at Leaf, the gentle vegetarians must make do with scrambled tofu, seaweed salad and a daily vegan happy hour featuring (among other things) three-dollar pot stickers, four-dollar barbecued seitan and artichoke guacamole with white bean cake and soy cream.

In Denver, too, smart restaurateurs are pairing properties. Kevin Taylor's two hottest restaurants are positioned side by side in the Hotel Teatro (see last week's Cafe for details). Frank Bonanno has pulled the same trick twice, opening his straight Italian wonder, Luca d'Italia, at 711 Grant Street, just a few steps from Mizuna, his original Italo-Mediterranean fine dining restaurant at 225 East Seventh Avenue, then doing the same thing again by putting Milagro Taco Bar and Harry's Chop House (plus The Back Room jazz bar) in the same building on the corner of 17th and Vine. The Sullivan Restaurant Group has Ocean at 201 Columbine Street and the original location of its nascent chain of Emogene Patisserie right next door. And though Sullivan's plan for the expansion of Nine75 is taking a different route (with additional locations spun off from the original at 975 Lincoln Street onto opposing compass points), just down the street at 925 Lincoln, club and restaurant guy Jay Chadrom is sticking with the program and opening his second restaurant, Aqua, directly across from his first: Opal, at 100 East Ninth Avenue.

Of course, Chadrom has been "opening his second restaurant" for more than a year now, with repeated delays and reschedulings keeping the space dark for so long that some people (namely, me) were beginning to wonder if Aqua was ever going to serve its first plate. But now it looks as though the place may actually get its grand debut. Last weekend, Chadrom hosted a birthday party at Aqua for Craig Nassi, developer of the Beauvallon property where Aqua holds down a choice cornerstone location. And while a birthday party for your landlord isn't exactly an opening night, it's something, right?

I'd called Chadrom late in the afternoon of August 2nd; Nassi's party was scheduled for the 5th. If the final inspections were done on the 3rd, that would give Chadrom and his crew roughly 48 hours to get everything moved in, to test the equipment, to fire up the freezers and run through the million little details involved in bringing a restaurant to life. To prepare for even a single party, 48 hours is not a lot of time.

But then, Chadrom has had closer to sixteen months to get ready for opening night. He signed the original lease on the space back in April 2005, then blew through at least two projected opening dates. "Look," Chadrom told me. "It's crazy. All these permits and stuff? You know, I've never done anything from the ground up before." Which is true: When he opened Opal in the former home of Radex four years ago, he needed to do little more than slap some fresh paint on the walls, get the liquor license transferred and hang new curtains.

"But this was different," he continued. "This is what happened." And then he proceeded to tell me, well, everything. He explained how what began as a very simple concept (a raw bar to complement the grub being done at Opal) can go sideways before you know it, how a year and a half can go by like that. And how it can all begin with a bathroom.

"The way it started, you know, I was just going to do one segment of that space," Chadrom said. "Just the front part. About 3,000 square feet. But we needed to have bathrooms, right? And you want to have nice bathrooms in a nice restaurant. Big bathrooms. And you don't want them too close to where the people are, because that's... unseemly."

So what he wanted to do was move the bathrooms. But with the way the space was arranged -- a virtual mirror image, structurally, of Nine75's weird two-rooms-and-a-hallway barbell shape at the opposite corner of Beauvallon -- the only place for the bathrooms was off that hallway, essentially out the back door of Chadrom's original design. Still, Chadrom thought that might be workable. He was already looking at putting a second bar in the back near the kitchen, so he cut a deal with Nassi to take a space off the back hallway where he could build his bathrooms. By July 2005, when the liquor license came through, an addendum had been made to the lease for the bathrooms, and everything looked good to go.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan