Talk to me about your fish."
And chef Olav Peterson of Bistro One starts talking. He talks about the beautiful lobster sauce, silky and rich and classically prepared. He talks about the mushroom risotto on which the curled fillet sat, and how, ideally, the fish ought to be presented: a layer-cake effect, sauce in the well, risotto on top of the sauce, fish on top of the risotto, its essential verticality defied by the rising lip of the plate. Together we talk about how, when he revamps the menu, he'll probably change out the monkfish — replacing it with ruby trout, perhaps, or skate wing if he can find a dependable supplier in a city that hasn't really taken to skate. Looks are important. Prep is important. Technique is most important of all. "Technique is where flavor comes from," he says.
Olav is a talented chef, a veteran. He spent years at 1515 — Gene Tang's downtown restaurant, which is where he was working when I reviewed it. He left, then resurfaced at Euro, a now-defunct Cherry Creek restaurant that, when described by anyone who was on the inside, plays like some kind of kitchen-specific Hollywood disaster movie full of fire and rage and exhaustion. When he left Euro, it was for Bistro One. Olav has been here from the start, through the buildout and the design of the first menu. He knows the place inside and out. He knows every dish like he knows his own bones, knows the differences between the idealized version in his head and the ones that sometimes make their way out onto the floor.
"Salt," I tell him. "The crust on the fish was just murderously salty, man. And it made it really difficult to eat." I wince a little even as I say this, hold the phone tight to my ear. I'm waiting for the explosion: Well, fuck you, man! You don't like my fish, then you can go fuck yourself! Ten years ago, that's what I might've said. I always hated restaurant critics. For the most part, I still do.
But Olav doesn't say this. He takes a breath, then says, "I would get on Travis about this." He's talking about Travis Lorton, the sous who was with him when he opened Bistro One, gone now since December — the guy who helped train about half the staff that's still in the galley. Travis always salted heavily, Olav says, spiced everything heavily. And some in the kitchen have found the habit hard to break. The grillman will say he has to go heavy on the salt because it will fall off when it hits the grill as the fish is being turned. Olav will tell him, "No, you can't be salting the shit out of it." It's a battle, back and forth, and Olav knows exactly what went wrong. "The sauce, you know? The lobster sauce? That already has some heavy sodium elements to it, and if there's too much salt, you almost get a sulfurous taste," he tells me.
"Yeah, but the sauce was perfect. I mean, it was a fucking beautiful sauce. Definitely not too much salt. So you can tell your grillman that there's no salt 'falling off' the fish or whatever. It all stayed right on there — right on the crust."
"Right, I know."
"It was bad, man."
Under the crust, the fish was cooked perfectly — pearlescent white in the center, not dry, not cold. The sauce was beautiful. The risotto worked like a charm. But the spice crust? It was like I'd said something nasty about that grillman's mom — an angry amount of salt. Vengeful. The salt was the difference between a great dish and an almost inedible one, and for ten minutes, Olav and I talk about it, tracking it all the way back to day one. To Olav's decision to hire fairly green line cooks and train them himself (because he believes this makes for a tighter crew with better camaraderie than if he were to bring in a bunch of ringers from other top-end restaurants), to Lorton's love of spice, even to the way the kitchen is arranged, station by station. It's fascinating, this almost forensic deconstruction of the nine months leading up to the preparation of my fish: a kitchen Butterfly Effect.
"It's a young crew, mostly," he tells me. "Some of these guys have never worked in a scratch kitchen before" — a kitchen that bakes its own bread, cures its own bacon, makes its own everything. "So it's like, when a Caesar salad gets sent back because there's not enough dressing on it, I'm like, 'What? You couldn't taste this? You couldn't pick up one leaf of lettuce?'"
We move on, continuing our step-by-step breakdown of the two dinners I ate in Bistro One's lovely, comfortable dining room as I worked through about half of Olav's winter menu. We dispose of the steak frites quickly: flatiron-cut beef, well trimmed and well handled by the same grillman who'd murdered my fish, drooling tarragon butter like a food-porn magazine centerfold and sided by excellent, house-cut frites, blanched, double-dropped, touched with sugar. Steak frites isn't easy; it might look that way on paper, but in execution, it's as complicated as everything else when you need to get it perfect. The short rib and celeriac purée and pan jus was another simple, satisfying plate operating with no trickery, no cover. That the house had done it well — executed as directed, prepped like pros — is why I'm talking with Olav, trying to tease out the tiny missteps that separate bad from good and good from great.