Fish Story

Okay, so it's not very often that I come down on the same side intellectually and ideologically as the folks from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. As a matter of fact, it's not very often that I can stand to be in the same room with any of them for more than, say, ten minutes without wanting to strangle them, myself or one of whatever animal they're defending that week. But when it comes to fish restaurants in aquariums (like Aquarium, see review), it seems that PETA and I have reached a certain détente.

Last year, PETA was served up a nice big chunk of moral high ground by Fish and Fisheries magazine, which studied more than 500 research papers on fish intelligence and came to the conclusion that fish -- previously thought to be the retards of the deep -- are actually rather smart. According to the magazine, fish are "steeped in social intelligence, pursuing Machiavellian strategies of manipulation, punishment and reconciliationŠexhibiting stable cultural traditions and cooperating to inspect predators and catch food."

And while I read something like that and think that we, as mammals, ought to be out in the oceans right now with spear guns, hunting down any fish that show even the slightest tendency toward "pursuing Machiavellian strategies" of anything, lest we are someday faced by an army of really pissed-off flounder looking for a little payback, the PETA people see this as evidence that fish are intelligent, caring, feeling critters that ought to be protected from us thumb-having jerks on dry land who want nothing more than to catch 'em, skin 'em and dress 'em for dinner with a little salt and lemon.

"Cognitively, fish compare favorably with dogs and cats," says Bruce Friedrich, director of farmed-animal campaigns at PETA. "And, you know, even recreational fishing involves putting a hook through a fish's mouth and dragging him behind a boat. That would be felony-level cruelty to animals if you did it with a dog."

No, that would be hilarious -- depending on the breed of the dog. Golden retriever? Not so funny. But a Pomeranian? Laugh riot.

Still, Friedrich and I do agree on one thing: Putting a fish restaurant in an aquarium is just plain stupid. "Like serving poodle burgers at a dog show," he says.

And while neither stupidity nor PETA's year-old "Fish Empathy" campaign (which focuses mostly on education, with the website; billboards featuring a dog with a hook through its mouth; leaflets and fliers detailing the dangers of eating fish flesh contaminated by mercury, PCBs, DDT and Dioxin; and generally getting the word out about fish-smarts research since, for a change, "the science is absolutely on our side," Friedrich says) have been enough to sink the Aquarium restaurant at Denver's Downtown Aquarium, there are times when I back the animal-loving, vegetable-eating, monkey-freeing fish freaks 100 percent.

For example, when the Fish Empathy folks went after the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California, this year for having a cafeteria that served fish. Nothing really came of the fight. (PETA activist Karin Robertson, who runs the fishinghurts website, sent complaint letters that were roundly ignored by aquarium management.) Other aquarium/restaurant operations have received letters of protest since then, but the Landry's outposts aren't among them. "Most aquariums don't serve fish in their restaurants, anyway," Friedrichs notes.

Why not? Because it's stupid. Because unless that restaurant lets me sit next to the tank and point to the fish I want to eat for dinner, it's pointless. And a little fucking creepy, to be honest. I may not have the sort of moral qualms that Friedrich, his Fish Empathists and the rest of the PETA faithful do with eating fish, but we're on the same page with the aquarium/restaurant thing. It's simply a bad idea, and the fact that so many people leap at the chance to dive into popcorn shrimp and sea bass fillets and fried catfish dinners while oohing and aahing over how pretty all the other fish are just makes me dislike my fellow man that much more.

Besides, if all that research about fish understanding the basic ideas of manipulation, punishment and reconciliation is accurate, what's to say that fish don't understand revenge? Personally, I think they do. I think they understand revenge perfectly. And I think those little bastards at the Aquarium are up to something.

Just one more reason for me never to return.

Dead like me: Last week I was chasing down rumors about a possible move to the neighborhood just northwest of the Aquarium by Radek Cerny, one of my on-again/off-again (and currently on-again) favorite chefs. He's the man who owns and runs the brilliantly ego-driven L'Atelier in Boulder, a place that sits right across Pearl Street from Frasca -- one of the best restaurants anywhere -- yet still manages to turn tables every night (even though his situation is the equivalent of being the guy who owns the little bistro across the street from the French Laundry).

I'd heard that Cerny -- who's been looking for a second location for L'Atelier for the last year or so -- had finally settled on a space at the edge of the Highland neighborhood in the old Olinger Mortuary at 1575 Boulder Street, where Lola will move a few months from now. "Nah," he said when I got him on the phone. "That's not true. Olinger's? I was looking, but it was too much money."

Not only had he checked out that building, but he'd looked at a few other locations in the area, including the original Julia Blackbird's space at 3617 West 32nd Avenue. But that space was too small, and others were too large. "Sooner or later I'll find a place," Cerny told me. "But no more big restaurants, man. Only small."

Like Goldilocks, the man is after something that's just right: not too expansive, not too expensive, not too je ne sais quoi. His Boulder spot is damned near perfect for the kind of work he's been doing lately, and I'm not sure why he'd even want a second outlet -- except that back in the day, Radek Cerny was one of those multi-unit maestros with several restaurants operating under the large umbrella of his name, like Kevin Taylor in his heyday, or Dave Query (owner of Lola, among other eateries) now, and I have to think that the temptation to try to recapture that must be powerful.

At the very least, though, we know that Cerny is staying in town. There'd been talk about his moving to Sin City, but he's narrowed his focus considerably in the past few months. "Because if I open a restaurant someplace, then I have to live there, you know?" he points out. "And I don't know if I want to do that, to live in Las Vegas or wherever."

Leftovers: The excellent Denver Woodlands ("Eating Sadam," February 3) closed on December 15, after making it eighteen months in one of the town's worst restaurant locations. Owner Kannan Alagappan says he'll soon open a brand-new Denver Woodlands in the Village at Castle Pines, out on Happy Canyon Road by the golf course and the outlet mall.

The new place will feature patio seating, banquet space, a full bar, an upscale dining room and both vegetarian and non-vegetarian Indian dishes. Castle Pines is "the fastest-growing community in Colorado," Alagappan says, and he hopes the new Denver Woodlands will become the "premier Indian restaurant" in the area. Construction on the space is slated to start in February, with a projected opening next May.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan