Cafe Society

KATCHER OF THE DAY

Just for fun, try making Hamburger Helper for dinner every night. Make it the same way, with the same ingredients and the same side dishes. After two weeks, you'll be sick to death of making Hamburger Helper.

That's what it's like cooking in a restaurant.
Many chefs circumvent kitchen tedium by throwing their all into daily specials; some change the menu a few times a year in order to get their hands on seasonal ingredients and fresh ideas. And still others opt to pack up their knives and move on rather than play the game of monotony, which is easy enough when the restaurant belongs to someone else.

But as Lance Katcher found when he left the immensely popular, critically acclaimed, two-year-old Marvin Gardens last year, it's not so simple when you own the place. At the time, it seemed like a good idea to sell the Gardens to Chris Korosis, a small-time restaurateur who specialized in Greek diners. Korosis hired a new chef, Katcher went to the Wellshire Inn, and everybody was happy. Except that six months later, the Wellshire decided it no longer needed Katcher's services, and Marvin Gardens' business, as Katcher puts it, "had gone down the toilet."

So Katcher convinced Korosis to sell part of the Gardens back to him, and the two of them decided to flush the original concept and start over. Now the restaurant is the Gourmet Seafood Cafe. Katcher says he's wanted to focus on fish since he cooked in Fort Lauderdale ten years ago; before moving to Denver in 1992, he'd planned to open a seafood restaurant in Los Angeles--until rioters burned the building down.

But another riot threatens his new place--one caused by fans of the original Marvin Gardens who want the old place back. Some won't even try the revamped Cafe. And that's not for lack of effort on Katcher's part. Whenever he sees people looking at the menu in the window or pointing to the plastic sign hung over the old name, he runs out to tell them that he's back. A few people come in, but most shake their heads disappointedly and walk on.

There's something fishy here.
It's not the food, which for the most part is fine. But somehow the Cafe lacks the character, the verve, the soul of Marvin Gardens. The previous incarnation's welcoming atmosphere and electric charge of adventure have been replaced by nervous energy and an air of grumpiness. And where the old menu brought together an eclectic grouping of Southern-fried chicken, Asian stir-fries and Brazilian calamari steak, on the Cafe's roster I found three types of salmon.

Fortunately, the menu also has a few remnants of Katcher's former fun, such as the appetizer of macaroni and cheese ($3.95): gooey macaroni glued together by a razor-sharp cheddar, then baked until the top becomes a solid mass of crisp, browned cheese. Kids love it--but only if adults surrender their own spoons long enough to let their offspring have a bite. The Key West shrimp fritters ($4.95) sounded innocent, but the hush-puppy-looking things had quite a bite. The fritters came with three dipping sauces: one a mild remoulade, another a standard-issue, house-made cocktail sauce, and the third something the waiter described as "tartar sauce" but Katcher calls "critter sauce." This concoction of sour cream, relish, mayonnaise and chiles not only worked well with the fritters, it also complemented the North Atlantic salmon cakes ($5.95). Katcher offers the salmon cakes in place of the Gardens' award-winning crab cakes. Although these weren't as good (those crab cakes were truly something special), they were more than adequate, solid and generous with the salmon while stinting on the breadcrumbs and mayo.

Then mediocrity reared its ugly head, in the form of baked Mexican shrimp ($12.95) with artichoke-and-feta stuffing. Katcher says he initially used artichoke leaves to hold the mixture together, but he kept running out of artichokes. Now he's having trouble getting the Mexican shrimp and instead is using thinner-shelled Ecuadoran. But the shell isn't thin enough to salvage this preparation. After taking a bite, I realized the shell was still intact and stuck to the bottom of the shrimp like a wet swimsuit, which meant each piece had to be peeled away with a fork and a few fingers. It wasn't worth the trouble. The shrimp was blah, the stuffing consisted of four artichoke leaves and a few baubles of feta, and the whole thing had a weird vinegary taste. The stir-fry that came with the shrimp, however, was a throwback to the old days, when interesting--not odd--flavors came out of this kitchen.

The steamed Manila clams ($12.95) had no flavor at all. The clams were fresh and would have been fine on their own, but the menu had promised "wine, shallots and leeks," and that's what I went searching for under a huge skein of spaghettini. The few tablespoons of liquid I did find had none of the sweetness of shallots and no spark of wine.

Alaskan halibut ($12.95) had sounded the least promising of our three entrees, but it turned out to be the best of the lot. The Hawaiian salsa on the fish was a beguiling mix of mango, papaya, honeydew and pineapple sparked by jalapenos and a touch of cilantro; the combination was so good it nearly disguised the fact that the otherwise-lovely halibut was dry around the edges. A mound of saffron-drenched rice was the right side for such straightforward food.

While Katcher's cuisine has retained the simplicity he favors, if not the big flavors, his wife, Dawna, continues to put out pastries that boggle the palate. A slice of cream cheese torte ($4.95) with a shell of hardened Belgian-chocolate ganache looked uncomplicated but tasted like all the cream cheeses in the world whipped together and packed against a wall of chocolate. The chocolate mousse ($3.95) was light in texture but dense with chocolate. Those two paled, though, beside the chocolate rum delice ($5.95). This cylinder of hardened chocolate housed rum-soaked chocolate cake layered with chocolate cream and topped with rows of banana, kiwi and strawberry slices. The whole deal was surrounded by a moat of raspberry sauce and topped with whipped cream. Delice, indeed.

A subsequent lunch brought us back to reality. The white-bean fish chowder ($3.95 for a bowl) was, as Katcher pointed out, more like the original New England versions, but it also showed precisely why those first recipes became outdated. The chowder was exquisite on the first bite, wonderful the second, good the third and too much the fourth--too rich, too creamy. The Northwest Manila clam chowder ($4.95), on the other hand, had a healthier, vegetable-soup quality and plenty of clams. Not enough garlic came on the garlic oyster toasts ($4.95), but then, when a menu item begins with the word "garlic," I expect it to be a major ingredient.

Expectations also did in the Greek salad ($5.95). Since Korosis is Greek, I'd assumed it would be top-notch; it wasn't. The components were there--fresh lettuce, kalamatas, feta--but the most important element, the dressing, was bland and oily. It turns out the waiter didn't stir the vinegar-and-oil mix before pouring, so the salad ended up covered with the oil that had been floating on top, with none of the balsamic, red wine and rice wine vinegars that Katcher says he uses in his recipe. (That wasn't the only screw-up this waiter subjected us to--there were the three glasses of wine lined with cork bits and a forgotten order of garlic toasts.)

And then, finally, came a winner: paella ($14.95). This was the finest paella I've had outside New Orleans, packed with shrimp, mussels and clams and loaded with sticky saffron rice spiced with sausage and garlic. It was fabulous, just the kind of intense cooking Katcher initially became known for--and now so infrequently displays.

Why did he mess with success? "When I was gone, we lost so many customers," Katcher explains. "Marvin Gardens had gotten such a bad reputation, and Chris and I felt that it was too late to save it. So we had to go back to the beginning. I'm excited about this new menu."

Katcher might be, but I could become bored with this lackluster catch faster than you can say Seafood Helper. He needs to intensify tastes if he truly wants this restaurant to be a keeper.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner