Hey, big guy,
I know it's been a long time since I've written, and for that, I apologize. You were pretty good to me back in the day -- easy on the coal, no matter how bad a boy I'd been. You overlooked that unfortunate incident with the lawnmower and Superman, my brother's pet squirrel. You let it slide when I punched John Felerman in the back of the head for making fun of me when I wore that über-cool Miami Vice-style skinny red-leather tie to school in sixth grade. You always came through for me.
And it's not that I stopped believing -- not at all. It's not that I finally wised up when I saw you on TV hawking bargain-priced VCRs for Crazy Eddie or hanging out behind JC Penney with your beard in your pocket catching a quick smoke on your union-mandated fifteen-minute break. And it has nothing to do with you not answering that letter I sent about six years back in which I asked for only a good-quality baseball bat and five minutes alone in a locked room with Alfred Portale -- the sonofabitch who invented the vertical food trend and made my next couple years in the kitchen a hell of Springforms and PVC tubing. As a Christmas wish, I understand that was probably out of line. And I mailed it in August. But in my defense, I'd been having a pretty lousy year.
No, I've just been busy. And I know you're a busy guy, too, so I'm sure you understand.
But now it's time to drop you another line. I know you have your hands full there, what with all those reindeer and elves to keep track of and the missus always getting in your business about losing weight and your cholesterol and whatnot. Still, I hope you can take a look at my list of Christmas wishes for improving the restaurant scene both here in Denver and nationally.
1) I'd like to see an end to chain restaurants. Not all of them, necessarily, but most of them. Okay, like 98 percent of them. And I want to start with the Olive Garden. I want you to make every Olive Garden vanish. No one needs to get hurt; I'm not asking for fires or floods or anything truly cataclysmic (although that wouldn't be entirely bad). Just snap your fingers or wiggle your nose or do whatever it is you do to get that Kris Kringle juju flowing, and bam! No more Applebee's. No more California Pizza Kitchen. No more goddamn Olive Garden.
I know this is a tall order and maybe somewhat beyond your purview as the ambassador of joy and niceness during the holiday season, but I figure, you're Santa, right? You've got some powerful friends. You've got that super-fast sleigh and some magical reindeer, and if you gathered up, say, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and some of the kids on your naughty list to do a community-service kind of deal whereby they could clean up their records for the coming year, we could do something about this. It's time, Santa.
And if we can't get rid of the chains entirely, then how 'bout visiting a little holiday cheer on some of the good guys laboring in a market dominated by Bloomin' Onions, Riblets and Extreme Fajitas? Maybe you could have Rudolph blind a bus driver on Sixth Avenue and make him wreck right in front of Clair de Lune, stranding all those passengers there with nothing to eat and not a Bennigan's in sight. Or what about endorsements? Going on TV as the official spokesman for Vega or Indigo or that Korean BBQ place out by my house could do a lot. Tell the kids that if they want to grow up to be a big, fat magical figment like you, they'd better start bugging their parents to take them to Le Central or Vesta Dipping Grill or Bastien's or Chedd's. Tell them that every time they eat a Happy Meal, an elf dies. Better yet, call a press conference and reveal that Riblets are made out of reindeer meat. Hell, you'd be doing Applebee's a favor. Compared to what those things taste like they're made of, reindeer would be a great improvement.
2) Please put an end to food served in martini glasses. With the exception of the cosmopolitan served at Mel's (see page 55), this must stop. Because if you fill up the glass with steak tartare or ceviche or chocolate mousse or apple pie or whatever, where does the gin go? Santa, deliver unto these poor, deluded fools a copy of Simply Sensational Desserts, by Francois Payard, which has plenty of pictures of desserts displayed in the traditional manner: on a plate.
3) The overuse of cilantro must stop. In its place, cilantro is wonderful. Cilantro in my eggs is not. Cilantro in my soup is not. Cheap, dried cilantro added by the fistful to salsa tastes like tomato-flavored grass clippings. And rosemary? So 1990s. Santa, unless someone really knows what he's doing with rosemary, he shouldn't use it, because when rosemary's used wrong, it tastes like either feet or soap -- two things I don't want anywhere near my mouth. Same thing with purple basil (delicate, and generally abused); cinnamon (it's very difficult to get good cinnamon in the U.S., and if someone isn't using good cinnamon, he might as well be using cedar shavings); vanilla bean (which is the exact opposite of cinnamon -- the good stuff used to be tough to get, and now it's everywhere); and lemongrass/lemon verbena. Give them spice racks, Santa, and let them learn the basics.
4) In that same vein, Santa, can you do something about the infused-vinegar-and-oil situation? Whenever you can find an ingredient or implement on the discount rack at your local Bed Bath & Beyond, that should be a pretty good clue that its time in the culinary spotlight has ended. You know what's being remaindered there right now? Home ice-cream makers, mini-whisks, popcorn poppers and about a million bottles of red-pepper-garlic oil. Santa, my Christmas wish for the poor line dogs still stuck on a food fad that died on the vine back in 1997 is that you leave them each one bottle of Modena tradizionale aged balsamic vinegar and one bottle of cold-pressed, raw, Spanish green olive oil. With these in the kitchen, infusions suddenly look and taste like the waste of time they truly are.
5) And what about the Atkins diet? How has this fad hung on so long? Look, folks, take it from a guy who eats for a living: There's only one diet that works, and it has only two steps. Are you ready?
Step one: Eat everything, just eat less of it.
Step two: Repeat step one.
That's it. Throw in some deep-seated psychological food issues from your childhood and a couple doses of food poisoning a year, and voila! The pounds will just melt away.
But, seriously, people who swear by this quack's system are missing out on one of mankind's greatest inventions: bread. So, Santa, while you're sneaking around people's houses trying on their underwear and rearranging their living-room furniture, I want you to look at their bookshelves, too. And if they have a copy of The Atkins Diet, I want you to leave them one loaf of brioche and one black-cherry-chocolate miche from Paradise Bakery. While you're at it, check their cupboards for bottles of truffle oil. If they have any, steal them, and we'll burn them someplace where no one will notice the smell. Like New Jersey.
6) Finally, some stocking stuffers. I'd like to see Duy Pham find a job at a house he can settle into comfortably. I'd like to see more prepared food coming from the back of Marczyk Fine Foods. Speaking of markets, can't we have one that's just for chefs and not tourists and home cooks? I'm not talking about something on the scale of Tokyo's Tsukiji fish market or Union Square in New York, but something small and intimate that opens around five in the morning so that professionals can stock up for the day. A place where every cook can go and get his hands on the food instead of staring at a smudgy, faxed produce list. A place to become inspired. And if you grant that wish, we'll need bakeries that work on a flipped schedule -- places that start baking around midnight and begin putting out fresh bread at four in the morning. And with bakeries operating all night, we'll need restaurants that stay open past ten. And something more than just diners. Ethnic restaurants where I can get pierogis and latkes, injera, yakitori or a bowl of avgolemono at two in the morning on a Wednesday.
I wish that Maruti Narayan's would come back. And Triana. And the old Opal. I wish that the Cream Puffery would open a Denver location. I'd like it if the Fourth Story could find someone good to fill Tyler Wiard's shoes -- someone who will stay a while and turn a restaurant that has always had the potential to be great into one that actually is. And while you're at it, Santa, here's something Denver could really use: a brunch tradition. Not places to have brunch, because we already have some of those and they are almost universally awful, but a brunch culture. An understanding among the purveyors of brunches both fair and foul that the sole reason for their existence is to present simple food items and a whole lotta hair of the dog to customers who are tired, grumpy, hung over and looking for a place that will smooth their transition from the excesses of Saturday night into the ease of Sunday morning.
Santa, I'd like it if you could stop the waiters in this town from reciting the specials like bad actors in a community-theater production of Our Town reading their lines off the backs of their hands. What's wrong with a chalkboard? What's wrong with a menu insert? For that matter, I'd like it if they could at least get the ingredients right when forced to describe the kitchen's interpretation of strangled squab with virgin peaches in a lemon-Styrofoam reduction.
I'd like to see a ban on garlic mashers and portobello mushrooms, on bad tiramisu and cannoli that would have made Sonny Corleone weep, on "molten chocolate" anything and "flourless" everything. I'd like to see more neighborhood restaurants that actually feel like they belong in the neighborhood. In other words, more places like Brewery Bar II and a whole lot less like Brewery Bar III.
And Santa? Please stop kitchens from listing on their menus reductions that aren't, veloutés that are really béchamels, and confit of anything that hasn't actually been preserved in its own fat. Send the guilty cooks copies of Larousse Gastronomique or Le Répertoire de la Cuisine, by Saulnier, so they can brush up. As for the good guys out there -- the Sean Kellys and Frank Bonannos of the world who are doing their level best to make food the way food is supposed to be made and calling everything by its proper name -- give them each a pony.
Thanks in advance for all your help.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.