Cafe Society

Girl Trouble

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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.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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