Cafe Society

Girl Trouble

Swimclub 32 reminds me of this girl, Meghan, who was everything a (much) younger me could hope for in a girlfriend. She was gorgeous in an uncomplicated way, a bit ethnic, well-traveled, pretty in the face, with that face attached to a killer body and that body held up by a set of legs that...well, let's just say they were very nice legs and leave it at that. She was the only girl I've ever known (in the biblical sense) who looked good in a beret -- not quite like a Bond Girl, but like the girl 007 leaves the Bond Girl for at the end of the picture, cruising off for some island somewhere in his submarine car -- and she looked best when the beret was all she was wearing. Meghan spoke a couple of languages and knew a whole bunch of really interesting stuff that she talked about incessantly with her very interesting friends. She was also so totally out of my fucking league -- not to put too fine a point on it -- that we weren't even playing in the same ballpark.

But Meghan had a weakness for cooks the way some girls have a soft spot for grungy rock stars or Hollywood pretty boys, so I was in like Flynn -- not the first time my whites got me laid, and not the last.

As pretty as Meghan was, though, as smart and literate and everything else, she was also completely nuts. Not run-of-the-mill crazy, but flat-out bunny-boiling bonkers, butterfly-nets-and-lithium weird, a frequent flyer on the Prozac express. When things were good -- when all her neurochemical tumblers were in line -- things were great, and we got along like peanut butter and jelly or cheap beer and doughnuts. But when they were bad? Well, she once tried to stab me with a pair of sewing scissors for bringing her the wrong color underwear, and it was only due to my cat-like reflexes and the fact that she was probably aiming for a hallucination standing two feet to my left that I am still here today, able to compare her to a restaurant that fills me with the same sort of trepidation I used to feel every time I knocked on her door.

Swimclub 32 is Meghan through and through. It's gorgeous in a simple, understated, black-on-black, metropolitan-minimalist sort of way. The menu is worldly, speaks in a couple of culinary languages -- a jumbled tapas/pan-Asian/world-food patois dripping with buzzword ingredients -- and offers interesting things on every plate that are meant to be eaten by the kind of interesting people who appreciate small, bright flashes of smarts and beauty over any sort of substance.

And while that's all good, the restaurant also suffers from Meghan's mood swings, her wild vacillations between sexy brilliance and utter poison. There were nights when I'd have to trail Meghan through half a dozen bars and clubs where she'd come and gone before I eventually located her -- standing by the bathrooms waiting for the weed guy, or hunched at the bar pounding shots of whatever the house was buying. She was tough to find when she didn't want to be found, and Swimclub -- being hipper than all get-out itself -- is the same way. The restaurant is right in the heart of Highland on 32nd Avenue, but I still spent twenty minutes trying to find it the first time. Apparently owners Grant Gingerich and Christopher Golub (late of the tasting rooms at Veuve Clicquot) don't see a need for such niceties as a sign or a visible address. Swimclub assumes that if you're cool enough to eat there, you'll find it instinctively.

But, baby, I ain't been that cool ever, so I finally resorted to stomping around grumpily in the rain, stalking black-clad hipsterati all over the neighborhood until I found the right door. It was Meghan all over again.

Once I got inside, life quickly improved. Slumping damply at the bar drinking gold-label Dos Equis, I was comforted by the black lacquer and brick, the white china and guttering candles, the cool, stemless Riedel wineglasses like little fishbowls, and the tidal crowds of beautiful people washing up against the bar, then retreating to the tables. Swimclub was more comfortable than I'd thought it would be, and much more welcoming. I was coddled by staffers who share service on the bar and at the dozen narrow tables along the wall where seating is essentially tatami-style, but with low, blocky couches giving a measure of comfort that floor mats don't, and tables slung at just the right height so a short guy doesn't need to hunch. And even if one of my waitresses couldn't pronounce "pomegranate" (offering me something in a "pomigranita" sauce, I think; I was trying so hard not to laugh, I couldn't tell), that was okay, because the jeans-and-T-shirt staff seemed so honestly excited about the menu and what the kitchen was doing that I got caught up in it, too. Enthusiasm counts for a lot in a place like this. And it was infectious.

At the suggestion of one server, I had Alaskan black cod in a slightly sweet and sticky miso marinade plated over a tiny jungle of jade-green spinach. It was excellent, the sweetness of the sauce touching on the lightness of the fish and the heaviness of the spinach to create a three-bite masterpiece. The tartare of big-eye tuna in ponzu with a smear of toban jyan (aka toban jiang, an Asian bean paste fired with chiles that I haven't seen on any other menu in town -- yet) was better to look at than it was to eat, though. And the ropa vieja, which was recommended by another server, was absolutely terrible. The Cuban classic was both stringy-tough and oddly squishy at the same time, overly sauced in a cruelly bitter tomato sludge, and wicked hot for no reason other than maybe spite.

I topped things off with Swimclub's signature plate: Kobe beef shaved like prosciutto and served raw alongside a superheated river stone, so I could cook the wisps of cow to whatever level of doneness I chose. Unfortunately, cooking Kobe at all makes the tender, high-fat-content beef taste like an oily Steak-Um. And while flash-searing it on a 600-degree rock may sound sexy and interactive on a menu, it's disastrous in practice. The first piece I tried -- while the rock was at its hottest -- curled and sizzled like a pork rind. I dipped my second cooked sliver in the soy sauce provided, and it tasted like sushi-bar nikumaki sans asparagus. By the time I got the hang of using meat and stone to make something edible (basically, just snapping some beef in my chopsticks and waving it in the general direction of the stone), the Kobe was about gone and I was out 26 bucks.

Still, I could forgive the expensive lesson in rock etiquette. Just like with Meghan right there at the beginning, I thought I was in love.

And there's much about Swimclub that is lovable. At eight o'clock on a Friday night, the crowd was 90 percent young women: It looked like Ladies' Night, all night. For a smallish space that everyone seems to want to go to, it didn't feel crowded, either -- yet I never got the feeling that Swimclub was hurting for business, because the turnover was so fast. Groups of girls would slide in through the doors like they were oiled, grab a table or a line of backless bar stools, fill the place with oohs and aahs and a buzz of conversation just loud enough to be heard over Lou Reed on the stereo singing "Waiting for the Man," order light, eat fast, then disappear. Moving diners through so quickly gave Swimclub the rhythm of a tapas bar (which is more than you can say for most of Denver's nascent tapas joints), with little plates, fast service, quick turns -- and check averages jacked up by a super-artisan wine and sake list organized by Golub and Gingerich, the grape-juice veterans.

On my second visit, I invited friends from Aspen to share my infatuation. Although I found the restaurant much more easily this time (only missed it on my first pass), the shuttle driver bringing my companions from their hotel drove in circles for a half-hour. While I waited, I thought that Swimclub was looking lovely. The staff was just as welcoming, seated me immediately, brought me a cold one from the bar. When my friends finally arrived, we had beers and mojitos all around while a part of me showed off my find -- not bragging, just saying, "Hey, check out what I got." I'd done the same with Meghan at the start. Before the scissors came out.

We nibbled on edamame while we looked over the menu, deciding on the black cod (again) to start, the ropa vieja (again) because I wanted to see if that first plate had been a fluke, then some scallop-and-lobster ceviche. We ordered the food in flights, and five minutes later, the first plates showed up. So did the first signs of trouble.

The black cod was old, a grandmother, overcooked at one end, badly trimmed and underdone on the other. The ropa vieja, which I'd thought couldn't possibly get worse, was such a disaster it needed orange cones and police tape. And the ceviche was an inexplicable mess of chiles, lime and scrawny bits of seafood, some of which tasted like brined erasers, none of which tasted good. We clacked away at it with our chopsticks, wondering what we'd done to piss off the kitchen.

With the second flight, a mood swing. The heirloom beet salad over bitter greens touched with lemon vinaigrette, a soft mound of Monte Enebro cheese and just a whisper of truffle oil was so marvelous that we immediately ordered three more plates of it because no one wanted to share. The warm glow lasted through a small plate of perfectly cooked organic chicken breast fanned over a wonderful wild-mushroom risotto. But then came a miso-and-sake-braised Kobe short rib that had the texture of stew meat with all the flavor poached out of it.

I started wondering what the hell I was thinking to get involved with Swimclub. It was totally inconsistent, badly in need of serious culinary psychotherapy. Just walk away, I told myself. Total up the damage and go. But I hadn't listened when it was Meghan I was trying to talk myself out of, and I didn't listen now.

By dessert, Swimclub was all sweetness and light again. The simple chocolate gateau was so delicious that I ordered every other dessert on the menu. The mini-crème brûlée, a spread of house-made ice creams (Nutella, vanilla and a nutty-sweet caramel) -- they were all brilliant, and a bargain at three bucks each.

Because I am doggedly loyal, a plain old prince of a guy and also very lazy, I stuck with Meghan for about three months (she tried to stab me in month two), and we never so much split up as one day I just stopped going out looking for her. Technically, I guess we're still dating -- which should surprise the hell out of my wife. I spent about the same amount of time dodging in and out of Swimclub -- never bringing my friends again but flying solo as I tried to figure out the place.

During that period, the kitchen lost its opening chef, Joel Holland, and picked up Chris Dougherty, ex of Brasserie Rouge, who's still cooking some of Holland's final menu. The crowds have waxed and waned, servers have come and gone, and the music is always different, but my problems with Swimclub remain the same: crazy inconsistencies from night to night and plate to plate, a swerving sort of wildness in the kitchen that means any meal can swing from unbelievably good (the beet salad) to unforgivably bad (the ropa vieja has never, ever been even okay), then back again (the ceviche has improved) for no readily apparent reason.

Maybe someday I'll learn my lesson. I'll get it through my head that there are more reliable houses out there, banging out more consistent plates. But while giving up on Swimclub would save me from some ugly nights, I know I'd also miss out on some pretty good ones. For now, at least, I'm ready to give this relationship another chance.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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