Cafe Society

Have a Nice Trip

Poor Josh Wolkon.
This past summer the 26-year-old former Bostonian finally opened his own restaurant, after years of envisioning a grill with no pretentious "e" on the end, a place where people could have it their way--selecting sauces to match their entrees--in the midst of architectural splendor, with live music and a cool bar. And everything has gone according to plan, except for one major kink: The chairs suck.

How can you suit yourself when you can't seat yourself?
The chairs look great, though. Designed by local artist Doc Watters, these marvels of design have coppery sculpted backs and long, lean legs that swoop out about a foot behind the rest of the chair--and therein lies the problem. It's hard to concentrate on your meal when someone's tripping over your seat every five minutes.

And that's exactly what happened--once we finally were seated, that is--on our first visit to Vesta Dipping Grill, one of LoDo's hottest spots for dining. Overall, the food's good, if a bit pricey, but that's not what people are remembering about their Vesta experience.

They're all talking about those damn chairs.
Wolkon, who opened Vesta in July, is quite aware of the problem. At this very moment and at considerable expense, he's having new chairs made up. They're due to arrive at the restaurant sometime next month, and Wolkon hopes that will be the end of it. "I've had a few customers tell me they call the place 'Vesta Tripping Grill,'" says Wolkon, who's trying his darnedest to retain a sense of humor about the whole thing. "I can tell you that it's been a nightmare."

The chairs haven't been the only stumbling block. Wolkon and his first chef, Alec Bethune, parted ways a few weeks ago; the former sous chef, Matt Selby, is now the executive chef. The transition made for a few production snafus, but nothing too serious. In fact, Vesta's staff is pretty impressive; as Wolkon puts it, "They're a young crew of very motivated people with a great energy level." Several of them, including the 23-year-old Selby, are even younger than Wolkon, but what they lack in years they make up for in competence.

Most of the employees were culled from the places where Wolkon worked in Boulder before taking some time off to focus on Vesta's business plan--Oasis Brewery, the Foundry, Spice of Life Catering--and he stole (with Dave Query's permission) Jennifer Cinader from Jax to be his general manager. Many of the staffers have talents that extend beyond serving: Tony, one of our waiters, is a member of the soon-to-be-defunct local band Sweet Water Well, and the other, Richard, created the figures on the bathroom walls, the lighted grates in the floors and the menu hanging in the window. He also designs all of Vesta's flower arrangements.

Vesta's look is half of its attraction: groovy pink-and-white lighting, sexy booths for big parties, mismatched old wood floors. Luckily, this hip interior gave us plenty to look at during the long wait for a table one recent Friday night after the early performance of Cirque du Soleil, when all of Denver seemed determined to squeeze into Vesta at 8 p.m. I had called earlier that day to make a reservation but was told that the restaurant makes them for parties of five or more only. It turned out that Wolkon was the person who'd answered the phone--I had not given my name--and he'd said, "Usually there's a wait of about thirty to forty minutes on Friday nights. Come find me if it starts to take closer to an hour, and I'll find you a table." So one of my companions did just that, and Wolkon did just that--even though he had no idea who was in our party.

As we were being seated, another friend tripped over the back of her chair, and Wolkon immediately said, "I'm so sorry. We're getting rid of those." But not fast enough, because all through dinner we were faced with the terrible junior-high dilemma of whether to laugh when a person falls down.

My inner child won out. Most of the time, it was hilarious.
Not that we didn't try to warn people. Since our table was located on the path to the loo, just about everyone in the place passed by us on one side or the other. But since our mouths were often stuffed with food, it wasn't always possible to offer a timely alert.

At first our mouths were full of the incredible breaded jalapenos ($6), Vesta's version of the usually pedestrian poppers. Wolkon says this starter is so unpopular that it will be dropped in an upcoming menu revision. I'm surprised that the poppers haven't caught on, but then, I imagine this upscale crowd goes more for the Vesta roll ($8). The six little rounds of raw tuna were supposed to be sesame-crusted but instead came out with an odd breadcrumb coating that completely outdid the tuna. So did the accompanying wasabe cream sauce, which was too horseradishy and thick. The mellow pickled-ginger salad worked nicely, however.

We encountered the wasabe cream sauce again later, on the spice-rubbed grilled tuna entree ($16), and while we still weren't crazy about the flavor--and if it was wasabe, why was it white instead of green?--at least this time the sauce didn't overpower the fish. The slightly spicy tuna had been well-grilled to our specification of rare; it arrived on top of a pile of Creole rice that was so dry, it was crunchy. A zesty tropical salsa rode sidesaddle, but since it, too, was thick and gooey, it didn't help the rice at all.

Even so, the salsas and chutneys were my favorites among the "dipping sauces" available for the skewer portion of the menu. Here's how it works: You pick a skewer entree, then pick three sauces from a possible thirty. Although the menu offers suggestions for each entree, we ignored them in favor of cooler-sounding mixes. For example, we accessorized the Jamaican ($13) with the hoisin sauce, the red-pepper Rica rouille and the rasta tri-pepper chutney. All three went well with the items threaded on the two skewers--chicken, bananas, papayas, onions, cherry tomatoes and tri-color peppers--but the amount of meat was disappointing (I got only four chunks, about a breast's worth), and the fruit was also skimpy, with only two one-inch pieces of banana and two slim slices of papaya. And what was supposed to be a "rainbow of peppers" turned out to be two shards of yellow and one each of green and red. Wolkon says they're dropping the peppers because no one eats them--probably because they're hard and crunchy, just barely grilled.

Our Sea skewer ($17) brought a more satisfying portion, with hunks of salmon, swordfish and shrimp (and even though it wasn't listed on the menu, I swear I remember a scallop in there). This time, though, our sauce picks weren't as successful. The Vidalia onion relish and the mango Mya salsa, which both leaned on the sweet side, were tasty but didn't mix with the seafood; the orange blossom ginger soy was nothing but soy. And the sides for the skewers were lame; both the spiced potatoes and the orzo tasted as though they'd been cooked the day before and left to sit in a barely warm steam table.

But at least they were cooked. Since every entree is grilled, Vesta's grill gets quite a workout--and on weekends, Wolkon says, it actually fills up. That might explain why the fruit on our "grilled" desserts seemed merely heated. The fruit in the grill sampler ($5)--carambola, strawberries, bananas and pineapple--was barely cooked. And there were no grill marks on the banana that topped the split ($5); the fruit was only a tad softer than it would have been raw. But the ice cream beneath the banana was wonderful, the two huge scoops strongly flavored with cinnamon. And there was nothing wrong with the chocolate toffee cake ($5), which emphasized toffee and a decadent caramel topping.

On our second visit, we skipped dessert altogether--this time we waited 45 minutes for a table, and even without a final course, we were among the last to leave that night. But at least our dinner got off to an excellent start with the grilled sesame shrimp satay ($7), which featured plenty of sesame seeds on nicely grilled shrimp, as well as a Southwestern pineapple salsa that was sweet-and-spicy heaven (although the orange blossom ginger soy was still all soy). We'd also ordered a Caesar ($6), which featured fresh romaine generously sprinkled with fresh-grated parmesan, as well as a traditional dressing that was a perfect melding of ingredients.

The same could not be said for the sauces we chose for the Southwestern skewer ($14) of expertly grilled tenderloin (even if there wasn't nearly enough of it). The roasted garlic vinaigrette carried the bite of garlic that hadn't been fully roasted, and the sunset hot sauce was all bite, with no undercurrent of other flavors. But the intense peach chutney was wonderful; Wolkon says he's going to bottle some of his concoctions, and this should be the first.

We did better by the cilantro-lime grilled rib-eye ($17)--which Wolkon says will soon change to filet--that went well with the spicy kung pao sauce and even spicier garlic aioli. And we had another hit with the grilled shrimp linguine ($15), which was supplemented with artichoke hearts and kalamatas and coated with sun-dried tomato pesto.

But our favorite was the Mediterranean skewer with lamb ($17), which, sadly, Wolkon says Vesta is dumping. "People here just don't get lamb," he explains. "They don't understand the texture and the flavor." We not only understood it, we loved it--especially when we dipped the succulent pieces of meat into cucumber yogurt and more of that tangy tomato pesto.

Some of the portions are too small, some of the ingredients need to spend more time on the grill, and some sauces require revision. But for the most part, Vesta Dipping Grill sits well with me.

It's a shame the restaurant's food takes a backseat to the chairs.

Vesta Dipping Grill, 1822 Blake Street, 296-1970. Hours: 4-10 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday; 4-11 p.m. Thursday; 4 p.m.-12:30 a.m. Friday-Saturday.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner