Restaurateur Kevin Delk never does anything by the book. His first three creations, Two-Fisted Mario's, Mario's Double Daughters Salotto and Beatrice & Woodsley, all have a sense of whimsy in their names, backstories and ambience — and they all have a touch of DIY ethic that hints at behind-the-scenes staple guns, hot glue and paintbrushes. So the only thing unsurprising about Delk's latest effort, Bang Up to the Elephant, is that it's full of surprises.
The restaurant, which opens to the public at 1310 Pearl Street on Saturday, January 27, is named after a Victorian-era saying that means "well done" or, as anglophiles like to say, "spot on." But there's nothing Victorian or British in the theme or decor, which uses cinder block and tropical plants to give the impression of recently unearthed Mayan ruins (making it somewhat reminiscent of the "Interior Garden" art installation at Denver International Airport). Lighting in shades on the violet-indigo-blue end of the color spectrum add a clubby vibe, but the rest of the decor is so eclectic that it defies easy description. Shanty-town windows rise above the kitchen, a wall of stained glass separates the dining room from the front foyer (which will serve as an airy indoor patio and all-day coffee bar), and whitewashed beams arc over the bar, giving it the feel of a backyard gazebo.
Delk explains that the address was once home to the Mercury Cafe, but that it has been boarded up and vacant for more than a decade — a time when it sheltered only squatters and pigeons. The cavernous space is heated in the winter by ultra-efficient heating coils suspended from the ceiling and cooled in the summer by evaporative coolers, which will add enough humidity to give the hundreds of inside plants (which are pretty small right now) a healthy growing environment.
The menu, overseen by executive chef Travis Messervey (coming over from Beatrice & Woodsley), also diverges from typical Denver restaurant fare, eschewing oak-fired ovens and rounds of small plates for what Delk describes as "Calypso cuisine," a mélange of Carribean styles centered on the food of Trinidad & Tobago, but with Jamaican and other island influences thrown in.
If you're a Jamaican jerk-chicken purist, you'll be pleased by the smoky, spicy results Messervey achieves by cooking the bird over imported pimento wood, which gives the dish its distinct allspice flavor. Pineapple and plantains make frequent appearances, and the Caribbean's centuries of slaves, indentured workers and immigrants from Africa, India and Asia inform the curry, chow mein and callaloo (a creamy dish of stewed greens — kale and collards, in this case).
Most notable, though, is the "bake and shark," a Trinidadian specialty of deep-fried shark tucked into a crispy flatbread pocket. While many species of shark are considered off-limits by conscientious seafood eaters, Bang Up to the Elephant uses spiny dogfish, a species approved by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. Other sustainable seafood will also be used in the dish, depending on availability throughout the year.
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"We're going for authentically inauthentic," jokes Delk. "This is definitely interpreted." But authentic touches like that pimento wood, the use of Caribbean chiles like Scotch Bonnets and Trinidad Scorpions (especially effective in a Trini pepper sauce that accompanies the bake and shark), and a liberal hand with tropical spices and curry blends make the menu at Bang Up (as we've decided to call it, for the sake of brevity) unique.
Live entertainment at night, breakfast comprising Caribbean street-food favorites, and an inventive cocktail menu (we trust you've never had tequila infused with Andy Capp's Hot Fries before) round out the experience. Oh, and as usual for Delk's projects, the bathrooms are not to be missed (we'll leave this one as a surprise for you to discover).
The restaurant opens to the public at 5 p.m. this Saturday; the cafe will open for breakfast beginning at 7 a.m.on Monday, January 29. Signage and a mural have yet to be added to the restaurant's facade, so just look for the baby-blue building with the French doors on Pearl Street just north of East 13th Avenue.