Back before we had rock star chefs strutting their gimmicks on the Food Network, Denver had Duy Pham, who first made a (big) name for himself as the ridiculously young chef of the long-departed Tante Louise. He followed that illustrious gig with stints at Opal on Ninth Avenue, a restaurant called Kyoto Asian Fusion that opened in Littleton and went the way of Southwestern cuisine not long after, and then he became the exec at Aqua, a short-lived restaurant in the Beauvallon.
He did time at other Denver hot spots (in the day), including Flow, the former restaurant in the Jett Hotel, and then, in 2008, he left Denver behind...for Pueblo, which isn't exactly a culinary breeding ground, but when Pham opened Restaurant Fifteen Twenty-One, a contemporary American restaurant steeped in classic French technique, he put the steel city on the food map, generating rafts of accolades from here, there and everywhere.
But a few months ago, Pham shuttered his Pueblo restaurant, and now he's back in Denver, where he'll open Epernay, a raw bar and sous-vide concept near the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, at 1080 Fourteenth Street. "The time was right to close my restaurant in Peublo, and I wanted to get back to Denver -- to my roots -- and this is a project that I've contemplated doing for over a year," says Pham, adding that the concept "is Japanese in theory and technique and modern American in flavors and presentations."
Sixty percent of the menu, he notes, will be raw, and 40 percent of the board will be cooked, but he'll use the sous-viding method to sear, roast and steam his proteins -- and nothing, he stresses, will be fried or grilled. "It's taken me months and months to develop the menu, but it's my menu, and the owners and investors have allowed me complete freedom with the food, and there's nothing common, nothing plain Jane and nothing ordinary on this menu," promises Pham, who's spent the last few weeks treating friends to a sneak peek of some of his dishes
"It's all about the art -- the art of poaching, the art of cutting fish, the art of sous-viding and the art of technique," explains Pham, who insists that sous-viding isn't used nearly enough in restaurants, or, for that matter, at home. "It's the purest, most accurate technique out there to get the most natural form of cooking, and I'm kinda in love with it," he confesses. "I want to do healthy food, where everything shines with pure flavors, and there's nothing better than sous-viding to achieve that."
In fact, Pham likens sous-viding to the "new crock pot," albeit a refined one. And he's had a sous-vide machine in his house for the past two months, where, he says, he's using it to produce a half-dozen dinners a week. "One of the best things about it," he notes, "is that you don't lose flavor and whatever you're cooking retains moisture, and it's ideal for the kind of cooking I want to do at Epernay," which will also pimp a full raw bar with oysters and clams on the half shell, fruits de mer platters and, says Pham, "every kind of fish you can possibly think of," much of it prepared crudo-style.
But this is not a sushi restaurant, points out Pham. "I can assure you that there will be no California rolls on this menu." What he will emphasize, however, are chef-driven tasting menus available with five, seven or nine courses. "The tastings will be custom -- never preset -- and it'll give me the opportunity to be really creative, since the majority of dishes will be off-menu," he says. "It's my chance to plays Iron Chef for the hour or two that I'm custom-cooking."
The 5,000-square-foot space, which will seat 65 in the dining room and parade a partially open kitchen, will also lay claim to a Champagne lounge that's a nod to the restaurant's name -- a renowned Champagne-producing region in the north of France. And Pham tells me that he'll boast the largest Champagne selection in Denver. He also divulges that he'll have a "huge selection of sake."
The lounge will offer a late-night menu on Friday and Saturday nights, as well as happy hour, adds Pham, and when Epernay opens at the end of next month, it'll serve dinner Tuesday through Saturday and host special events on Sunday nights. Lunch, he says, will likely be added in the future.
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"I'm so happy to back in Denver and cooking in a city that's got a ton of great chefs, and I want to be here for a long time. I'm looking forward to the challenges," he says.