Cafe Society


I love Deluxe in spite of myself. Despite reason, despite my better judgment, despite being committed body and soul to the war against California Cuisine -- that limping, wrongheaded, disastrous blight on the soul of American cookery -- and throwing myself into the breach every time a California-style restaurant pops up on my side of the Rocky Mountains, despite all this, I love Deluxe.

I get a little breathless when I talk about the place, a little hot under the collar from the sense of the forbidden in my unnatural attraction to it. If I weren't me and Deluxe was just another place -- wasn't Capulet to my Montague, the vanguard of my enemy's strength -- I would be here every weekend, kicking back in the rear of the room, soaking in my lust and watching the world go by. I would be a regular among regulars, the house coming to know my favorite table, learning exactly how I like my lamb, my filet, and what I prefer off the single-page wine list filled with well-chosen, interesting bottles that make it seem so much deeper than it is.

The kitchen does a small plate of masa-fried oyster shooters, with perfect, golden-brown oyster meat shelled and served in a pho spoon over a sweet tomato-lime salsa fresca, topped with a blazing, smoked jalapeño aioli. The dish is so ridiculously Californian -- the head-on collision of Mexican, Asian, American coastal and French influences, the simple yet innovative plating -- that it's almost a parody, a page stolen out of the Jonathan Waxman/Jeremiah Tower playbook. All it needs is a dot of wasabi and it's 1989 all over again. But the dish is also so ridiculously good that it seems less like a robbery than a pitch-perfect homage to the original brilliance of California Cuisine before it was overrun by talentless hacks with their artisan goat-cheese salads and nasty, grill-fired veggie-wrap sandwiches soaked with hundred-year-old balsamic.

Here's how much I love Deluxe: Those shooters come in six spoons arranged in a circle on a plain white plate, and I'd gone through five of them before I hit the one bad one in the bunch -- an oyster so big that I cut it in half rather than tipping the spoon back and swallowing it whole. As soon as I started chewing the first half, I knew it was bad, knew I was going to suffer -- maybe a little, maybe a lot -- and knew there was nothing I could do. And after a brief moment of highly personal arithmetic -- trying to guesstimate my own intestinal fortitude, my tolerance for bad shellfish built up over the years, and just how how ill one dubious oyster, flash-fried, could possibly make me -- I ate the other half anyway. Why? Because when you eat fugu (poison blowfish) or roast Vietnamese field mice or shrimp cocktails off the street in Juarez or oysters in Denver, sometimes you have to just challenge the odds. I don't bungee-jump. I don't skydive. I don't even ski. Eating is my extreme sport.

And that night, of course, I was sick. Not badly -- just a bit of a sour tummy demanding medicinal applications of Mister James Beam's finest while the befouled temple that is my body sent in the digestive shock troops. And as I was lying there, all I could think about was how good those other five oysters had been. How the five good ones had made anything I suffered from the sixth totally worth it. Every restaurant, no matter how careful, can serve a bad oyster now and then, and all oyster eaters will eventually get one -- that's just the risk you take when eating something as ugly as an oyster. And all that night, while I was thinking about how good those oysters were, I was thinking about how I couldn't wait to go back to Deluxe.

I wasn't always in love with this place. When it opened last year, it was boring, slow, clumsy and putting out plates that seemed derivative at best, and at worst, thumb-fingered knock-offs of the work being done by bad California Cuisine imitators -- even if Moore did prefer to call his fare "modern American." A couple of small plates showed glimmers of potential buried beneath piles of gimpy moves and overblown expectations, but that wasn't enough for me. And from the look of the joint back then, it wasn't enough for other diners, either. Weekends were slow. Weeknights were downright lonely. The first time I ate there, I was one of only three customers. There were more cooks in the kitchen than diners on the floor.

"At the beginning, I was making exit plans," chef/owner Dylan Moore now admits. "I was wondering how much I could sell my stove for."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

Latest Stories