Cafe Society

Bit by Bit

Stepping off the crowded Pearl Street Mall and into Triana is like burying your face in a flamenco dancer's best dress or jumping into a pile of autumn leaves. Fiery reds and oranges explode in this small space. The ceiling is painted black, a dark sky but for the exposed pipes and ductwork crawling everywhere. Shallow, midnight-blue booths line the room, and a warm glow cast by recessed lights climbs the walls like flame. The walls themselves are cut stone that abruptly gives way to brick; the floors change from cracked tile to hardwood halfway through the dining room. Sensuous, curving iron fixtures share space with shining steel and rigid aluminum bar stools. Heavy cement tabletops hold chunky silverware and delicate, blue-striped plates. When seen from certain angles, framed properly or taken in altogether with one long look, the place can be really beautiful.

Or it can seem jarring and discordant, with stone and brick butting up against each other, patterns fighting patterns, the soft tones of wood and leather scratched at by cold steel. Depending entirely on the day, tricks of light, your mood and your tastes, the room can be smooth, flowing and organic -- or bungled and harsh.

Unfortunately, the menu is the same way.

The name "Triana" refers to a barrio in Seville, but while the tapas-heavy menu reflects the flavors of Spanish cuisine, it also borrows liberally from a half-dozen other cultures. Executive chef Hosea Rosenberg inherited some of that menu from James Mazzio -- the top toque who founded Triana in September 2000 and moved on about six months ago -- and he's still struggling to find his element among a world of options. Some dishes drift, their flavors rootless. Others show flashes of pure acetylene brilliance. A couple I'm still trying to forget.

Midway through my first meal at Triana, Pippi (one of my regular partners and a specialist in Boulder dining) began to bitch. "These suck," she said, throwing the gnawed ends of three french fries back into the brown-paper cone in which they're served. "You know me: Put a potato in front of me in any form and I'll eat it. Mashed, baked, fried, I don't care, but I'm a potato purist, and these --" she pushed the curvy little iron stand that held the cone upright away with her fingertips and made a yuck face like a kid forced to eat beets "-- are awful."

Triana is known for its fries. They've won awards, including one from this newspaper. So I told Pippi that she was wrong. The fries were not bad, I explained, just different. Cut skin-on and thin, they're deep-fried, then sprinkled with sugar in addition to the usual salt while still hot so that the sugar caramelizes and lends a touch of sweetness to the humble spuds. I reminded her that she's also a snob, inherently suspicious of anyone trying to do anything unusual with food, and opinionated to a fault.

"Which doesn't change the fact that these are awful," she said. "Try some." I did as she continued. "And what makes you think that me being an opinionated snob is any different than you being an opinionated snob?"

"Because I get paid for it. You just get taken out for a free dinner once in a while."

While she sulked, I kept chewing. After one mouthful, I was convinced that her tastebuds were being led astray by her mistrust of new things. The shoestrings were wonderful: salty, sweet, crunchy and strange. They came with a Spanish romesco -- a spicy, dandied-up peanut butter made with almonds and red pepper -- that was good, if a little greasy, which meant it didn't stick to the still-hot fries. I went for a second handful, munching happily while we waited for our next flight of tapas. I grabbed a third and was suddenly less charmed. I picked at a few more fries, then pushed the cone back toward her, the stand scraping against the cement tabletop.

"These," I announced, "are not so good."

"I know."

"Actually, they're kind of awful. Like something between a french fry and a funnel cake. And burned, now that I think about it."

"I know."

"People should really learn to leave their potatoes alone."

She gave me her "I told you so" look, which I hate, and we let Triana's famous shoestrings cool at the edge of the table, untouched for the rest of the meal. Interesting for one bite, amusing for two, these fries just don't have the chops to stand center stage.

Pippi and I grazed through dinner with a couple little plates followed by a couple more, then a couple more. Wanting to eat like this -- which is the informal, fun and proper way to make a run at a tapas menu -- seemed to confuse our waitress, though, and she kept trying to take our menus away. Had we been hitting the sangria (which is excellent, strong and cheap) any harder, this could have made for an ugly scene, but since I do this job anonymously, I try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Then again, in Boulder, everyone is so concerned with how cool they look that no one ever gives me a second glance. I'm pretty sure I could show up at any hot spot on Pearl Street, raving and naked, with RESTAURANT CRITIC written in Sharpie across my chest and my hair on fire, and go entirely unnoticed. And that suits me fine.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan