The Bite

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Big night: There wasn't an empty table at any of the dozen restaurants I visited on Thursday, October 11, during the Dine Out to Help Out fundraiser -- and it sounds like that was the case at many of the several hundred participating eateries around Colorado. In fact, the state was one big party. "It was a remarkable evening," says Mel Master of Mel's Restaurant and Bar (235 Fillmore Street). So was the fare cooked up by head chef Ben Davidson, including seafood crème brûlée and foie gras "two ways" (hot and cold). "There were people here I'd never seen before, and everyone was just in the highest spirits," Master continues. "You could really tell that it wasn't just another night out."

Many Denverites started out the night at the Oxford Hotel (1600 17th Street), which celebrated its 110th anniversary by offering party guests some fabulous snack items, including unlimited oysters on the half shell (and since the food came from McCormick's Fish House and Bar, which runs both a dining room and corner bar in the hotel, you know they weren't those lukewarm cheapies, either). The Denver firefighters who stopped by were a big hit, too, even if we couldn't get them to try on the flag-emblazoned T-shirts that the hotel presented them, or secure a commitment that they'd support a 2002 firefighter calendar (hello to you, Mr. March 2001). And they certainly helped get everyone in gear for the day's cause: relief for the victims of the September 11 tragedies.

Although the final numbers aren't in, by all accounts Dine Out to Help Out was a huge success. "You never imagine the extent to which this will bring out the very best in people," says Adde Bjorklund, whose Bistro Adde Brewster (250 Steele Street) was filled to overflowing with generous folks who engaged in enthusiastic conversations with total strangers at the next table. "But if we needed any proof that this country is going to stick together, all you had to do was stop in a restaurant tonight."

Even before Dine Out to Help Out, I'd heard from many readers who wondered how Denver's Middle-Eastern restaurants were faring. "Given the complicated state of attitudes toward people of Middle Eastern origin lately, I'd like to try to support Afghans or other Middle Easterners who live as contributing members of our community," wrote Sheila Addison. Unfortunately, I didn't have any Afghani-owned eateries to suggest: The only one I'd ever heard of, 1,000 Nites, closed not long after it opened at 9955 East Hampden Avenue back in 1995.

Another reader, Terry Schack, was looking for any Middle Eastern restaurants. "I'm worried that these places are going to be hurting for business," he wrote. "I hope you can print a list of where we should go to make sure they stay afloat." In the past, I haven't made a secret of my favorite Middle Eastern restaurants, including Phoenicia Grille at 727 Colorado Boulevard. The area around the University of Denver is also better known for cheap, ethnic eateries than trendy, upscale places such as Coos Bay Bistro (see review above); two of the more popular are Pita Jungle (2017 South University Boulevard) and Jerusalem (1890 East Evans Avenue). Both offer excellent Middle Eastern food -- and Jerusalem offers that food at almost any time of the day or night.

But when I called several Middle Eastern restaurants to ask how business was going, owners and employees alike asked that I not include their restaurants on any list -- or mention their own names in a story. "I just want my regular customers," says the owner of one Middle Eastern eatery. "I don't want any trouble." Like other restaurateurs, he noticed a significant drop in business just after the September 11 attacks, but since then, things have picked up -- even if they're not nearly back to normal. "I think that's a result of the economy," he adds. "Everyone is saying they are slow, regardless of the type of food or ownership."

At Pita Jungle (which Sam Kraydie recently sold to Yossef El Madhun, who promises to keep the same menu and homemade pitas), employees have been impressed, and some moved to tears, by their customers' support. "People have come in and said, 'I specifically came here to make sure you have business,'" says one server. "They want to know are we okay, have we been affected by this, has anything bad happened here. And nothing bad has happened. Only good, only this amazing good."

Pita Jungle was one of a dozen businesses that participated in a September 26 luncheon at DU sponsored by the Iliff School of Theology; the school had hoped that about 2,000 people would come to sample Middle Eastern food and join in prayers from the Islamic, Buddhist, Jewish and Christian traditions. "We got well over 2,000," says Rebecca Laurie, DU's senior media-relations specialist. "It was just an incredible thing, with everybody really being into it."

The school hasn't yet decided if it will reprise the event. In the meantime, most of the eateries involved -- including Damascus (2276 South Colorado), House of Kabob (2246 South Colorado), Aladdin Cafe & Grill (2594 South Colorado), Blue Nile (2337 East Evans) and Casablanca Moroccan Restaurant (2488 South University) -- say they not only received positive feedback about the event, they also got some new customers. "I can't tell you how rewarding it has been to have people come in and make a point of saying 'We are at war with terrorists, with a certain group of people, not a religion or a country,'" says one Jerusalem employee. "We had been holding our breath a bit."

Garden parties: Pat Perry says she's still getting used to the idea that October 22 will be her last night as a regular restaurateur -- but she's excited about all her new plans for Highland's Garden Cafe (3927 West 32nd Avenue). Earlier this month, Perry announced that the popular seven-year-old eatery that fills two connected Victorian houses in northwest Denver will be turned into party central, with the gorgeous rooms converted into private dining areas, each featuring unique touches. (The upstairs "banister" room, for instance, will have a fireplace.)

"I think people are really looking to entertain more, but in a smaller context," Perry says. "We just weren't able to accommodate all of the calls we had for small, intimate, private parties, and that got me wondering if there was a market for that. I have really been worn out; it's been such a volume issue, and we really haven't had time to step back and think about where we want to go from here. I have felt like a hamster, just run, run, run, and now I want to do it better."

Perry's coming up with a rental fee for each room, based on the number of people it can hold and the average check for a Highland's meal, offset by the amount the group spends on food and drink. "Everything will be set up in advance," Perry explains. "People will know what entrees they are getting and what wines. That way diners can work within their comfort level." She also plans to institute monthly "senior days," when people can bring their favorite senior, or seniors can come in groups and eat from the regular Highland's menu. And one weekend a month, the restaurant will be open for dinner. "I'll send out press releases in advance, and once we start them, it will be a regular thing they can count on," Perry says. "That way, I'm not going completely cold turkey."

So far, she adds, her staff has responded very positively -- but friends and family are still skeptical. "Then again, when I said years ago that I wanted to open a restaurant with a huge garden, they rolled their eyes and changed the subject," she says, laughing. "I think they might have been wrong about that, too."

Ch-ch-changes: Fins Fish House (550 Broadway) closed for several days last week to get its act together, including implementing the ideas of new staff members who recently jumped ship from Roy's of Cherry Creek (3000 East First Avenue). Now on board at Fins is executive chef Robert Esposito and head sushi chef Brandon Konishi, as well as manager Laura Patterson. "Hey, Roy's is doing so well, it's about time they shared a little," kids Fins business manager Janette Giardino. (Roy's is actually a client of the seafood wholesaler Reel Fresh Fish Company, which is owned by Fins owner Tony Barone.) "We've been in such limbo for a while with management," Giardino adds, "and we were having a lot of problems with consistency from the kitchen. So it wasn't so much that Tony decided to clean house as it was that we really needed some quality people in place to make this happen."

Patterson will share management duties with Christopher Aguiniga, who was hired a few weeks ago as part of Fins' reorganization. And Esposito and Konishi have already revamped the menu, retaining the popular fish tacos and fried-fish sandwich but adding an international roster of fish dishes. The half-price sushi happy hour still goes from 3 to 6 p.m. daily.

A few blocks from Fins, last year's hot-hot-hot new restaurant, Sacre Bleu (410 East Seventh Avenue), has changed ownership. Julie Payne sold the place to her ex-husband, Michael Payne, who bought the eatery in order to save it. Although no new general manager has been installed, Sacre Bleu's original sous chef, Hamilton Cowie, is now the head chef, and he's already introduced a new menu.

When I reviewed the restaurant ("Good God!" July 13, 2000), I praised the old menu but made fun of the overheated bar scene. According to Cowie, all that's in the past. "You wouldn't believe how having Michael here has changed the whole atmosphere of the place," says Cowie. "It's really been cleaned up, and the cocaine and all the other bad stuff is gone. It got a little bit out of control, but Michael has just jumped in here with his sleeves rolled up, and the morale has gone through the roof."

Before rejoining Sacre Bleu, Cowie had been at Restaurant Kevin Taylor (1106 14th Street), at the time overseen by chef Sean Yontz (who's now at Tamayo, 1400 Larimer Street); he also worked at Potager (1109 Ogden Street), which marked a turning point in his growth as a chef. "I was only there for seven months," Cowie says. "But I learned three years' worth of skills."

Those skills came in handy when he created Sacre Bleu's new menu. "We'd been doing French with Mediterranean influences," he explains, "and although we're still thoroughly grounded in French, we're also doing a lot of Asian-type stuff. I hate to use the word fusion, because that's so overused, but we are doing some mixing of cuisines."

Even more attractive than the new menu may be Sacre Bleu's newly lowered prices. "I think people were intimidated," Cowie says. "And there's no question that the state of the economy right now and all of the uncertainty means that we're going to need to be competitive." Cowie has also improved the bar roster, a small list of tempting tidbits that will be available after the dining room shuts down at 10 p.m. on weekdays and 11 p.m. on weekends.

Good idea: Having food to focus on may keep people out of trouble.

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