Mark Chaffee knows this all too well. His first time as a restaurateur was with The Moondance, the tiny piano bar/eatery that Chaffee squeezed into a street-level space on Market Street in July 1994. The honeymoon lasted almost two years--Denver was ripe for the Tony Bennett lounge scene, and business was good--before Chaffee got the itch to take on another restaurant. In April 1996 he bought the nine-year-old Chives American Bistro from Barolo Grill owner Blair Taylor, who was whittling his own love-of-food life down to one restaurant.
Now Chaffee knows why. "I'm crazy," he says. "It's hard, because you can't be in two places at once, but I didn't realize just how much work two would be. I feel like I'm always at one or the other, and when I get back to the other one, there's something else I need to take care of."
After two visits to each of Chaffee's places, I can say that what needs to be taken care of are the details--especially at Chives, where my meals were rife with production problems.
I first ate at Chives five years ago, when Taylor still owned it and I was still working in restaurants. Along with about half the service-industry employees in town, I'd drop by late in the evening, since Chives was one of the few places around whose kitchen stayed open after 10 p.m. It remains popular with regulars from the restaurant crowd; you can find them gathered late at night around the bar area, eating Chives' infamous burgers (Taylor once rejected a Best of Denver award because he didn't want his restaurant to be known as a burger joint) and taking the edge off their demanding jobs with a few beers.
Even if you come from Lakewood, Chives has a welcoming neighborhood feel. The atmosphere is upscale casual, with remnants of Eighties teal and mauve submitting to a late-Nineties facelift. Although the menu, too, has changed under executive chef Tim McCaw, who served as sous chef during the Taylor regime, it still offers something for everyone. McCaw's fusiony roster jumps all over the place--there's Asian fare, American comfort food (including those burgers), California salads, pizza and pasta, even a few Southwestern items. McCaw also appears to have a sweet tooth, since many of the dishes feature such extras as caramelized onions, roasted red bell peppers, raisins and molasses.
Most of the time, McCaw's combinations work. But when they don't, they really don't. The fruit and duck-liver mousse pate ($5.95), for example, came drizzled with a super-sweet (strawberry? raspberry?) icing-like sauce. Scraping it off, we uncovered a fine pate, a harmonic mix of whipped duck liver and apples, apricots, cranberries and green peppercorns. Our other appetizers were successful from the start. The unusual but tasty tuna roll ($8.95) looked like something from an Asian Good Housekeeping: rare yellowfin tuna wrapped with avocado and too many cucumbers in a flour tortilla and then sliced. The three Vietnamese spring rolls ($5.95) boasted well-melded fillings of chicken and pork inside thin, crunchy rice-paper wrappers. The best of the bunch was the salmon and goat cheese strudel ($6.95): salmon fillet and smoked salmon bundled together with goat cheese in phyllo and served over a pool of red-pepper coulis.
After those starters, we looked forward to our main course. And we had plenty of time to anticipate it, since a half-hour after the appetizer plates were cleared away, we were still awaiting the entrees. Our waiter seemed pretty astute, so we got the impression that the difficulties were in the kitchen. But as the evening wore on and the place got busier, our waiter wound up with too many tables to give good service. At one point we had to snag a busperson to find out the status of our food; our waiter came by soon after to apologize.
Not long after that, we found ourself facing a haphazard collection of dishes. The herb-encrusted goat cheese spinach salad ($8.50) featured not warm but room temperature goat cheese, not wilted but withered-away spinach, and not a warm balsamic vinaigrette but a tepid balsamic wash unrelieved by even a droplet of oil. A much better balanced balsamic added zest to a sauce of pancetta and butter that covered the salmon ($16.95), and the fillet was nicely grilled. But the accompanying caramelized-onion risotto cake was a crisp-edged, dried-out patty. Also dry were the Kentucky pork chops ($16.95), three-inch-thick affairs cooked perfectly at the center--and parched on the exterior.
Our other entrees, however, came close to flawless. In fact, the spicy chicken chipotle pasta ($13.95) was flawless, a very generous portion of ziti mingled with soft strips of chicken and mixed bell peppers, all coated with a not-too-thick, not-too-thin chipotle-fired cream sauce. And the grilled portabello lasagne ($12.95) with grilled vegetables was fine, if a little light on the mornay sauce; more of that sauce would have worked well off the marinara.