Two years ago last week, Tambien, the Mexican cantina that Sean Yontz and Jesse Morreale ran for six years, shuttered, and the space, which resides below street level, stood dormant for two years, but next Tuesday, Big Easy Creole Kitchen will open its doors to the public following a series of practice dinners.
The New Orleans-themed restaurant -- one of just a few in Denver -- is owned by chef George Gastl, a Denver native who got his start in the Mile High City cooking at the now defunct Sfuzzi's and Mel's Bar and Grill, both of which were instrumental in shaping the Cherry Creek dining landscape. Gastl also spent time in Santa Fe, where he was the executive chef of Ristra's, and in New Orleans, cooking at the Palace Cafe, part of the iconic Brennan family empire, and it was his time in The Big Easy, says Gasti, that gave him inspiration to open a Cajun/Creole concept in Denver.
"I absolutely fell in love with the food in New Orleans; it's people food, and it's a lot of fun to make, and a lot of fun to eat," says Gastl, whose menu, stamped with gumbo, crawfish etouffée, turtle soup, sweetbreads, oysters and blackened shrimp, will change seasonally. "My goal is to use as many local ingredients as possible, while staying true to the flavors of New Orleans," and that includes, he notes, technique. "The food is made with love, and we're using proper techniques -- you can taste it in our dishes," he says.
And the food will match the cocktail roster, designed by Eric Meyer, who's originally from New Orleans, and has put together a syllabus of speakeasy classics, including a Sazarac, Pimm's Cup, absinthe frappe and the purely southern Hurricane. And his bloody Mary, crowned, if you want it, with a raw oyster, is jazzed up with Creole spices.
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Not surprisingly, the New Orleans theme is carried throughout the quarters -- both the dining room and "Voodoo Bar" (complete with a voodoo doll), and while some chefs and restaurateurs would balk at being shielded from the street, Gastl maintains that, for him, it was one of the primary reasons why he signed on the dotted line. "I think by being downstairs, it mimics a real speakeasy feel," he says, adding that his intention was to "create a restaurant that makes you feel like you're in the French Quarter."
Gastl left the layout of the space the same as its Tambien days, but there are plenty of cosmetic changes -- dark woods, sconces and chandeliers, striped burgundy booths and purple light panels in the bar -- to recreate a Big Easy atmosphere. "I think it has a lot of New Orleans-style flair, and feels like the kind of place where you just want to hang out have a good time," says Gastl.
When it opens next week, Big Easy Creole Kitchen will serve dinner only, from 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday and 5 to 11 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Gastl says he'll open for lunch on Black Friday -- the day following Thanksgiving -- and introduce brunch that weekend.
Here's an exclusive first look of Cherry Creek's newest gathering place.