During the first months of Mao's existence, developer-turned-restaurateur Jim Sullivan (yeah, the same Sullivan behind Nine75, reviewed this week) probably took more heat than any other owner in town has taken for the opening of anything. Restaurants, check-cashing services, massage parlors. Anything. I mean, the guy plopped a Chinese restaurant named after a murderous, psychotic Socialist despot in the heart of Cherry Creek, ferchrissakes. That alone took some stones, and it was just the start; he got roughed up by the critics for an uneven menu and kicked around in the press for porno in the bathrooms. But did Sullivan throw in the towel? He did not. Twenty months after Mao opened, it's still so hip it can barely see over its own belt buckle, and the food is still nouveau-sushi-bar-and-seaweed-salad chic, with Hong Kong duck in plum sauce, Russian caviar, game hens, long beans and a little French-Asian fusion on the side. While there have been some changes at Mao, most of them have been internal, leaving its public face much the same as the day the restaurant opened (although the portrait of Mao himself is gone). Sullivan deserves credit for staying cool in the face of a lot of tough treatment, for trusting in his vision and his crew, for improving some of those things (like the kitchen) that were honestly in need of improving, and leaving others alone. And while Mao isn't pulling in the kind of numbers that nearby North was this past Saturday -- when I stopped in for a simple plate of tofu that has changed the way I'll think about bean paste forever -- it still had a respectable crowd, a good buzz and a full bar. Although some consider Mao yesterday's news, a meal there is still something to write home about.