"I've got a big mouth," he said when I got him on the phone after eating at his joint. "I've been complaining about the Indian and the Pakistani food in Denver for fifteen years."
Fifteen years. That's ever since he came here from Chicago, through his years as a salesman, a businessman. James, who is Pakistani, never thought the restaurants in Denver got it right.
Isaac James is also an idiot. Again, I know because he told me so, after I asked what made him leave the relatively comfortable world of sales stats and boardrooms for the highly unpredictable world of restaurants, why he thought that picking up a failing bar in a highly storied location and turning it into a combination English pub and Pakistani/European fusion restaurant would be a smart thing to do.
"Because I'm an idiot," he said, laughing softly. He said it so quietly that I had to make him repeat it. "No, it's good," he continued. "Really. I figured I had this opportunity and said, 'Let's do a proper pub that does the food right.'"
When he opened the Bulldog just over a year ago, it was in the perfect place for a proper pub. The space actually looks and feels like a bar -- not an art gallery, not a nightclub, not a place that could vanish tomorrow and reappear the next day as a toy store or a hair salon without anyone noticing. It's a double-barreled shotgun of a room with the long oak on one side and rickety, high-backed wooden booths on the other that are devilishly uncomfortable until you get a couple of drinks in you, and then they become miraculously snug and comfy. Out front, there's a covered patio just big enough for six smokers to stand without bumping elbows; in the back is a small room where James keeps the dartboards. The space is dimly lit, tastefully decorated in the hand-me-down style of ex-pat pubs the world over, with everything from the signs on the men's room door to the whiskey advertisements hung by the bar looking like they were picked up in a blind lot at a Buckingham Palace yard sale.
Scratch a wall here and it bleeds history. It'll probably bleed decades of cigarette smoke, whiskey sweat and fryer oil, too, but in my world, that's almost as good as history. This spot has been a bar for more than a century. It was the Punch Bowl for damn near forever -- an old boxing bar as famous for the landscapes painted on the booths by wandering artist Noel Adams as for the number of people who'd been carried out feet first. When the Punch Bowl finally succumbed to the cruel gravity of modernity a few years ago, the address went to the Stout Pub, a bar/restaurant that kept the scrim of seasoned age and added a menu featuring the cuisine of the upper Midwest: fried cheese, fried potatoes, fried pickles, fried everything, and beer to wash it down. The Stout Pub hung on for a couple of years, and then James took over.
And James had more than a great space going for him. He'd spent a couple of years traveling the globe and collected a stock of recipes. He also had a really good cook in 26-year-old Thomas Cortez, "just a young guy bouncing around the restaurants," he says, who'd worked in Italian joints and on the line at a California Pizza Kitchen, then done Upper Peninsula cuisine for the Stout's owners for a couple of months before it went under. James decided to keep Cortez on because even though he'd never cooked Pakistani or British food before, he'd never cooked fried pickles and cheese prior to stepping onto the Stout's line, either.
"He went to the food like a fish to water," James said. Which was lucky, because once you've committed yourself to creating the city's first British/Pakistani fusion restaurant, you'd better have a good cook backing you up. And Cortez is damn good, especially considering that he's working from a menu that's almost as schizophrenic as Britain's culinary scene of the past decade. Everyone knows that for a long time, the British were possessed of one of the world's most unfortunate cuisines. Not only was a lot of it fairly unappetizing (clotted cream, digestive biscuits, eel pie), but what wasn't gross was either unintentionally funny (spotted dick) or very intentionally miserly. The British never met a vegetable that they couldn't boil to death, never met a part of an animal that couldn't be turned into some form of thin gruel or grotty sausage. And while food there has done a fast 180 over the past few years -- with London now a dining mecca that's home to some of the most ludicrously overpriced restaurants in the world -- generations of gustatory torture had already convinced those of a gastronomical bent to frequent the country's various ethnic enclaves simply as a way to escape the blood pudding and boiled beef of their forebears. Curry got huge early in Britain. Pita and chutney and samosas, Greek food and French food and Middle Eastern food all became a fall-back to the national cuisine of trotters and eels.