Cafe Society

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 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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan