Category Archives: Media

Sandoval at La Sandia — In Person

Just last week, Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehen took Richard Sandoval to task for having become too distant from his numerous restaurants. He was named Bon Apetit’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2006, but now his restaurant group operates Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandia in Denver; Maya in New York, San Francisco and Dubai; Zengo in Washington, DC; Pompano in New York; Isla in Las Vegas, and another La Sandia in Tysons Corner, VA. Five more restaurants will open soon in Mexico City, Acapulco Chicago, Scottsdale and San Diego. That’s an overloaded plate, and Sheehan noticed.

Setting the backdrop for his review of La Sandia, Sheehan wrote, “Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of…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 that going in….As a chef, I can’t help but be impressed by his menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint…[but] I’m not a chef anymore. And what might have once 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.”

Yesterday evening, I went to La Sandia for the second time. Previously was for lunch with friends, and it was fine — a little programmed, but fine. The space is attractive, every item dishes was very nicely presented (a Sandoval signature), the guacamole was good, and the tortilla soup and house salad made for a nice, moderately priced lunch. There was a sterility to the place, partly because it’s in the NorthfieldStapleton “village” which alone equates to sterility, plus La Sandia occupies a fairly large space, and very few of us were in it. Still, because I enjoy Tamayo so much, and I was ready to return to La Sandia at dinner, to see what other dishes were like.

Last night, I did. New York-based Richard Sandoval Restaurants hosted a small media dinner, complete with tortilla-making demonstration, and Richard Sandoval himself (top photo) was there to do a little demonstrating and a little Q&A with writers. Outstanding watermelon mojitos, and regular and hibiscus margaritas were passed around before the demonstration. Then, we sat down at a very long table set with baskets of tortilla chips, three-legged lava bowls with guacamole and little bowls of roasted tomato salsa. The waiter took our orders for a choice of “Mexico City-style” tacos, which means on soft, freshly made corn tortillas. The offerings are from the regular dinner menu.

I picked the grilled chicken, which was cut into a rough dice and well cooked — perhaps a tad too well, because it was no longer moist. Grilled slivered vegetables and a small bowl with two sauces (a light and a dark presented in sort of a yin/yang fashion but not easily identifiable) were came on a hot platter. On the side were a small plate of rice and black beans and a basket of napkin-wrapped tortillas to make the “fajita-style” tacos.

Maybe it was because I’d drunk two mojitos, or eaten entirely too many tortilla chips with guac and salsa, but my taste buds wouldn’t hook onto anything. The textures were pleasing, but something was missing in the taste department. Dessert was churros with hot chocolate for dipping. The chocolate was thin (maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be), but didn’t have much taste either. What I really like about Tamayo is the interplay of strong, distinctive flavors. I didn’t find them last night. Like the Northfield/Stapleton venue, it was all watered down and bland. The Cafe de Olla (made with decaf coffee on request, orange zest, cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican dark brown sugar) was so delicious that it made me almost forget the empty flavors that marked the rest of the meal.

We were told that Sandoval visits Denver about every six weeks and hosts events in various cities. I asked whether the events were all for the media or whether some were open to the public too. I didn’t get a real yes or no answer. Sandoval is an engaging man, one who has created awesome food elsewhere. I just haven’t found it at La Sandia. Neither, FWIW, did Jason Sheehan.

What Makes a Great Food City?

Tucker Shaw, the Denver Post restaurant critic, posed that question today in an essay called “Do Clientele or Chefs Make a Good City? Weigh In.” He wrote about five foodies from five different cities (New York, Boston, San Francisco, Amsterdam and Denver) chowing their way through San Francisco and discussing, among other wide-ranging topics, whether talented chefs or an appreciative, knowledgeable dining public that makes a city great for food.

He wrote, “It made me think about Denver, and I wondered: Are we, as an eating public, truly dedicated to food and restaurants? Are we demanding enough? Are we willing to spend the time and money that’s required to encourage our chefs to ever-higher heights? Do we have enough desire and commitment to spur our food scene to a nationally relevant level E-mail me and let me know what you think about the state of Denver dining, and what we, as customers, can do to improve it.”

I think I’ll answer here.

It takes good, creative chefs and talented restaurateurs, of course, but in my opinion, the people who go out to eat are the ones who make or break an individual restaurant and even a city’s collective restaurant scene. Denver has some wonderful chefs, and some really fine restaurants. But it’s a challenging city for talented chefs and fine dining. I think often of Sean Kelly’s poignant comment when he was ready to morph the exquisite Clair de Lune into the more casual Somethin‘ Else. On many weeknights, he remarked, there are more people in line for the restrooms at the Olive Garden than at the tables of his dream restaurant. He has now gone corporate and is no longer in any restaurant kitchen.

Kelly isn’t the only first-rate chef to have ridden the roller coaster of Denver’s highs and lows. Kevin Taylor has had some noteworthy successes (Restaurant Kevin Taylor and two Prima Ristorante locations) and some disappointments (Nicois and Dandelion). Food & Wine Magazine Best New Chef Bryan Moscatello pulled up stakes when Adega closed and moved to Alexandria, VA, where I understand his Indigo Landing is packing ’em in — just as Adega did not long ago. Fellow Best New Chef James Mazzio left the Front Range for Illinois, but luckily for Denver diners, is now the top toque at Via Ristorante, where I hope he stays for a long time. Jon Broening cooked his way north from Colorado Springs to Denver, where he turned culinary heads at Brasserie Rouge, but it also abruptly shut. He now is entrenched in Duo, which I also hope lasts a long time with Broening at the helm.

As long as Kelly’s observation remains true, Denver will not be a first-rate dining city. There are too many national chain restaurants, especially outside of the downtown/LoDo core, Uptown, Cherry Creek North, northwest Denver and a very few other pockets of fine and interesting food. Some of those good-food enclaves have “parking issues,” and some people just won’t dine anywhere that doesn’t have a convenient parking lot (or perhaps valet parking). With sprawl comes an automatic dilution of good dining, because chains also value convenient parking.

Shaw and his foodie friends picked New York and San Francisco as America’s top two dining cities and bandied about what the others might be. New Orleans, Portland (OR), Miami, Seattle, and Washington, DC, seem naturals. Los Angeles and Houston were also suggested. LA, which benefits from cultural diversity and a lot of show-biz, show-off money, and Houston whose sprawl makes Denver seem compact, excepted, the contenders are all geographically tight. They feel sophisticated and lively, which Denver is also becoming, now that so many people live in urban neighborhoods.

If I could help speed the process, I would. If I could wave a magic wand and make every local outpost of a national chain evaporate, I would. Of course, if I could hypnotize the entire city to make Denverites and their visitors avoid these “concepts” where corporated-planned meals are served, I would do that too. And then, only then, would Denver have a shot at being a top food city.

That’s my opinion. Share yours, either here or at www.denverpost.com/foodcourt.

Dining When There’s No "There"

Gertrude Stein famously observed, “The trouble with Oakland is that when you get there, there isn’t any there there.” In today’s Denver Post, restaurant critic Tucker Shaw turned his attention to La Sandia. This nuevo Mexican restaurant in the Northfield shopping area is operated by the talented Richard Sandoval whose Tamayo is a Larimer Square favorite. Shaw wrote that he was surprised to hear a 9:00 p.m. last call from the bar on one Friday night, his party of four being immediately seated on another Friday evening and an again empty restaurant in the middle of March Madness that he speculated might been because basketball addicts stayed home or visited places with big-screen TVs. “Each time, the discernible lack of clientele was a bummer,” he wrote.

I had lunch at the also almost-empty La Sandia a few months ago. Like Shaw, I thought the food was terrific and the decor appealing. “It was easy to lose myself in these dishes,” Shaw wrote of La Sandia’s beef barbacoa sopes and beef skewers (with and without bacon and sausage), “and forget about the cavernous space, which, if it were a little more busy, would be quite beautiful.”

One topic on which Shaw and I disagree is the mix-it-yourself guacamole. He thinks that for $6.95, someone should mix it for you, but if you are dining — as I did — with fussy eaters, the notion of mixing your own has a lot of appeal. If someone can’t eat onions, doesn’t like anything spicy or doesn’t care for cilantro, it’s OK. The table can still share an order of guac.

For my part, I was sad, but not surprised, by the emptiness when we ate there. Like Stein’s Oakland, Northfield doesn’t have much “there” yet. The attempts at a New Urbanism town center are sincere, but the curvy streets, the back-of-beyond parking lots and the total cleanliness and “managed-ness” of the place have an Stepford quality to them. The designers and managers have certainly tried, planting street trees, installing attractive street furniture and creating all the Disney-ish trappings that try to tap into nostalgia. Boulder’s 29th Street has a little of this same quality, but it benefits from being surrounded by Boulder. Northfield is at or near the northern end of the old Stapleton Airport’s runways and is surrounded by a lot of emptiness. I prefer more authenticity, vitality and grit to my environment.

I hope La Sandia survives, because it does dish up good food (and the parking out back is free), but I think I’ll return to Tamayo or try Zengo, which I’ve never visited, next time I want a hit of Sandoval’s cuisine.

Farewell to Mel’s

Mel’s to Close in Cherry Creek North

Singers planning retirement frequently book a farewell tour. Athletes announced their final season of competition. But too often, even treasured restaurants close abruptly, with no time for one, last nostalgic visit. Not so with Mel’s Restaurant and Bar (originally, Mel’s Bar and Grill), a Cherry Creek North eatery at 235 Fillmore Street that is closing on April 28 after 12 years as a favorite in Denver’s toniest shopping/dining district. Real estate issues are the reason that Mel’s owners Mel and Janie Master are shuttering the restaurant, but real estate isn’t what this blog is about. It’s about food.

I’m looking forward to one final visit to Mel’s with a couple of friends for lunch on April 24. If we had deeper pockets, we might have reserved spots for the $90 grand finale dinner that evening that will be prepared by past and present Mel’s chefs: Frank Bonnano, now owner of Mizuna and Luca d’Italia, Goose Sorensen, owner/chef of Solera, Tyler Wiard and Corey Treadway, now at Elway’s, and Chad Clevenger, currently the captain of the kitchen at Mel’s. The 24th is the Masters’ 42nd wedding anniversary, which somehow fitting. On the 28th, Chef Chad prepares popular dishes for Mel’s final curtain. If you want to attend one of these specials, or just wish to have a private last meal at Mel’s, call 303-333-3979.

Instead of going into deep mourning, the Masters, including their son, Charles, have already opened instant-hit Montecito at 1120 East 6th Avenue and plan Montecito South at Orchard and Holly. Executive chef for Monty North and Monty South, which is how the Masters refer to this California/Mediterranean eatery, is Chef Adam Mali. He was previously owner/chef of the sadly short-lived Restaurant Kody in Evergreen and more recently executive chef at Aspen’s Ajax Tavern. For reservations at Montecito, call 303-777-8222.

In the works, and also under Chef Mali’s culinary supervision, is Annabel’s, projected to open in May at 5960 South Holly Street in Greenwood Village. It will serve “American comfort food.” Annabel’s is named after Mel and Janie’s granddaughter and Charles’ daughter. I’m happy that I’ll have one more opportunity to eat at Mel’s and even happier that the Masters will be keeping Colorado foodies happy and well fed even after it closes — and if naming a restaurant after a grandchild is an indicator, hopefully for years to come.

Cooking Wine? Cheap Is Fine!

I’m not one to take issue with the late, great Julia Child — except I’ve never been able to buy into her dictum, “If you do not have a good wine to use, it is far better to omit it, for a poor one can spoil a simple dish and utterly debase a noble one.” I have never had the heart to “waste” a fairly expensive wine by cooking with it, especially for recipes using a substantial quantity of wine. Julia’s own Boeuf Bourguinon and Coq au Vin recipes for four to six people call for three cups of “young, full-bodied red wine such as Burgundy, Beaujolais, Cotes du Rhone or Chianti.”

When I made Coq au Vin last week, I used some nouveau Beaujolais left over from Thanksgiving (!!!) that wasn’t great to drink then and certainly couldn’t have improved with age. (Disclaimer: One of our guests had brought the Georges Duboeuf liter-and-half nouveau. Only in the best year would this near-jug wine be a good risk for a holiday dinner for a dozen guests, and it was one that we probably would not have chosen.) Still, 3 1/2 months later, no one noticed or complained about the Coq au Vin due to the inferior wine that I used.

Therefore, thank you, Julia Moskin, New York Times food section staff writer, for “It Boils Down to This: Cheap Wine Works Fine” in today’s paper. She laid to rest what she calls “the new gospel: Never cook with a wine you wouldn’t drink.” She cooked four dishes with three kinds of wine from very inexpensive to very dear. Her conclusion validates my long-time contention that wine doesn’t need to be divinely drinkable in order to work admirably in a recipe.

She wrote, “Over all, wines that I would have poured down the drain rather than sip from a glass were improved by the cooking process, revealing qualities that were neutral at worst and delightful at best. On the other hand, wines of complexity and finesse were flattened by cooking — or, worse, concentrated by it, taking on big, cartoonish qualities that made them less than appetizing.

“It wasn’t that the finished dishes were identical — in fact, they did have surprisingly distinct flavors — but the wonderful wines and the awful ones produced equally tasty food, especially if the wine was cooked for more than a few minutes.”

The rule of thumb for recipe success seems to be to use red, white, dry, sweet or whatever called for in a particular dish but not to worry too much about the price tag on the bottle. It’s one I’ve always used.