Dining

Reviews: Shazz

High-quality—and high-priced—eco-friendly food in northwest Denver

August 2009

Shazz
4262 Lowell Blvd., 303-477-1407
(out of 4)

The Draw An ever-changing menu committed to seasonal and organic ingredients, served in a casual, come-as-you-are environment.
The Drawback The noise level can make conversation difficult, and prices are high for the in-transition northwest Denver neighborhood.
Don't Miss The creative cocktails, gazpacho, fresh orecchiette pasta, almond-fig semifreddo.
Vegetarian Options While the menu lists vegetarian dishes such as fava bean risotto, opt to order the pasta dishes without meat.

In a more generous world, an ambitious young chef would have pocketfuls of cash with which to launch his first restaurant. Corners would never be cut. The phrase "trade-off" would never be mentioned. Everything—from location to decor to the maître d'—would materialize in high definition, exactly as the chef envisioned.

But money is a scarce resource, and almost every new restaurateur has to compromise. Ultimately, the success or failure of a restaurant often depends on whether the correct trade-offs were made.

With Shazz, the latest addition to northwest Denver's booming dining scene, 31-year-old chef-owner Benny Kaplan didn't have the budget for a high-traffic LoDo location. Instead, he chose a nondescript storefront on a bleak stretch of Lowell Boulevard near 44th Avenue. Though the next block is anchored by the refabbed Billy's Inn and longtime staple Café Brazil, Shazz sits across from a gas station. This, on its own, is forgivable; some of the best restaurants in Denver—Solera and Bistro One—pop up in unlikely locations. What may not be forgivable is that Kaplan charges as if Shazz were located in LoDo or Cherry Creek North.

Shazz is small—12 tables—and it's conspicuously casual: burnt orange walls, cement floors, second-hand wooden tables. The wear-whatever vibe suggests coffeehouse more than cuisine. All this casualness is often accompanied by ear-piercing noise levels. One recent evening, a woman at a nearby table announced her pregnancy, and the congratulatory squeals momentarily halted all surrounding conversation.

Fortunately, our dinner arrived soon after, and we refocused our attention where Kaplan focuses his: on the food.

Shazz's menu—like many other newish restaurants—adheres to the trifecta of local, seasonal, and organic. But unlike spots that embrace this philosophy more as eco-marketing than true eco-consciousness, Kaplan is sincerely committed. He only uses meat and produce from small local businesses: beef from River Ranches Beef in Steamboat Springs, produce from Grower's Organic in Denver, flour from Rocky Mountain Milling in Platteville. Then, he prepares these ingredients in such a way that they take center stage.

Glance through the menu and you'll see heirloom tomatoes and heritage eggs, English peas and morel mushrooms, house-cured bacon and fresh rabbit. Most of Kaplan's dishes are straightforward—the five ingredients listed on the menu are the five ingredients you'll see on the plate.

Simple doesn't mean boring, however. Among Kaplan's more enticing starters are the pan-fried halloumi cheese, a rectangle of salty sheep's milk cheese fried to a golden brown and served with briny caperberries and fresh herbs. And the gazpacho is a celebration of summer, with a gorgeous purée of multicolored heirloom tomatoes thickened with a trace of heavy cream and poured around a small stack of diced cucumber, red onion, hard-boiled eggs, and sourdough croutons.

The orecchiette is also noteworthy, with delicate half-moons of pasta folded around chewy morels, salty cubes of pancetta, and a light touch of earthy white truffle oil. Because everything at Shazz is made to order, it's easy to ask for the pasta dishes without meat. I'd recommend this over the vegetarian entrées, especially the tempeh Napoleon, a misguided attempt to elevate soybean cakes to nouvelle cuisine. Although Kaplan sauces the dish with a goat cheese, spinach, and ricotta blend, I'm more convinced than ever that tempeh belongs inside the backpacks of the Rainbow people.

Kaplan's commitment to minimalism extends to his entrées. My favorite was the grilled bone-in rib-eye, whose juicy meatiness was offset by bitter spring ramps, sweet bursts of baby tomatoes, and a salad made from herbs and small sourdough croutons. On the lighter side, the pan-seared halibut ringed by smoky bacon aïoli was accompanied by crunchy haricots verts and topped with a fresh egg ravioli that, when pierced, sent warm yolk over the entire dish.

But Kaplan errs when he breaks his own buy-it-local-and-keep-it-simple rules, as he did with the seared skate wing with basil tapioca. The dish was unappealing on many fronts—the breaded wing was too dry, the tapioca too pasty, and the gill slits too visually prehistoric for my taste. Happily, such mistakes are rare.

If you keep your attention on the food, you'll likely be satisfied. But when you tally up the food-ambience-location equation, you'll find Shazz's high prices hard to justify. You expect to shell out big bucks for a steak at the Capital Grille. But $35 for Shazz's rib-eye feels like a stretch in a noisy restaurant that fronts a dingy strip mall. (By comparison, high-end beef dishes at Root Down, Duo, and Venue—other northwest Denver hotspots—top out at $27, $24, and $21, respectively.) Of course, fresh and local cost more than canned imports, and the high prices at Shazz may be worth the decreased carbon guilt you'll feel eating here. But in this economy, guilt only loosens your wallet so much.

While I understand compromises must be made and first-time restaurateurs don't always have the choice of tony real estate, they do choose which numbers follow the dollar sign. More reasonable prices would lower expectations and make Shazz the kind of place you'll want to return to over and over—which is exactly what the food deserves.