In mid-August, Fired Up, the restaurant that chef-owner Josh Barhaug opened in 2012 at 1135 Bannock Street, more than lived up to its name: Barhaug's office erupted in flames, the sparks of which resulted in substantial damage and a temporary closure that was finally lifted yesterday, when Fired Up reopened for dinner...with two chefs behind the line, Barhaug and Darren Pusateri, who was most recently at the Squeaky Bean and, prior to that, spent several years cooking at Sushi Den, the now-closed Ototo and the original Izakaya Den.
And that's not the only change: Noel Martin, whose pedigree includes stints at Luca d'Italia, where he was the sommelier, and Izakaya Den and Black Pearl, where he was a manager, is now the general manager of Fired Up, a collaborative effort that joins all three names under one roof.
Martin and Pusateri worked together years ago at Luca, and again at Izakaya Den, and for the past several years, they've been plotting to open their own restaurant, but finding a space -- and investors -- proved to be difficult. "Noel and I sat down together when we were at Izakaya to formulate a business plan, but we didn't have a space, and we didn't have a lot of money, so it wasn't as easy as we'd hoped," says Pusateri.
They nearly inked a deal on a space in Cherry Creek, but at the last moment, recalls Pusateri, the landlord suddenly upped the rent, and he and Martin were back to square one -- and Barhaug, it turned out, was at a crossroads, unsure of whether he wanted to reopen Fired Up at all. "The fire was unnerving," says Pusateri, "and Josh had a hard time with it, plus there were a few staff problems that needed some attention, so Josh, Noel and I all got together and talked about what we could possibly do together," continues Pusateri, a long-time friend of Barhaug; the two also worked alongside one another at the downtown Elway's.
"We knew that if we reopened Fired Up, we'd need to do it differently, and after walking through the space and getting to know the neighborhood, we realized that it was a really good fit and that we'd reopen as a casually elegant, rustic Italian eatery, which is my passion," says Pusateri.
The space hasn't changed, but the menu, initially focused on wood-fired pizzas, was completely redesigned. A few pizzas remain, but the new board struts several small plates, including a salumi platter paired with house-brined pickles; chicken liver mousse sided with raspberry red wine fluid gel and grill-swiped brioche; and a chicken liver tortellini soup poured tableside. Fresh pastas now dot the menu, as do wood-fired salads, a half chicken and 36-ounce ribeye for two.
"We'll change the menu often, probably once a week, and we'll focus as much as possible on ingredients that we can get in Colorado," says Pusateri. And just about everything, he adds "will be blessed by smoke."
Martin, who hired former Black Pearl bartender Joshua Williams to oversee the bar program, which is firmly rooted in Colorado spirits and beers, stresses that the team they've put in place will significantly raise the bar. "Joshua is a sick bartender, Josh is awesome, and Darren is one of the best chefs in Denver. It's really a passionate collaboration among all of us; we're all intensely involved, and we're really excited to open and start cooking. We're ready to go," says Martin.
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I stopped by Fired Up yesterday to sample several of the dishes on the new menu. Here's a sneak preview of some of the highlights.