The earls of sandwich

At Masterpiece Delicatessen, partners Justin Brunson and Steve Allee do some pretty amazing things with a little bread, a little meat, a little this-and-that. Their simplest creations — egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, turkey with pears and cranberry honey — show their command of the artistry of restraint (just enough, never too much), while their more complicated plates demonstrate a high-end, Super Frog cookery gone feral in the service of a soup-and-sandwich board. Their kung fu is strong, no doubt. But where had they learned it?

Word on the street was that Brunson and Allee were chefs — big-hats who'd made their bones under some local heavyweights, though particular names were never mentioned. This struck me as strange, because Denver is still a small town, chef-wise. Everyone knows everyone (or almost everyone, anyhow), and unlike in New York or anywhere else I've ever been, the chefs here seem to have an all-together-now attitude about 90 percent of the time. Guys help each other out. They share crews with a kind of Mormon creepiness (which, no matter how long I live in Denver, I will never get used to). Together they cook at benefits, celebrate their victories — and celebrate their defeats even harder.

And yet, I hadn't heard anything about where the Masterpiece Deli partners had mastered their craft. Before my first meal, I was wondering if all the rumors were a ploy; there are plenty of people who'd claim they sprang fully formed from Thomas Keller's forehead if they thought it would get them some reflected glory. But then I actually ate at Masterpiece, and knew for certain that these boys had done some time. To get the details, I called Brunson and Allee a couple of days after my final load of sandwiches. They were in a lull, working prep for the next morning or just messing around, so Allee said he had plenty of time to talk. And we got right to the heart of things.

"Luca," Allee told me. "That's where Justin and I met." Luca being Luca d'Italia — chef Frank Bonanno's love letter to the long, dreamy, wine-drunk and expensive Italian meals of his fantasies, one of the best Italian restaurants in the city. "Justin was grill chef; I was working on pasta at the time."

And that was it? Just two line dogs thinking they could bail out, make a few sandwiches and live the good life?

Not even close.

Allee, who handles the front at Masterpiece and cooks when he has to, had also spent years at Mizuna, another Bonanno restaurant. "I was kinda like Alex's original protegé," he said, speaking of Alex Seidel, now chef/owner at Fruition, but back then Mizuna's chef. "Alex trained me. I staged under him for a year while I was still at school." Then Allee went around the corner to Luca, where he met Brunson.

For his part, Brunson had opened Zengo with Troy Guard and done line time for Bonnano at Luca, Mizuna and Milagro Taco Bar, back when the food was actually the draw rather than the girls who'd take their tops off after half a margarita. And after that, he'd moved on to Fruition.

On the phone, Allee started running down the lineage of the rest of his crew: Jeremy, who came from Fruition and used to be Pete Marczyk's head cook at Marczyk Fine Foods; Johnny, also from Fruition; Lou, who still holds down a full-time job in the kitchen at Barolo Grill but comes into Masterpiece on Sundays to hang out and sling a few sandwiches for kicks. "It's not just us," Allee insisted. "It's not just Justin and me. It's the crew we have — this great crew."

A crew that could easily reproduce the menus of three of the most successful restaurants in the city. Who could've gone on to open a formidable fine-dining kitchen of their own. But instead? They chose to make sandwiches. Really, really good sandwiches. "Fine dining between bread," Allee told me, laughing. "That's what we want to call it."

And why did they want to do it? "We wanted to do something where we could still play with food but also have a life," Allee explained — going from the lives of line dogs to the lives of owners, from working for someone else to working for themselves, as a break.

And how had that worked out for them?

"It didn't work very well," he said flatly, then burst out laughing again.

In addition to staffing, operating and cooking at their own place, Allee and Brunson also do catering — dinner parties, fine dining, "Mizuna-type food," Allee said. "So we've got our hands in that, too." Oh, and did he mention that, because they had no money when they split out on their own, he and Brunson had to do the entire Masterpiece buildout themselves? Six months of that, then straight into working in a very busy restaurant.

"So, then, are you working harder now as owners than when you were just cooks?" I asked.

"Oh, we're working harder now..." he said.

"Yeah, that's what I thought."

At this point, Allee handed the phone off to Brunson, wanting me to reassure his partner that everything had been good, that I wasn't about to kneecap them in print. And that's what I did, telling him the review was a complete crush note and how, at its best, Masterpiece feels like you're hanging out with a bunch of chefs at home, at a party, and all of a sudden they decide to start making sandwiches out of whatever excellent stock is lying around. I told Brunson how I'd been worried about the whole chefs-open-sandwich-shop rumor, how I was concerned that the specifics of their background were never mentioned. Apparently, that's because no one had asked for the specifics. "I like to say we're all chefs in God's eyes, dude," Brunson said, and he was laughing, too.

Since their business is about to go from popular to insanely popular, they might want to talk to God about sending a couple more cooks their way. And if not God, then maybe Alex Seidel.

Leftovers: In the Masterpiece Deli neighborhood, rumors were rampant that the recently vacated North Star Brewery space at 3200 Tejon Street had already been snapped up by Joe Vostrejs, Jeff Hermanson and Rod Wagner — the Larimer Square gang, in part, and the crew most recently behind the resurrection of Billy's Inn, at 4403 Lowell Boulevard. So late last week, I put in a call to Vostrejs, who was more than a little surprised to hear from me.

"Man, the rumor mill must be going full-tilt," he said, stammering a little. "That's not supposed to be out there yet..."

But because it was out there (and because Vostrejs is a gentleman when it comes to these things), he told me that the rumor is true: He and his partners had picked up not just the brewpub, but the entire building. "We have the building under contract and are doing our due diligence," he explained. This acquisition will get them some retail space and three apartments in addition to North Star. And though no tenant for the restaurant space has yet been identified, Vostrejs knows it's just a matter of time.

"Hey," he said. "Maybe once you put it out there, my phone will start to ring."

Consider it done.

Down in LoDo, even though chef Scott Durrah and wife Wanda James (a political activist and a member of Barack Obama's Colorado finance team) were pushing hard to get their new 8 Rivers location, at 1550 Blake Street, open in time for the DNC (check out the August 15 Cafe Society blog for details), they didn't quite make it. Too bad, because Durrah's award-winning Caribbean/Jamaican cuisine would seem a perfect fit for summer. Now it looks as though he's banking on a mid-September opening. Meanwhile, a few doors away, at 1526 Blake, Blake Street Vault did manage to open its doors this past week.

And finally, a bit of good news for those as depressed as I am over the coming "revitalization" of Alameda Square. Several of the great little businesses that operate along the long edge of the Square (namely, Super Star Asian and Pho 99) will be temporarily relocated during the tear-down and construction, but then welcomed back once the dust settles. Brighton Corp., the company behind the redevelopment, will allegedly foot the bill for this round of dim sum hide-and-seek, but there's no word yet on exactly where these businesses will be relocated — or how many will take the developer up on the deal.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan