Cafe Society

Last Supper: Our outgoing critic ends things at Ondo's, where they're easing into excellence

We parked the car in the snow and walked gingerly down the icy ramp. The wind was bitter, and Cherry Creek lived inside a snow globe of swirling flakes glittering like chips of diamond as the gusts whipped them, scarving from rooftops and frozen iron railings. Laura slipped and I caught her hand. I slipped and she caught mine. This is what we've done for all of our years together — caught each other as we were about to fall. In the end, we toddled like children, holding tight to each other and ducking our heads against the biting cold.

At the top of the steps, we paused to look over the menu under glass. Bocados and cazuelitas, postres, pintxos and raciones, foie gras a la plancha, rollo de mango relleno de bonito del Norte and my favorite, solomillo con salsa de queso Valdeón: words that would've been foreign to the both of us ten years ago, but now spoke only of warmth and comfort and broad smiles, sunlit plains and dry, dusty heat. Spain is what Laura and I have dreamed of together when it seemed that this country alone was too small for us. We each have our private geographical fantasies (Japan for me, or Vietnam or Lyon, maybe, provided everyone was kind enough to speak English in my presence; Key West for her, as well as Ensenada, St. Croix and Germany, because she's spit in the Neckar in Heidelburg and, according to the particularly disgusting folk traditions of the Germans, that means she's destined to return), but Spain is the one we've shared, the one we've studied. Spain is the far horizon on which our collective gaze has long been fixed, and so we know where to stay in Granada to have our view over the Alhambra, where the olive trees grow, when to find shade in the lee of Peñafiel castle and where they keep all the best pigs in the world. The menu was poetry written in a language meant for poetry, flowing and rhyming effortlessly and bucking literal translation, demanding only to be taken for what it is.

Curt and Deicy Steinbecker lived the dream that we're still chasing, having gone to Spain (coming from the United States and Colombia, respectively) to attend La Escuela de Cocina Luis Irizar, then spending five years studying and working around San Sebastian and Barcelona under the likes of Pedro Subijana and Juan Mari Arzak. They learned Spanish food from the inside out. They learned Basque food. They fell in love there, conceived a child there, but decided to come back to Denver (where Curt had lived before) to raise their child and to open a Spanish restaurant where they could do what they loved, what they'd been trained for. Laura and I had only come across town to see what they'd brought with them from half a world away, but we were hopeful.

Ondo's opened in November, in a subterranean space that's already swallowed more restaurants of more nationalities than I care to count. It's next door to Tambien, Jesse Morreale and Sean Yontz's Mexican codicil, their Mezcal Mk. II, and as we eased our way down the cement steps, across the frozen patio, freshly shoveled and swept, toward Ondo's front door, we could see that Tambien was having a great night, with a crowded bar and a busy floor, and Ondo's was...not.

Actually, it was empty, with the floor staff standing around in those nervous postures of expectation (bodies leaned forward, hands clasped, eyes scanning the front windows for the sudden flood of customers that resolutely refuse to come) that speak volumes about desperate want and need. I hesitated a little at the bottom step, at the same instant as Laura. We exchanged a quick, nervous glance.

"This might be the last time, you know?" she said. "Our last chance." And she was right. While Curt and Deicy and Ondo's might just be starting out in Denver, we were finishing up, handling final details before aiming ourselves west and making for the distant coast, the stones and salmon of Seattle. I'd been waiting months for Ondo's to open, tracking it with the fanatic focus of some Brooklyn towhead pawing through baseball cards and building fantasy lineups on his bedroom rug, talking with Curt, watching the long-dormant website, hoping that Laura and I would get to experience their Spain before we turned our backs on home and headed for parts unknown.

Together we stepped inside — out of the cold and into an empty room that seemed almost to crouch with anticipation, everything happening a little too fast, with a little too much anxiety. Because there was no one ahead of us, we were shown instantly to the seats we wanted, tucked away in a corner with a view of the dark bar across a broad dining room filled with small tables and artfully curvy plastic chairs. Because there was no one else battling for attention, our drinks came with a rapidity and care that was like the compression of a movie dream sequence — my glass of rosado arriving cold, like liquid ruby in the glass, and Laura's white dithered over, with tasting glasses brought to the table by the willing waitress who talked her through the dry one, the sweet one, the fruity one, before she made a final decision.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan