Cafe Society

Hold the Line

Is this your first time here?" our server asked as he stood over our table -- the last one available early on a Saturday night in the small dining room at Parallel Seventeen.

And we nodded, meekly, acknowledging that yes, in fact, this was our first time. I hate doing that. Makes me feel like a rube who don't get out but to Burger King once ever' now-n-then.

Our server just smiled. "Cool," he said. "Well, let me explain." Then he did, showing us the menu, the drinks, the specials on offer. "It's small plates," he added. "Because everything in Denver now has to be small plates." He laughed, and so did we. "I'll give you a couple of minutes to look."

Then he vanished, which is not an easy thing to do in a place as small as Parallel Seventeen. The brick-faced dining room boasts seating for fifty, maybe. And that's if every single chair is taken, every banquette crammed to capacity, every bar stool occupied, the pillows and couches in the front-corner lounge area draped with girls in various stages of martini repose, and some customers standing, waiting, tracking the progress of servers bearing bills in little red envelopes with the concentration of Japanese gamblers watching pachinko balls. Still, he managed it, which was a neat trick -- as is the fact that Parallel Seventeen, even when crowded to capacity, can seem intimate, comfortable, neither overburdened with bodies nor overloaded with servers.

I don't know where the servers go when they're not on the floor (although I imagine a tiny closet in the back somewhere filled with young, tattooed and perfectly manicured beautiful people occasionally fired out into the dining room like bullets from a very well-aimed gun), but in just six months of business, they've gotten down the knack of working a small room. They're there and then they're gone -- never far away, but always far enough that no one seems to hover.

My seat was uncomfortable, an angular booth-back too high to throw an arm over, made of slatted planks like a picnic-table bench, painted black and kinked at strange angles to fit in a corner. Perhaps you need to be a more serene and better put-together man than I am to relax here -- a master of zazen, a gymnast or a loose-jointed drunk. My best chance being the third option, I decided to drink martinis, which proved to be a fortuitous arrangement of environment and circumstance (awkward seating, a proclivity for strong drink and the fact that I am not a thirteen-year-old Romanian girl) that led to an alcohol epiphany.

Laura ordered the house's pom fiz (Prosecco and pomegranate with a cored lychee bobbing around in the flute), which tasted like cheap, bubbly rosé. Our friend opted for something fruity that tasted like candy-coated vodka. But I, eschewing just this once my favored blend of gin, gin, gin and an olive, went with the Vietnamese-coffee martini, and as a result, will never again so quickly dismiss as knee-jerk heresy those terrible, juvenile and self-indulgent cocktails that today are poured as proxy to James Bond's favorite recreational indulgence. Of course, this was not a true martini, which can only be one thing. But still, it was amazing, addictive as crack cocaine, made of chilled Vietnamese coffee, vanilla Stoli, Kahlúa and a single dot of sweetened condensed milk lurking in the hollow where stem meets glass.

"How is it?" our server asked, appearing as if by magic by our table.

"You have no idea," I said.

"Yeah," he nodded, smiling. "They're dangerous, aren't they? Are you ready to order?"

Vermicelli and lemongrass, mousse pâté and pommes frites, Saigon-style baguettes, grilled quail served over mashed sweet potatoes, lettuce-wrapped spring rolls with pickled daikon and nuoc cham like a vinegar-chile kiss on the mouth. The surprising thing about the food at Parallel Seventeen is how traditional it is, how Frenchy-Asian, how rigorously grounded in generations of history. At a space like this, in a neighborhood like this, I expected fusion or worse -- sambal poppers, tri-color rice, everything deep-fried and sprouting tiny American flags. And as for the small plates, our waiter had already said it all: The restaurant does a small-plates menu because everything in Denver is about small plates now.

But small plates (and these small plates in particular) have a place in Vietnamese cuisine -- even if it isn't a place that most Denver diners are accustomed to. The tradition comes out of Hue, the old imperial capital, where armies of banquet cooks once prepared dinners for kings and queens. At any given time, there might have been fifty little dishes arrayed before royalty, all meant for tasting, for passing and sharing. This style was passed down to the citizens of Hue, who mimicked it for their family dinners -- preparing bits of meat and twists of salad, presenting skewers and rolls and scallops sitting regally on the half-shell. In turn, mothers passed the style to daughters and daughters to their own, but somewhere in the diaspora that came of decades of war and emigration, this method of serving was largely forgotten. Vietnamese restaurateurs, seeing the American appetite for big plates and big portions, went with a different model of presentation, offering mountains of food and rice that their customers could jealously hoard for themselves. Buckets of curry, hillocks of rice, entire chickens and pounds of beef: Americans like big cars, a big sky and a big dinner at the end of a long day.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan