Burning Passion

Chefs love fire. Food may be their medium, but fire is their element. In the pan, fire is magic -- binding, breaking and bringing out the hidden life in everything it touches. Emulsion, reduction, a blanc and a point -- when you learn how to play with fire, you have control over the high-wire voodoo chemistry of the kitchen. You have the power of transubstantiation. You can perform alchemy.

The first thing a green line cook notices when he steps into the galley is the heat -- brutal, crushing, suffocating heat. Flames sputter and flash everywhere. Every surface is on fire. Anyone who's spent any time at all in a working kitchen has a favorite burn story, a treasured scar, remembers some pinche sissy who flaked out during a Saturday dinner rush, threw down his apron and just vanished. I worked for a chef once whose favorite trick was to crank up the gas on every burner of our old ten-top stove, then smack a pan down on the far element hard enough to catch a spark. He'd watch with glazed eyes and a crooked, psychotic grin as the flames leaped from burner to burner all the way down the line. If one didn't fire, he'd douse it with 140-proof vodka so it went up like a mushroom cloud. He called this "cleaning the jets."

The best chefs learn how to take the heat -- the pressure and the stress -- and turn it inward. You learn how to use it, and then come to love it until you can't live without it. But no matter how brightly the flames burn within, you have to make friends with the heat. If you don't, it'll kill you. That's why chefs don't retire: They burn out.


Vesta Dipping Grill

1822 Blake Street
Hours: 5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Vesta cheese plate: $12
Samosas: $8
Ceviche: $10
Harissa roasted chicken: $16
Grilled opah: $24
Brown-sugar-roasted duck breast: $21
All desserts: $6.50

Vesta Dipping Grill was named after the Roman goddess of the hearth. It's right there on the menu, written in some highbrow prattle about divinities and ancient symbolism straight out of a sophomore class in folklore and mythology. But in reality, the five-year-old Vesta is a temple of fire, a church of the flame. The grill -- which most of Vesta's offerings issue from -- is separated from the rest of the kitchen by a sliding wall and raised like a stage above the dining room. The twisting lamps hanging over the big round tables in the middle of the restaurant glow like tongues of lava frozen mid-lick. Oil lamps flicker on the smaller tables; tiers of pillar candles burn in wall niches like altars to the food gods; the bottles lined up behind the bar send bright-colored liquor fairies dancing up the walls. Handworked iron, shaped by fire, accents the dark, intimate decor, and even the menus come encased in hammered copper that would be ridiculously ostentatious if not for the fact that they look and feel so friggin' cool.

In the dining room, I couldn't sit still. Like a kid at a fancy-dress party, I was overcome by the heat of the action -- the absolute cinema of it all. I watched the maître d' at his stand by the door ushering in customers, crouching down to smile at a little girl and momentarily ignoring her father. I craned my neck to peek over the partition that runs down the middle of the room so that I could get a look at the bar, then swung around to watch the grill. Laura, my dinner companion, looked beautiful by candlelight, and I told her so -- but her face told me that she was sick of watching me fidget. Both of us were glad when the food started to arrive.

First up, the Vesta cheese plate. Although the menu had promised pears and figs, neither were in evidence -- but the plate was loaded down with Fontina, two kinds of goat cheese (one a fantastic Spanish variety, smooth and earthy, the other of a more mysterious ancestry) and a sheep's-milk offering so strong and raw and heavy that tasting it was like licking your fingers after a trip to the petting zoo. There were also candied walnuts (which, Freud be damned, are one of the sexiest foods out there), raspberries, blackberries and out-of-season strawberries piled on top of a green salad. The waiter laughed when he passed the table and saw me poking through the arugula jungle with my knife blade, searching for scraps of walnut and shreds of cheese I might have missed soaking in hidden puddles of black balsamic vinegar.

When there was no more fun to be had from the cheese plate, the waiter whisked it away and delivered our entrees -- as though having an empty dish sitting on the table was some sort of insult that demanded a quick remedy. Considering the über-hip LoDo digs and all that candlelit swank, there was the potential for Vesta's service to become overbearing and snobbish -- but it didn't go that way. At every turn, the floor staff was smooth and relaxed, their timing with the presentation and clearing of courses perfect. Even more impressive was the fact that none of the waiters carry ticket books, and that's an elegant way to run your service. The diner orders, the servers memorize, and even with dozens of sauces, constant substitutions and multiple tables to worry about, never once did an order get goofed. And while servers seemed to spend an awful lot of time hovering anxiously around the bar, who could blame them? It really is a lovely spot.

The way things work at Vesta, you order your entree, and then choose three of more than thirty available dipping sauces. Like the ink sported by executive chef Matt Selby -- fire crawling up one arm, water cascading down the other -- the sauces range from fiery ancho to cooling chutneys. Listed with each dish are pairing suggestions from Selby, who's been fanning Vesta's flames with his unique menus and wild flavor combinations since shortly after its summer 1997 opening.

The servers sometimes have ideas of their own, but you're free to go with whatever you feel might make for a tasty combination. With the harissa-roasted half-chicken -- handled with respectable delicacy, first roasted with a spicy harissa rub, then finished off on the grill for a good smoky flavor -- we tried a peanut sauce reminiscent of the stuff you get with satay, only smoother and with a nice, spicy kick. We also dipped into a forgettable chipotle and an excellent red-jerk mayonnaise that struck a refined balance between Caribbean heat and the solid, white-bread dependability of mayo. The chicken came with roasted fennel (unnecessary, but a neat touch) and was served on a bed of basil orzo that did for this dish exactly what a starch is supposed to do: sit there and not make a fuss.

And then there was the grilled opah, otherwise known as moonfish, a longline-caught Hawaiian white fish inching slowly toward popularity with finicky foodies. I can say with confidence that this was absolutely one of the worst dishes I've ever been served at a sit-down restaurant. I ate it with the same kind of mounting horror you feel when stuck in a long line of snarled traffic that's approaching an accident: You can hear the sirens in the distance, maybe even smell the smoke as you inch closer and closer, and you know deep down in your gut that it's going to be a bad one and you shouldn't look because all you're going to see is something awful that'll fuck up your dreams for a week -- but you can't stop looking.

Same thing here. The opah was horrible, but I just couldn't put the fork down.

The fish had been cut into oddly squared-off beams of flesh, then prepared au poivre. In any sane kitchen, this process involves rolling or dredging a piece of raw meat in cracked peppercorns, shaking it lightly so that only those bits of pepper that really want to be a part of the dish hang on and then transferring the meat to the grill. What you end up with is a nice peppercorn crust -- strong, but not freakishly so -- with the biting spice of the pepper brought to bloom by the heat of the grill. It's powerful, a preparation that makes it clear that the meat exists primarily as a pepper-delivery system -- but it's not supposed to be offensive.

But taking a bite of Vesta's opah was like sticking a can of pepper spray in my mouth and pulling the trigger. The fish was so staggeringly bad, it was as if the prep cooks had ordered a dump truck full of black pepper to unload in the alley, slapped the raw fish down on top of the pile, then had the truck back over it a couple dozen times to make sure the pepper was really worked in. To heap still more insult onto this plate, the opah was served with a lobster hash that was phenomenally ill-conceived: fried potato cubes, fat chunks of lobster meat and an alleged Balinese coconut-milk reduction that tasted more like watery Miracle Whip. I don't know what gustatory hell this hash recipe was pulled from, but it should be returned there. Immediately.

But hey, Vesta is a dipping grill, right? Maybe the kitchen had intentionally abused this poor fish in anticipation of balancing the scales with sauces that would blunt its god-awful, sickening impact. If that was the idea, though, it went terribly wrong. Nothing could have saved this plate. A uranium compote couldn't have blown through all that pepper. A cordite, lightning and sulfuric-acid mojo wouldn't have scoured my tongue clean.

For their part, the three suggested sauces, as well as a fourth I'd chosen, were fine -- provided they had no contact whatsover with that devil fish. There was a Thai cilantro sauce; a melon amchoor (which is a tart fruit paste made from sundried green mango) that was the color of strained peas but tasted like Sweet Tarts; a mango chutney with cinnamon that was so good I wanted Laura to pour what was left of it in her purse so we could take it home; and a tropical-fruit compote spiked with chile powder that smelled a little like Old Spice but tasted like candied pineapple. I would've been happier just ordering the sauces and dipping bread in them, but you live and you learn.

We ordered dessert, a plain-Jane crème brûlée, thinking that anything would be better than the vicious afterburn left by that fish. We were right, but only just. The brûlée had the consistency of kindergarten paste and tasted like sour cheesecake. After two bites, we decided to cut our losses and head for a bar instead. Strong drink was required. Or a lobotomy. Anything capable of destroying the brain cells in which now resided any recollection of opah.

As I stepped through Vesta's doors for a return visit, the place seemed to have lost a lot of its charm. The candles now seemed pretentious, the dim lighting more murky than romantic. I sat; I ordered; I tried not to think at all about that detestable fish, but its memory hung with me. It had thrown me into an ugly depression I was still trying to claw my way out of.

A ceviche of shrimp, fish and scallops in a spicy lime and cilantro marinade arrived first. I loaded up a blue-corn tortilla chip, took a bite, shrugged, loaded up another chip, ate that and grinned. Stiff little black beans and chunks of avocado played against the sea critters for a nice spectrum of texture. The cilantro wasn't overpowering, and the marinade had a good puckering smack. It wasn't bad. The room and my mood brightened by degrees.

Samosas came next: four tasty little pillows of fried dough stuffed with spiced potatoes, corn and shreds of roasted veggies, with a side of excellent yellow curry -- creamy, sweet and smoky -- and a dish of Caribbean mojo that was a confusing mash of flavors.

One look at my entree of brown-sugar-smoked roasted duck breast, and the whole room suddenly seemed warmer. Propped against a mound of creamy buttermilk-chive mashed potatoes smeared with caramelized, curried onions were two perfectly rare duck breasts capped with crisp, fatty skin. My knife slid through like the meat was sculpted from butter, and juices ran out to stain the white mashers pink. I took a bite, closed my eyes and let the flavor fill my head, willing myself to remember this dish, this night, rather than that dish, that night. The meat was bloody rare, tasting of duck's delicate, gamey essence, smoke and fire. The skin crackled as I bit down, fat melting across my tongue. I added a touch of razor-sharp jalapeño mustard to my second forkful. To my third, a mixed-berry chutney flavored with red currants that was as smooth as port wine and twice as sweet. "Just the duck," I kept telling myself. "Don't think of anything but the duck."

There's a place -- a small place, oddly shaped and fiercely protected -- for the kind of magic they're working at Vesta. The dining room pushes the absolute parameters of cool: Anything more -- one more candle, an extra ounce of wrought iron -- would be too much, sending the space on the downward slope toward parody. And in the kitchen, Vesta's fire worshipers rush headlong toward a threshold of playfulness and luxuriance that shouldn't be crossed. By toying with food and spice, by mixing cuisines as though they were throwing darts at a globe, by layering flavor on top of flavor, adding sauces to some dishes that -- as they stand untouched -- are already finished products ready for the table, they're playing a dangerous game of chicken.

I respect Selby and his crew for having the skill and courage to try something different in this copycat world, but there are limits. Vesta blew past them in spectacular fashion with the seared opah, but then created something almost unspeakably wonderful with the duck. Every night, this kitchen runs perilously close to the dividing line between brilliance and disaster -- and while on a good night they pull it back, stopping short just inches from that boundary without toppling over, sometimes when you play with fire you're going to get burned.

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