Notes from the Local Dining Scene

Boulder sure is a food town. Just go to out to eat, and it’s clear that residents, people who work here but live elsewhere and visitors love to eat out from breakfast to late-night chow. The Daily Camera’s lead story in Monday’s Business Plus section revealed just how much the eating-out scene is worth. According to the piece by Camera business writer Greg Avery, diners in Boulder spend an average $808,347 a day (which he calculated to $561 every minute or $9.35 per second) “on someone else’s cooking.” My husband and I and our friends and guests are happy participants in the dining frenzy. Boulder currently has roughly 465 restaurants, which collectively raked in $295 million in 2006 — up 7 percent from the previous year.

Coming soon, he reported, in the 29th Street retail-plus mall will be the Railyard Restaurant and Saloon (the second location of a Santa Fe eatery), Cantina Laredo (a Dallas-based Mexican chain), A1 Sushi & Steak (that may or may not be related to one in Allentown, PA, which seems to specialize in Benihana-style theatrics), Ruby’s Diner (based, I think, in southern California), Boulder’s third Jamba Juice and Daphne’s Greek Cafe (a San Diego-based chain dishing up Greek fast food). Colorado’s first Daphne’s opened recently at 575 Lincoln in Denver). Thank goodness for Laudisio’s, a locally born and raised, one-and-only in a prominent space at 29th Street.

Thank goodness too for the Cafe Gondolier, which has been dishing up solid, very moderately priced, red-sauce Italian fare since 1960. Ravenous teens and college students fuel up during Tuesday and Wednesday all-you-can-eat spaghetti nights. The original location was at 1600 Broadway, where Khow Thai is now sequestered. Then it moved to a strip mall on 28th Street just north of Valmont (I think La Mariposa is there now). Seven years ago when The Harvest closed, the Gondolier moved again to 1738 Pearl, where it is now hip to hip with Frasca Food and Wine, Boulder’s most acclaimed high-end restaurant. The Gondolier is about to relocate once more, this time to 1600 Pearl, into a space quietly vacated by BD’s Mongolian Barbecue (a Michigan-based chain).

Meanwhile in Denver, Green: Fine Salad Co. has just opened a second store. It seems as if Green’s owns 16th Street as far as fresh salads go. The new one at 110 16th Street joins the original at 1137 16th Street (Skyline Park). Quality ingredients, light-handed grilling techniques turn fresh ingredients into tasty and nutritious food that makes a perfect lunch. In addition to Green’s 11 signature salads, it is possible to mix and match to assemble one’s own.

Something to look forward to is the imminent return of chef Michel Wahaltare to Denver. Amuse by Michel is set to open on May 25 in a private back room and patio of 5 Degrees, a trendy lounge at 1475 Lawrence Street in LoDo. Wahaltere is teaming up with Francois Safieddine, owner of 5 Degrees, to create an uban restaurant-lounge with an international culinary flair in the club.

According to the pre-opening announcement, “the inspiration is from the eclectic neighborhood restaurants, cafes, wine and tapas bars found throughout Europe. Amuse by Michel offers an array of appetizer-sized samplings aside wine and cocktails to allow patrons the leisure of enjoying both food and drink in moderation — there, smaller is better. Here, the traditions of European cuisine meet the flavors of the American market with a menu reflecting dishes from Chef Michel Wahaltere that focus on the simplicity of fine ingredients. Creating a perfect harmony of bold flavors, sophisticated textures and artful presentation, it’s not really dinner, yet it’s more than a snack.” In addition to seasonal dishes, Wahaltere promises such signatures as “grilled asparagus and smoked salmon; almond crusted calamari; potato gnocchi and rock shrimp; mushroom ravioli, ahi tuna tartare; and rigatoni duck pasta.”

As a chef, Belgian-born Wahaltare has a glittering resume, including (in Colorado alone) Campo di Fiore and Mirabella in Aspen, MODA in Denver and Seven Eurobar in Boulder. He is also a restaurant consultant with similarly impressive credentials in that specialty. Plans additionally include the Amuse by Michel Wine Club (no cost to join). Members can join such evenings as Sip Wine on Mondays (25 percent off all bottles under $70), Wine & Cheese on Tuesdays and a monthly tastings called Class in a Glass. For reservations, call 303-260-7505.

Wahaltare was in Boulder too briefly as the culinary force at Seven EuroBar, but his new venture’s name is giving me flashbacks. Amuse was the ambitious but ulimtiately short-lived restaurant that occupied the space 1430 Pearl Street between the long-running Little Russian Cafe and Cafe Girasole (and now the Trattoria on Pearl). James Mazzio was the executive chef at 15 Degrees, also in Boulder, when he was named one of the 10 Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs of the Year in in 1999. Like Amuse, 15 Degrees is no more, and neither is Triana, which Mazzio opened after that. Wahaltare is a fine, creative chef. I hope he is not superstitious about names.

Big-Name Chefs, New Eateries in Minneapolis


I haven’t been to the Twin Cities since Noah got off the Ark, but I’ve been reading a lot lately about the thriving restaurant scene, especially on the Minneapolis side of the river. In fact, I’ve been reading so much about it that I thought I’d share it here, but remember that this posting is informational, not personal. What I like about all this news is that another mid-country metro area has really good restaurants and a populace that appreciates them.

Wolfgang Puck’s 20.21, recently opened in the Walker Art Center, is his first full-service establishment in Minnesota. He brings his sprightly style and his signature Asian-influenced California menu to the great north country. He’s not the first star chef to do so. Less than a year ago, celebrity chef chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (left) opened the Chambers Kitchen in the chic, sleek and sophisticated Chambers Hotel. The restaurant offers art on the walls and art from the kitchen. Foodies can reserve the chef’s table, though J-G himself is unlikely to be presiding

While not graced with such marquee names, but popular nonetheless are Brenda Langton’s Spoonriver and Cue in the Guthrie Theater, both in the booming Riverfront District.
La Belle Vie, Minnesota’s most highly rated restaurant, is getting a run for its culinary money with these new big names but so far is reportedly holding its own. Also, quaint 112 Eatery has has been in Food & Wine magazine as one of the “hot ten,” while Azia and Mission American Kitchen have been cited by Bon Appetit as casual chic spots. Cooking Light noted the Dakota Jazz Club for its heartland cuisine.

The newest kid in town is Chef Todd Stein of Chicago’s heralded MK – The Restaurant. He heads up B•A•N•K, in the new Westin Minneapolis built in and around the historic Farmers & Mechanics Bank building in downtown Minneapolis. Features are locally-cultivated, seasonal ingredients (tricky indeed in Minnesota), an extensive wine display (no trick at all; all it takes is money) and do-it-yourself martini-ing. The bartender invites guests to “enjoy the personal experience of shaking their own martinis” (a gimmick that I predict will either go over big-time or not at all).

Personal Chef Course

Switching careers sometime in mid-life — which can be from the late 30s to the indefinite 60s these days — is a hot trend. Many people who have burned out of whatever they have been doing and who enjoy cooking and baking gravitate to culinary programs, with the idea of becoming a professional chef or even opening a restaurant. Alas, these can be impossible or impractical dreams, perhaps in the case of the former because of the hours, intensty and rigors of working in a restaurant kitchen are too much, or in the case of the latter because the financing for a new business just isn’t there. Being a personal chef is another option for a career in the culinary field — one that can combine the creativity and satisfaction of cooking every day with the financial benefit of doing so in someone else’s kitchen.

To that end, Denver’s Cook Street School of Fine Cooking offers a personal chef course in its professional curriculum. I know it’s short notice, but an open house is scheduled for tomorrow to introduce the US Personal Chef Association personal chef course. The date is Monday, May 7. The time is 6:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. The place is 1937 Market Street. If you can’t make it tomorrow but are interested, contact the school for more information on the course.

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.

Jacques Pepin to Appear in Denver

Jacques Pepin, an eloquent, elegant French chef with true celebrity status in the culinary world, is coming to Denver for two intense days to promote his newest book, Chez Jacques: Traditions and Rituals of a Cook ($45), published last month by Stuart, Tabori & Chang. This most recent of his 20 books is both a visual stunner and a sentimental journey. It is partly an art book featuring 200 photographs and some of the chef’s own paintaings, partly autobiographical and partly a cookbook with 100 of his favorite recipes. Even though he had been the personal chef to three fussy French heads of state, including Charles de Gaulle, he became a public figure in this country when he co-starred with the late Julia Child on the award-winning “Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home” television series on PBS.

Denver has been high on M. Pepin’s radar screen, since his daughter, Claudine, moved to the Mile High City. She co-owns and operates a cooking school called A Cook’s Kitchen at 850 Ogden Street. In fact, she and her father will host a private cooking class on Monday evening at the school, but it is unsuprisingly sold out. Other Denver appearances on his calendar are:

Monday, May 14
Marczyk Fine Foods, 770 East 17th Avenue
10:00 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
Book signing
Marczyk will prepare a recipe from the book. Therefore, reservations are requested; call 303- 329-8979

Steuben’s, 523 East 17th Street
12:00 noon to 2:00 p.m.
Meet and Greet luncheon and book signing
Reservations at 303-830-1001
Tuesday, May 15
Strings Restaurant, 1700 Humboldt Street
11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Meet and Greet luncheon and book signing
Reservations at 303-831-7310

Tattered Cover, 2526 East Colfax Aveue
2:00 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.
Book signing

Barolo Grill, 3030 East 6th Avenue
7:00 p.m. to 9:00 p.m.
Meet and Greet dinner and book signing
Reservations at 303-393-1040

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.

Outdoor Dining Season Has Started

Six months and 20 days ago, I wrote my first post for this blog, noting that the 2006 outdoor dining season seemed to have ended in Boulder. Although we optimistically uncovered and cleaned the outdoor furniture on our south-facing deck several weeks ago, and although we have grilled on the Big Green Egg, last night was the first time we actually had dinner outdoors. And was it ever nice to look down on the cleaned-up backyard where the last of the tulips were blazing beautiful colors, the grape hyacinths and vinca were showing purple blossoms, and the sweet woodruff’s delicate white blooms contrasted against the green. The trees are leafing out, and the lawn is still spring-green. No remarkable culinary feats here. Just a quick dinner made mostly from ingredients purchased at the Boulder County Farmers’ Market that is now in full swing.

Sunday Night Dinner for Two

Boneless chicken breast from Wisdom’s Natural Poultry, sauteed in butter with shallots, a splash of wine, several kinds of mushrooms from Hazel Dell (Wisdom’s natural chicken breasts are so large that one amply served both of us)
Pasta Bozza‘s pasta
Garlic bread (using a few slices of leftover Breadworks rustic baguette)
Green salad with home-made vinaigrette

Claire Walter's Colorado-oriented but not Colorado-exclusive blog about restaurants, food and wine events, recipes and related news. For address of any restaurant, click on the Zomato icon at the end of the post.