Cafe Society

Bait and Switch

Larry Herz is happy. Walking the floor of Go Fish Grille on a Saturday night, he's in his element -- an industry veteran working a crowded house -- and he's got an energy that arcs off him like sparks. He moves between tables, chatting, checking up, floating, dodging. He back-pedals to let a tray-laden waitress pass, then squeezes tight against a booth to let a runner go by on his other side, all the while continuing his spiel. He's talking about the arctic char special, explaining the many characteristics of the fish -- the stiff flesh, the coloring so like salmon, the taste so unlike salmon. Larry knows his fish and likes to talk about it, but what he's really doing is assessing the plain-Jane salmon on the plates of the diners he's talking to. He's seeing how much of the fish is eaten, how much it's been played with -- a measure of a customer's lack of interest in his chosen entree -- and how the sides and sauces are working. At the same time, he's checking levels in wine glasses like a mechanic checks oil, looking for dirty silverware and watching the body language of the four ladies at the table. Are they comfortable? Are they smiling? Are they hunched protectively over their plates (a good sign), or leaning back, relaxed and satisfied (also a good sign). And why hasn't the woman sitting so stiffly touched her food? That's not a good sign at all.

"Lemme get someone to bring you a couple different sauces," he says, done with his arctic char lecture and gently disengaging himself. "And another glass of wine? Yeah, another glass of wine, okay?"

Herz has been in Denver a long time, but he hasn't lost his New York accent or cadence. He twists out of the way of another runner, this one carrying a long sheet of white butcher's paper. As the kid whips by, Herz watches him go, then moves on, directing a waitress to check on the four ladies with the salmon, jumping across the room to spend a minute with another table.

Then another. Then another.

He never really stands still, except when he's at the hostess stand, looking at the book, or at the service station in the back, peeking at the night's numbers. Once in a while he'll duck back into the kitchen, but he never stays there long. His place is out on the floor.

Hidden behind a big party at the end of the room, I feel like a bit of a voyeur. I know Herz, but he doesn't know me -- not on sight, at least. We talk every couple of months about the restaurant industry in general and a few restaurants in particular. We talk about fish and fish suppliers. We talk about New York and Denver, and Denver as compared to New York. I loved his last restaurant in this space, Indigo, and thought its chef, Ian Kleinman, was one of the best and most creative in town. Maybe a little wild -- Kleinman once had this idea for doing an event dinner where he would move his kitchen to the center of Indigo's dining room and cook to music, with all the dishes inspired by the tunes being played -- but young yet, and young chefs will (arguably, must) try some wild things.

The bulk of Denver diners did not share my opinion of Indigo, though. Matter of fact, the bulk of Denver diners stayed away in droves, and I remember Herz telling me how he'd spend Saturday nights with a half-full house, staring out the window at Little Ollie's across the street, where the lines ran out the door. Nowadays, I doubt that Herz has time to look out the window.

After he closed Indigo last spring, he explored and dismissed many replacement concepts -- a New American diner, a cyber-cafe, a burgers-and-meatloaf comfort-food joint -- before settling on the idea behind Go Fish Grille: a fresh-fish restaurant with a sense of humor, much more warmth than Indigo and some of the same genes that made Tom Colicchio's Craft in New York City such a hit. Even after the buyout offers for his location started coming in, he stayed the course. He's a lifer, one of those old-school creatures not meant for anything but the restaurant industry. After starting Carmine's on Penn, the late Uncle Sam's and Indigo, what was he going to do if he sold out? Ski?

Instead, Herz recognized that he had a potential winner with the Go Fish concept. He saw that one thing -- maybe the only thing -- missing from the overcrowded Cherry Creek dining market was a decent seafood restaurant. So he and Kleinman put together a new lineup that saved a few Indigo appetizers, but essentially started from scratch. They sourced good fish, chose some simple salads, sides and starches that could be banged out fast and on the cheap, rounded out the board with a few pastas and landlocked proteins, then arranged the menu like a giant culinary Lego set where a diner can pick his fish, then a sauce to go on that fish, salad from one list, starch and veg from another, and bingo: dinner. The kitchen offers a few specials (like the Saturday-night arctic char) and adjusts the menu for seasonal changes in the available species, but for the most part, cooking here is an assembly-line process. For table 12, mahi mahi with lemon-thyme tartar, iceberg wedge, creamed spinach and fries; sea bass on 4 with wasabi cream, Caesar, garlic mash and asparagus.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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