I know what you're thinking: Why did I write about two seafood places in a row? Specifically, last week's love letter to Cherry Crest Seafood ("A Fish Story," October 4), with its brief harangue about selling two-ton SUVs to Mr. Magoo, and this week's review of Oceanaire Seafood Room (see review), with its refutation of ex-chef and food writer Anthony Bourdain's old saw about eating fish on Mondays.
My answer: I wanted to explore the dichotomy between the two. One of the many reasons I love this goddamned town is that not only can both restaurants survive here, but they can thrive. In style, in decor, in menu, prep and price, these two places represent the ideal expression of both ends of the spectrum: Cherry Crest the small and successful local joint with a long history of banging out serviceable grub for homesick Coasties and fantasy lobster boils for those who've only seen them depicted in the J.Crew fall catalogue, and Oceanaire the big-money transplant, the new kid on the block aiming to win over the suits and swells with liveried servers, super-call Scotch, white tablecloths and caviar service.
But not with its lobster. Under no circumstances (other than having a fat expense account and no taste) should you order lobster at Oceanaire. The one time I did try the lobster here (as part of the grand shellfish platter), it was a bit flaccid, mushy in the claws, and missing that buttery richness of a well-cooked specimen. That could be because the Oceanaire menu promises not Maine lobsters (the best kind), but just "North American cold water lobsters," which could mean anything. And Oceanaire also charges murderous prices for these mystery crustaceans: Last week it was $28.95 per pound at a minimum of two pounds or $74.95 for a surf-and-turf plate of a ten-ounce Harris Ranch filet and a one-and-a-quarter-pound lobster. Meanwhile, at Cherry Crest, you can lay hands on a pound-and-a-quarter Maine lobster (which will sometimes shade north of that size depending on the luck of the draw and the disposition of the live tank) for around 25 bucks. Yeah, you read that right: $25. I spend a lot of time cruising the Asian markets around town, and even in those places (where the lobsters come live and pissed off, as opposed to Cherry Crest, where they come dead and with a cup of drawn butter), you can't lay hands on Maine lobster that cheap. This is not only a great deal, but Cherry Crest prepares its lobster perfectly — boiling the ugly fucker with an executioner's precision that borders on art, and serving it still hot from the pot. The only lobsters I can remember tasting better were actually served to me in Maine, pulled right from the ocean, or maybe at a certain Chinese restaurant in New York during an underground anniversary party where I forsook all the shark's fins and abalone for a massive pile of lobsters that had been drowned in a tub of sake for two days before taking one last drunken swim in the boiling pot.
Then again, at Cherry Crest I wore a plastic bib with a picture of a lobster on it, was jammed into a too-small table in an overcrowded room watched over by team portraits of the Detroit Red Wings, and when I ordered the filet of sole, it came topped with parmesan breadcrumbs inexpertly browned under a blazing salamander. At Oceanaire, I ate chef Matt Mine's brilliant, fresh Dover sole wrapped around its lump crab and shrimp stuffing, touched with an excellent and restrained lemon beurre blanc, and had my every need anticipated by an exceptional staff (including one bartender who makes, off the menu, a killer Key lime pie martini that has been added to my list of exactly two acceptable martinis flavored with anything but gin, right below the Vietnamese coffee martini at Parallel 17).
Both of these restaurants are great, but you need to decide what experience you're looking for and how much you're willing to pay. Twenty-five bucks for a lobster dinner at Cherry Crest is one of the greatest bargains of all time. The forty-dollar petite plateau de fruits de mer at Oceanaire is totally worth it, as is $10.95 for a bacon steak and $8.95 for a veritable bucket of au gratin potatoes. And the next time you find yourself facing off against some tooth-sucking, know-nothing Coasties complaining about the quality of Mile High seafood, don't kick 'em in the oysters. Invite them out to dinner instead. And once they're convinced that you're right and they're dumb, then boot 'em in the nuts, take their wallets and splurge on the Oceanaire caviar service — because nothing tastes quite so good as expensive fish eggs gotten on someone else's dime.
Top chef: For the most part, I've been disappointed by kitchens as portrayed on TV. Anyone remember the TV version of Kitchen Confidential? No? I thought not. And I was thoroughly disgusted by almost every minute of The Restaurant, the Rocco DiSpirito not-even-close-to-reality show. For a while this year, I was hooked on Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen, because one of the competitors was a Waffle House line cook and, believe it or not, I did time at a Waffle House myself and loved it, so I had fun cheering her on until she got sent home. At that point, though, it occurred to me that Ramsay (and the Fox network, where the show aired) were not exactly being fair in taking Waffle House line cooks, caterers, nannies and small-town hash-slingers and sticking them in a kitchen with an apoplectic British chef with an even finer command of kitchen obscenity than me, then letting him shriek and spit and call them all "fucking donkeys" for burning the beef welly.
My interest in Bravo's Top Chef lasted much longer. First, the competitors were real chefs — an exec sous for Guy Savoy, for example, a chef and consultant at Cru, an executive chef from Shinsei, a chef from Café des Artistes — and deserved to be wearing those whites. Second, because when they cooked, they cooked, either succeeding or failing on their own merits and quite often making dishes that an actual human being might want to eat. Unlike beef Wellington, which no one wants to eat, ever. Third, host Tom Colicchio came off as a complete schizophrenic wack job — crazy-eyed and laughing one minute, the next looking like he was going to bite someone in the face — and through the entire second half of the season, I kept waiting for him to leap across the judges' table and stick a cocktail fork into co-host Padma Lakshmi just to wake her from the Thorazine coma that the Bravo producers had apparently decided to keep her in right through the finale.
But now the show's over. And I wouldn't mention it at all except for the fact that contestant Brian Malarkey — who made it all the way to the final four before tanking and went out with a surprising amount of class — is coming to town to cook at Oceanaire.
Malarkey worked at the Seattle Oceanaire before making his play for Top Chef glory. And who else worked at that Oceanaire? That's right: Matt Mine, who's now wearing the big hat here in Denver. The two of them were friends, and now Mine has invited Malarkey into his kitchen for a one-night engagement on October 18 when Malarkey will cook some of his best Top Chef dishes and talk about his experiences living under the tyranny of Colicchio and company. The cost of the four-course, prix fixe dinner is $100 a head; contact the restaurant for details.
Leftovers: "Well," said chef/owner Sean Yontz when he got me on the phone last week. "I figured I should call and tell you Chama is closed."
In fact, the Belmar restaurant closed its doors for good on October 1, for what Yontz called "operational and managerial differences with the developer," which is chef-speak for If I told you the truth right now, I'd be sued for every dime in my pockets.
According to Yontz, Chama's closure will give him more time to look after Mezcal and Tambien, which he owns in partnership with Jesse Morreale. He's also thinking of trying to get the rarely seen Mezcal taco truck moving again, and he and Morreale will be working on their newest venture, Culinary Catering and Special Events, a full-service catering company offering everything from tacos and barbecue to Spanish picnic lunches and in-house event catering at places like Morreale's Rockbar and La Rumba.
Yontz still owns the Chama name, signage, all the menus. "I could move it somewhere else if I wanted," he told me, "but I haven't really thought about that yet."
Down but not out is Lola, at 1575 Boulder Street. The restaurant suffered what's being called "a mechanical failure" (actually a catastrophic flood of goop from a busted grease trap in the basement, which happened to coincide with a glowing Rocky Mountain News review) and was closed for over a week. But by the time you read this, chef/owner Jamey Fader should have the place up and running again. Meanwhile, owner Dave Query will be in Manhattan backing two of his star chefs, Sheila Lucero and Josea Rosenberg, at the James Beard House for a killer seafood dinner on October 11.
Finally, Westword is launching a weekly Cafe Bites e-mail; if you want a taste, e-mail [email protected].