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Pretty Ain't Enough

La Sandía is an absolutely beautiful restaurant. It hits that magic balance between light and dark, design and open space, and it seems to glow. In the middle of Stapleton, where everything is new and aloof and distant -- all hard surfaces, right angles, mercilessly focus-grouped corporate logos, and clean...
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La Sandía is an absolutely beautiful restaurant. It hits that magic balance between light and dark, design and open space, and it seems to glow. In the middle of Stapleton, where everything is new and aloof and distant -- all hard surfaces, right angles, mercilessly focus-grouped corporate logos, and clean to such an extent as to imply some sort of horribly dirty secret -- La Sandía appears like a beacon of light.

Inside, there are fantastically uncomfortable chairs and too-small tables that still manage to look good against the hard, dusky tile floors and the warm, earth-tone walls. Dining areas are separated by hanging glass, colored in a variety of rainbow shades, lit from above, beneath and behind, in some places etched with words of dubious Spanish wisdom: There's no better sauce than a good appetite. In the back, under chandeliers that look like frozen raindrops, is a twenty-top community table; in the middle, a dark-hued long bar; to the side, a great little area lined with small tables and chocolatey leather club chairs against the windows that seems like a perfect spot for a couple of lazy afternoon drinks or an evening snack -- even though I've never actually seen anyone sitting there.

It's an excellent space, inviting and beautiful. But after three dinners at La Sandía over the course of a month, I won't be going back. Great food can often, perhaps always, save a bad room. But a great room -- no matter how lovely, no matter how well-appointed -- will never make up for mediocre food. Pretty as it is, this place has no soul.

La Sandía is the latest restaurant from Richard Sandoval, inventor of "Modern Mexican Cuisine" -- a phrase I'm putting in quotes because he's notorious for siccing lawyers on anyone trying to cash in on those three words that he claims to own. Born and raised in Mexico City, Sandoval does have an authentic connection to Mexican food and, in particular, the bright, fresh, coastal style that's the foundation of his menus. His father ran a couple of very successful restaurants in Acapulco, and he grew up immersed in food before being educated at the Culinary Institute of America. He broke into the New York scene with (of all things) a brace of French restaurants (Savann and Savann Est), then went native with the opening of Maya in 1997. Mexican food, and especially fancy-pants Mexican, was a new thing for Manhattan then, and Maya got two stars from the New York Times. When Maya San Francisco opened, it got three stars from the Chronicle.

In 2001, Sandoval came to Denver and, with Tamayo -- his vision of modern, white-tablecloth Mexican cuisine that, in the beginning, truly was visionary -- became the first (and to date, only) serious celebrity chef to open a serious celebrity restaurant in this city. Today he has three restaurants in Denver (Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandía) and six more in places ranging from San Francisco to Dubai. But while he has more restaurants in Denver than he does anywhere else, Sandoval doesn't live here. He doesn't work here -- at least not every day. He just opens here.

Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of, because he is one of those multi-unit chefs who seems driven to collect addresses the way some kids collect baseball cards, he has no day-to-day control over his properties. He sets a concept, writes a menu, staffs up with trusted lieutenants, (sometimes) trains a crew and then unlocks the doors. His business is not so much about creating great restaurants as it is about creating great food-service machines that can run flawlessly in his absence. And there's nothing wrong with that -- as long as customers understand the situation going in. Richard Sandoval is not assembling your tacos. His chef de cuisine is; it's his job to translate Sandoval's vision to every plate. And Sandoval's vision for La Sandía is a casual, approachable Mexican restaurant -- less serious than Tamayo, less intellectual than Zengo, inspired by the meals he remembers having at his grandmother's table. It's designed to cater to the people coming to Stapleton, the people who want a quick snack before or after the movies, a little something for dinner after a long day of shopping, people who are looking for a kinda hip, kinda cool, pretty place to sit, eat some nachos, drink a few margaritas and feel good about themselves for not going to Chili's.

The menu is full of upscaled versions of recognizably Mexican preparations, intended to both please diners and satisfy the bottom line. The queso fundido is a blend of Oaxacan and Chihuahuan cheeses smoothed out by the inclusion of gouda -- and not just made with a trio of cheeses because Sandoval thought the three would be tasty together. The biggest problem with queso fundido at less deliberately designed Mexican restaurants is that it becomes gelatinized and inedible faster than most people can eat it. The inclusion of gouda -- a very smooth-melting cheese, second only to emmentaler as the ideal fondue cheese -- gives it a life span on the table that's probably twice as long as most queso-based appetizers. And the broiling-hot cast-iron square skillet it's served on doubles that again.

The shrimp quesadilla -- an open-faced presentation with adobo-marinated grilled shrimp, greens, cheese and cilantro pesto all mounted atop a crisp tortilla -- is an easy layup for the crew on a busy shift. Pull the shrimp out of the marinade, drag 'em across the grill, hand 'em off to the garde-manger man who dresses up pre-fried tortillas out of his cold table, and bang: printer to rail in about a minute flat. The tampiqueña comes with a simply dressed nopalito salad and a side of chile poblano potatoes that are casserole prep: layer of potatoes, layer of cheese, layer of chiles, repeat three times in a hotel pan, throw it in the oven and forget about it until the timer goes off. A brain-dead prep cook, half-blind from a hangover on a Saturday morning, could probably knock out five pans of this in less than an hour: a heat-to-serve side requiring only a quick flash under the broiler as the orders come in.

As a chef, I can't help but be impressed by this menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint. Almost every plate is a work of genius -- an absolutely rock-solid, time-tested, unfuckupable testament to the concept of sacrificing a little quality for a lot of consistency, both on the table and in the account books. Mexican coleslaw is a common side here, and coleslaw is a chef's food-cost wet dream, since cabbage costs almost nothing and fills a plate just as well as the more expensive lettuces. Every one of the salads is constructed out of pieces of other plates; this is the perfect way to move stock before it gets old. And as a display of pure, meat-hook businessman smarts, the Veracruz-style red snapper is brilliant. The pan-roasted filet is dressed in a strong, Italian-influenced sauce of capers, tomatoes and olives, served with a goat-cheese-stuffed Anaheim pepper that's sorta like a relleno (but not really) and sorta like a stuffed Spanish piquillo (but not really) and tastes like nothing so much as the exact sum of its constituent parts. Snapper is a very gently flavored fish and very forgivable. It takes the heat well, isn't too fragile, can be screwed with like chicken and will still love you in the morning. To then top such a fish with an astringent, powerfully flavored sauce of capers and olives through which no mistake, no matter how terrible, can possibly be tasted is like taking an already virtually indestructible fish and dressing it in a bulletproof vest.

Trouble is, though, I'm not a chef anymore. And what might once have made me respect a guy for his smarts now makes me disdain him for his detachment and those parts of the dining experience that are just too cold-blooded and calculating to be ignored. For example, the tacos are very well-presented -- sizzling on stone platters and all deconstructed for the presumed enjoyment of customers who'd like to assemble them their own way. But really, the deconstruction is just a mean way to make a little food look like a lot of food, and the prices are unconscionable: $14.50 for carne asada -- plus an extra buck if you ask for melted cheese -- which comes out to about five bucks a taco when all is said and done. And the one item that does seem like a bargain, the $19.95 seafood mariscada -- a collection of shrimp, little bay scallops and mussels over soft cilantro rice and drizzled with a strong, sweet/hot achiote and coconut sauce -- is even more worrisome, since mussels appear nowhere else on La Sandía's fairly substantial board. When I put in my order, I couldn't help but wonder how long those shellfish had been sitting around. Still, the sauce was so strong it could've hidden any number of sins.

Most of La Sandía's flaws are more obvious. Service is friendly, but the upsells and constant exhortations to eat more get annoying fast. I've been charged for drinks that never arrived, sides I never ordered. The free chips and salsa are nice, but being charged an extra dollar by the bar for having my Pacífico served as a michelada, with lime, over ice and in a salted glass? That's ridiculous.

At the end of every one of my meals here, I felt a hollowness that no number of overpriced tacos was ever going to fill. At best, this restaurant is a secondhand translation of one chef's vision of "Modern Mexican Cuisine" -- the culinary equivalent of a Matisse print bought at a mall poster shop, a garage-band cover of Let It Bleed. While I understand that this is all part of the deal that a chef makes with the devil when he goes big-time and international, that doesn't mean I have to like it.

La Sandía has its place. It serves its purpose. But Sandoval's place is not my place, his purpose not my purpose. He has made a beautiful restaurant, but in this case -- as in all cases -- pretty ain't enough.

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