Cafe Society

MANHATTAN MALADY

In the virtual reality of the future, we won't need to leave our La-Z-Boys to travel (much less venture out to Denver International Airport)--we'll just insert tapes in our video monitors and play tourist without suffering through the hassles of sore feet, lost luggage and stolen wallets.

In the meantime, we feed our wanderlust at restaurants. We sit cross-legged at Japanese tables, pore over Parisian menus, immerse ourselves in the tastes and sounds of the Middle East. Even restaurants that purvey traditional Denver foods--steaks, steaks and more steaks--often do so in settings that offer a trip back in time. Before long, we may be calling a travel agent to make dinner reservations.

Penthouse Grille has a long way to go before it becomes a desirable destination, though. The restaurant models itself after those swank, upscale spots that top New York skyscrapers. The theme is obvious in the name and echoed by the plants, the dark-blond wood, the grand piano and the wide-as-the-Brooklyn Bridge mirror that reflects a black silhouette of--what else?--the Big Apple's skyline.

But the Rainbow Room this isn't. For starters, the Penthouse is on the top floor of a one-story building. The Aurora restaurant occupies the largest of several glass-fronted shops in an L-shaped configuration that's trying hard to turn into a plaza. From the parking lot, the profile of the New York skyline etched at the bottom of the windows has a half-finished look, as though the decorators are off on a coffee break and will be back soon to put up curtains. And the view from inside is of the parking lot.

Penthouse part-owner Amin Noorzai says the artwork was designed to reinforce the New York feel of the place. "In New York, most of the restaurants are wide open," he explains. "People like to see and be seen." True, but at this restaurant the only thing to see is the traffic humming by on Hampden Avenue--until the sun sets, when the headlights of cars pulling in and out of the plaza beam through the skyline in a dazzling light show. For a moment we were reminded of Broadway. But just for a moment.

The idea for the restaurant originated with Amin's brother Masood. When the pair vacationed in New York, Masood fell in love with penthouse dining rooms. The Noorzai family's Olive Oil Italian Trattoria had closed last year--"There was no parking there, and the roof was leaking. It was one hassle after another with the landlords," says Amin--and the brothers were open to trying something new. Now Amin handles the front of the house, and Masood, whose resume includes stints with Noel Cunningham and Kevin Taylor, once again serves as chef.

Although this new venture adds steaks to the brothers' repertoire, there's an Olive Oil-like emphasis on pastas. An order of the redundantly titled mussels di mare ($7) brought four large, green-lipped sea specimens landlocked on a mound of linguine surrounded by a spicy tomato sauce. The pasta, which wasn't even mentioned on the menu, helped pad the portion to justify the price. Even better justification was the sauce, a wonderful combination of slightly oily texture, strong Italian herbs and lots of garlic. A similar but simpler sauce--minus the oil and spiciness--accompanied the complimentary breadsticks, whose crusty exteriors and chewy interiors made them perfect for dipping.

Those two sauces were so successful that we hungered to try an entree of calamari sauteed in a tomato-basil concoction, but no luck--the kitchen had exhausted its supply of squid. It was also out of most of the wine list and another intriguing-sounding entree, the mesquite duck sausage. Since we were one of just three tables during a two-hour weekday visit, it looked like the Noorzai brothers had decided to go easy on the reordering until the weekend. They had plenty of that day's soup, though. I ordered a large bowl of the cream of mushroom ($2.95) despite a recurring nightmare in which I'm forced to eat gloppy Campbell's on a daily basis. In comparison, this soup was a dream: The cook had poured on the cream, which toned down the mushrooms and gave the liquid a lush richness.

But too much cream drowned out any pleasure I might have derived from the black peppercorn filet ($16.95). The meat had been cooked rare, as ordered, but was only six ounces in size; its sauce, which supposedly had been cooked with Jameson Irish whiskey and black peppercorns, tasted of nothing but cream. Although I hadn't had high hopes for the Jameson (most cooks are stingy with pricey liquor), the entree's title had set my tongue tingling for at least pepper--so I asked the waiter what had happened to the "black peppercorn" part of my filet. He replied that the spice was in the sauce, not on the meat, and offered to bring me more. "I'll have the chef make it up for you," he said. He was back in about fifty seconds, just long enough to dip a ladle in and out of a bain-marie. The irrefutable proof that this sauce had been recycled, however, was the slip of skin along one side of the dish--the sort of skin that forms on a cream sauce when it sits around for a while. I've got news for the kitchen: More of a sauce that didn't taste like pepper to begin with is just more sauce--not more pepper. A side of linguine and more marinara sauce couldn't compensate for my disappointment this time, and a saute of summer squashes, which I envision being made in some laboratory in the middle of Denver and doled out to every restaurant within a hundred miles, did little to fill out the plate.

Although the kitchen was apparently running shy of black peppercorns, it was suffering no shortage of bell peppers. The fresh clams with pepper ($13.95) contained so much of the green variety that the rest of the ingredients--a few strips of much tastier red pepper, a smattering of dried parsley and an optimistic blast of black pepper--were knocked off balance. Although the portion was large and the pasta cooked nicely, the flavors were a flop.

After that, dessert came as a sweet surprise. A slice of blueberry cheesecake ($4.25) was particularly noteworthy; its rich ricotta base was topped with a dense layer of blueberries pressed closer than a bunch of drunk relatives in a family reunion photo, rather than the usual droopy blob of pie filling. The phyllo-like pastry of the apple strudel (also $4.25) was crammed with walnuts and raisins as well as apples; a sticky caramel sauce added a welcome touch.

Still, the best things coming out of the Penthouse's kitchen are the pizzas and calzones--not surprising, really, since Olive Oil used to serve up some of the best pizzas in town. When we stopped by for lunch we tried a sausage calzone ($8.95), a wonderful mound of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, onions, red and green peppers and spicy sausage packed inside an excellent thin dough. And the crust on the pizza ($6.95 for a ten-inch) was perfect--a thick, chewy rim that barely held in the oozy, oregano-dusted cheese and a sweet red sauce.

The Noorzai brothers would do well to remember that the quality of the food matters more than the concept. Although Olive Oil wasn't Italy, at least the restaurant served food that would be good no matter where you ate it. With the Penthouse, though, they may have bit off more of the Big Apple than they can chew.

And meanwhile, somewhere in New York someone is trying desperately to lure diners into a Colorado-style steakhouse.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner