Jesse Morreale, owner of Tambien, called me at home last Wednesday night. "So, how is it?" he asked with no preamble, no hey-how-ya-doin'.
"How is what?" I asked, feigning a sweet, downy and unsullied ignorance.
"How is it?"
"How is what, man? I have no idea what you're talking about."
"No, I'm just fucking with you. I'm guessing the photographer just called?"
The photographer had, in fact, just called Tambien to arrange to shoot the restaurant, which is how Morreale (who knows me and easily could have picked me out in the dining room on any given night if not for the fact that I am such a sneaky little dickens) found out that a review was coming.
He had reason to be nervous. We might be friends, and I might know and like his partner, Sean Yontz, the other Wonder Twin. But they both know that friends is friends and business is business. I'd loved (and loved-up in print) their first restaurant, Mezcal (see Second Helping). Yontz's Chama was one of my favorite restaurants on the west side, and I mourned when it closed. But neither of them were happy with the ink I spilled over Sketch, which I equated with a late-night booty call — not the prettiest girl on the scene, but a comforting option of last resort for the terminally overserved. And Morreale, who's no rookie at this restaurant thing, knew damn well that Tambien had struggled early on.
"It was rough," he admitted now, talking about those first few frantic and uneven weeks, the pressures of getting open and trying to live up to the standards of Mezcal and Chama. The crew in Tambien's kitchen were all veterans, people who'd come from one or another of the already operating Yontz/Morreale houses, and there'd been a temptation to let them do their own thing — because they were trained, because they were skilled, because they, ostensibly, already knew how to make green chile and prep masa.
But that was a mistake. "Every place is different," Morreale told me. "And it was the little things we lost track of."
Kitchen wisdom: it's always the little things that fuck ya. It's never (or almost never) a catastrophic kitchen fire, but instead the night baker who loses a Band-Aid in a 500-pound batch of proofing dough (which actually happened to me). It's never a complete breakdown of the line, but just a minor breakdown in communication that leads to two different cooks salting the chile because neither knew it was the responsibility of the other.
Nearly every restaurant needs time to develop. Some need weeks, some need months, a few need even longer before they become as good as they should be, can be. And a big part of my job is knowing that, being able to sense when a kitchen is bad just because it's bad (Chi Bistro was an excellent example of that) and when it is bad but will get better.
Tambien was one of the latter. I had little doubt that the kitchen would eventually find its shit and, having found it, get it together. And it did.
After talking with Morreale, I got his other half on the blower and heard the same story. "It should've been the easiest opening in the world, man," Yontz said. "You know, I'm bringing in my top guys from every place. And we've already got the recipe book down. But I go in there, and the salsa? I ask these guys, 'What the fuck? You guys have been making this salsa for four years. What happened?'"
Yontz and I talked about opening kitchens, about how it's just never as easy as you think it's going to be. We discussed how something as simple as using different pans, as walking a different path through a different kitchen, can fuck up a cook's process and screw with his internal gyroscope. "It took time," Yontz told me, time for everyone to settle into their new home, their new brigade. And then, once we were done talking about Tambien, we got to talking about Yontz's own process of settling in after spending almost a month south of the border, on a culinary walkabout partly sponsored by the Mexican consulate.
"Two weeks in Oaxaca," he said. "Cancún, a week in Playa." I asked if he'd spent all that time working. "In Oaxaca, yeah," he said. "Playa, I was sitting on the beach drinking beer."
He hung out in Oaxacan restaurants. He watched people make mezcal. He went to the mountains to chill with the Zapatecan Indians because a woman there made tamales like no other tamales in the world. "These were tamales that only they make," Yontz said, the wonder not yet drained from his voice even though he'd been gone from Oaxaca for weeks. The masa was pressed like a tortilla, filled, folded like a burrito, then wrapped in corn leaves — "not husks, man, leaves," he marveled. "And when I left, as we're driving away down this dirt road, I look back, and up on her roof is all this corn. They were drying all their corn up there. It was rad, man. It was amazing."
Yontz was moved enough by the experience that he hosted a dinner last week in the Mexican consulate's honor, and had his head cook, Roberto Diaz, buy him a live goat so that he could make one of the dishes he discovered in Oaxaca. "They do this mole there," he said. "Goat-spine mole."
When I asked who'd killed the goat, Yontz paused, then said it was Diaz. "I told Jesse I ran it over with my truck," he joked, then laughed when I said it must be nice to have his own goat hit man on staff. "Yeah, well, Roberto lives on a ranch with, like, horses and everything," Yontz explained.
The dinner was a big hit, but Yontz doesn't plan on adding all the new dishes to Tambien's menu. "I smuggled grasshoppers back," he said. "I smuggled some chiles, some paste, some cheeses. But it's not enough, you know? It's really hard to get this stuff here."
And besides, Yontz has more than the Mezcal and Tambien kitchens to think about. He's also planning to resurrect Chama. "I've been looking at spaces," he admitted as we were wrapping up our conversation. "I haven't been looking too hard, being gone in Mexico for the last month, but after the first of the year, I'm going to start looking more seriously."
"It will reopen," Yontz insisted. "I wanna do it downtown."
Happy New Year, Denver.
Leftovers: But wait, there are still a few days left before Christmas, and do I ever have a place for you procrastinators. At Nosh (formerly known as the Gelato Spot), 1439 South Pearl Street, owner John Hinman and his girlfriend, Jayne Yelich, have decided to augment their flagging gelato sales with (what else?) Christmas trees.
Because of the unusual, set-back location of Nosh (which operates out of an old carriage house with a big front yard/patio) and the fact that no one really wants to eat ice cream outside in the middle of winter, Hinman found himself with a lot of space going unused — and a decided lack of income. "My $800 nights turned into $800 weeks when winter started," Hinman explained. "I had to do something."
The first thing he did was sell pumpkins. And when that (sort of surprisingly) succeeded, he decided to bring in a load of Christmas pines. "I bought fifty trees," he said. "I've got twelve left." And that was last week. By now, he may have trucked in another load.
And Nosh isn't just selling Christmas trees. Hinman (who used to do pastry for Dave Query at Lola and Jax and was one of Matt Selby's sous chefs at Vesta Dipping Grill) and Yelich (who's currently a baker at Potager) are also offering homemade holiday pies: traditional pumpkin, organic apple (made from Ella Farms produce), maple-pecan, a killer chocolate banana cream. "You can't get a pie like this anywhere," Hinman said. And they've also added seasonal gelato flavors. "Bourbon-caramel-gingersnap," he listed. "Eggnog gelato. Pomegranate-champagne. Spumoni. No one really hits that but the old ladies. They love it."
We also have a spate of openings. Kevin Taylor's newest venture, Limelight Supper Club, made its debut last week at 1335 Curtis Street, inside the Galleria in the former home of the Theatre Cafe. A second Mona's just opened at Broadway and Maple, but Mona's owners Linda and Garen Austin had to do it without the help of longtime chef Paul Reilly, who left the original location at 2364 15th Street a few months ago to join up with Steve Whited and Sean Huggard, the partners who brought us the Black Pearl, in their new venture: Encore, in the Lowenstein project at 2500 East Colfax Avenue.
Huggard called me the day before last Friday's friends-and-family dinner to tell me that everything had finally come together "just five minutes ago." And though he'd had moments of doubt, he said, he's now confident that they made all the right choices in space, menu, decor and date. The cuisine is American (we spent some time discussing whether it's "New" American or "Classic" American or "Regional" American, because Huggard hadn't quite made up his mind yet), and Reilly will be standing as chef de cuisine.