Cafe Society

Mouthing Off

A bite of the big Apple: Chef Matt Selby of Vesta Dipping Grill, at 1822 Blake Street, is just back from a stint at New York's Gramercy Tavern. Sent there by Vesta owner Josh Wolkon to work with Gramercy owner Danny Meyer and chef Tom Colicchio in order to come up with new ideas for Vesta, Selby's full of enthusiasm about the trip--even though he didn't get to do quite as much as he'd hoped. "Meyer and Colicchio are the busiest men I've ever seen in my life," Selby says. "I thought I'd get to work with them pretty closely, but they were running around so much, I could hardly say five words to them."

Instead, Selby worked with the chef de cuisine and the sous chefs. "All of them were just the most intense chefs," says Selby, who was executive chef at the now-defunct Top Hat at 15th and Lawrence (a space that's still empty), as well as an underling at Sushi Den (1487 South Pearl Street) and the also-gone Rattlesnake Grill in the Cherry Creek Shopping Center (a location soon to be occupied by the Hawaiian-themed Roy's). "I didn't have any real specific duties, and they made it very clear that if I did something wrong, it would be all of our asses. So I did some mise en place, and then I worked two pastry shifts, which is something I've wanted to focus on for a while."

Selby returned to Denver with two things firmly planted in his mind: "I remembered how much I love freshly ground black pepper," he says, "and how much I love the perfect dice."

What effect Selby's trip will have on the always-improving Vesta remains to be seen--and tasted. Since the restaurant opened two years ago, it's made several alterations, all of them for the better. First to go were the angular, if arty, chairs (which inspired the nickname "Vesta Tripping Grill"); then some of the skewered entrees that helped earn the restaurant its 1999 Best of Denver award, "Best Place to Get Food on a Stick--and Act Stuck-Up." Although one reader complained at length about that title, if you spend a few hours at the bar on a busy weekend night, you'll encounter plenty of customers dripping with arrogance in what I called "LoDo's most chic crowd."

Even so, Vesta's waitstaff is invariably pleasant, and among the more competent in town: The only way they'll stick it to you is if you order one of the entrees that arrives on a skewer, which still account for about a quarter of Vesta's menu.

More Best of carping came from a reader who had yet to sample the Best Caesar at Panzano (909 17th Street). "Whoa," wrote Jim Dumas. "Before I try Panzano's Caesar salad, you must tell me that the romaine fronds are gently broken, not cut, that the cheese is Parmesan Reggiano, that the salad does not have 'a slight flavor of anchovy' but has several Sclafani anchovy fillets draped over the top, that the eggs are raw or coddled and no 'egg beaters' are used, and that the diners at the next table can vouch for the presence of garlic. Otherwise, I'll stick with Denny's."

Well, Jim, you go right ahead and get yourself a Caesar Grand Slam. I'll be laughing all the way to Panzano thinking about diners who insist on "official" recipes for such classic dishes, when the Caesar was actually concocted to cover a lack of better ingredients. The best--and seemingly most accurate--account that I've found regarding the salad comes from the well-respected tome The Food Chronology, by James Trager. He says the Caesar was created in 1924 by Italian Air Force veteran Alex Cardini, who was cooking at the hotel restaurant of his brother, Caesar, in Tijuana, Mexico, when a group of Californians arrived at the place to celebrate the Fourth of July. Alex wanted to make something special, but could find only eggs, romaine, dry bread, garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, pepper and Parmigiano-Reggiano. So he made croutons of the bread, mixed them with the other ingredients, and called the thing an Aviator Salad.

Later the name was changed to honor Alex's brother; even later, people started adding anchovies and sometimes Worcestershire. As for breaking the romaine, I've found that using a good-quality, properly sharpened knife will eliminate any bruising of the lettuce. And Jim's obviously not contracted salmonella, as I have, because if he'd suffered through those intestinal horrors, he wouldn't require that restaurants serve him raw eggs anymore.

Two people who had eaten at Panzano sent recent e-mails chiding me for my full review of the restaurant in the Hotel Monaco ("Bread Alert," July 1). One appears in this week's Letters column; the other came from Dominique Reneau, who says she recently left a job at Panzano to pursue another career. "After having read Kyle Wagner's review of Panzano, I am disappointed," wrote Reneau. "I am disappointed that Kyle failed to mention that since Panzano's opening in October, she has frequented the restaurant more than the three times she alluded to." Say what? A perusal of my credit-card receipts shows that I have been to the place only three times (and also answers the charge of the other writer, who suggested I only went to Panzano for free meals); since I eat out several times a week, it's tough enough to go to the restaurants I really love, let alone return to one I've eaten at several times and was never wowed by.

Reneau also enthused about Panzano and its owners, the Kimpton Group, a "shining example of an employer and a restaurant committed to achieving excellence," she said, then added, "admittedly, there are still problems. What do you expect, the restaurant is only nine months old and still fine-tuning. It's a toddler in the ranks of The Palm, Strings and Ellyngton's, to name a few. Speaking of which, when was the last time Kyle reviewed one of these restaurants? Just because they have been around for years does not mean they have the corner on cuisine and service in the metro area."

Whoa. First of all, nine months is plenty of time to work out any major kinks; at any quality restaurant, the fine-tuning never ends. And second, I reviewed Strings two years ago ("To Serve and Perfect," May 22, 1997); Ellyngton's three and a half years ago ("The Royal Treatment," December 20, 1995) and The Palm on several occasions in Mouthing Off, most recently in the May 27 edition. With thousands of restaurants waiting to be reviewed, none of those three ranks high on my list for another official visit. In particular, I've never been a big fan of the Palm---but at least they don't have fake bread in their windows, as Panzano does.

If you want to get past the window-dressing and all the way into the kitchen, however, Panzano is offering some interesting new deals. Executive chef Ben Davis now hosts a "Chef's Table," limited to two parties a night (at $45 a head, plus $20 each for wines), where he'll prepare a personalized, northern Italian feast; on July 20, the restaurant welcomes husband-and-wife winemakers Raimondo Lombardi and Antonella Tacci for a winemaker's dinner featuring wines from Martilde Winery (that evening's tab is $80 per person--but wines are included). Call 303-296-3525 for more information and reservations. And still the fine-tuning continues: Last week Panzano's introduced weekday happy hours, with half-price food and drink specials from 4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight. And Friday afternoons come complete with complimentary pizza tasters for commuters.

One last bite of Best of: Another caller took me to task for my choice of emily's gourmet to-go (1543 Champa Street) for Best Soups. "You guys said emily's had the best soup, and I went there and ate it, and it tasted like crap," the anonymous dude said. "The Soup Kitchen has way better chowder than them people. I'm just wondering why you guys don't check every restaurant. And that's about it. Thanks. Bye-bye."

I may not have tried every soup in town, but I did stop twice at emily's, where I sampled the burgundy portabello, the Portuguese potato and bean, and the mushroom risotto, all of which were stellar. I also visited the Soup Kitchen, a good lunch spot at 1675 Larimer Street, to see if the clam chowder was a contender, but I found it to be on the dry side.

I'm already off slurping soups for next year. So, Mr. Dude, if you think you can eat soup at every restaurant in this town within a year's time, call me and let's do lunch.


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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner

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