Chef Michael Long of Opus Restaurant is talented, ambitious, audacious, clever, artistic, passionate, quick-witted, impossibly energetic and maybe just little bit nuts.
I had suspected so, after a couple of anonymous visits to his restaurant on Littleton Boulevard, but I didn’t know for sure until several weeks ago when he sent me an e-mail with a crazy, wonderful idea.
He wanted to create a feast. A monumental Colorado feast.
And he wanted me to come.
Invoking the now-legendary 31-course meal created three decades ago at Paris’ Chez Denis by revered Chef Claude Mornay for New York Times food critic Craig Claiborne and celeb-chef Pierre Franey – a decadent feast of foie gras, truffles, sweetbreads, and taboo orlotans that was so decadent (and so well-reported) that the Vatican called it “scandalous” – Long said he wanted to create a similarly elaborate, extravagant circus of a repast, 30 courses in all, each constructed from Colorado ingredients.
After all, if they could do it in Paris in 1975, can’t we do it in Denver in 2007?
Surely he was kidding. What sort of manic chef’s folly was this? And did Colorado really have enough unique ingredients for 30 successive courses?
But Chef Michael wasn’t kidding. The idea, the challenge, was irresistible to him.
Who was I to stand in his way?
After a few e-mails and phone calls back and forth, we made peace with my imminent loss of anonymity and the implications thereof (i.e., I wouldn’t be able to review Opus in my normal under-the-radar way). And we settled on a date: July 23, 2007. Just a few days before Aug. 1, Colorado Day.
Chef Michael would shutter Opus for the night, set a single table in the middle of the dining room, and, with his best kitchen team and best front- of-the-house folk along for the ride, transform nuggets of Colorado’s bounty into a luxurious culinary marathon of 25 courses – whittled down from 30 in deference to the assembleds’ digestive systems – for six extremely lucky guests.
Dinner began just a little after 6 p.m., with a glass of sparkling Shiraz to whet our collective appetites. (I had skipped lunch, so my appetite was already whetted.)
I stalled a little before sitting down, looking for respite like a child at the head of the line for a scary thrill ride or theme-park roller coaster, excited and apprehensive all at once. I knew that once we started, there’d be no stopping.
And there was no stopping. The dishes arrived, one and two at a time, a steady, fast and furious flow of one intricate dish after another.
A savory crisp-skinned Colorado trout filet draped across miniature cast-iron pans over a “campfire” of cinnamon sticks. Vibrant fried green Colorado tomatoes with an acidic tomato jelly. A soothing hot pot of Colorado striped bass in a borage-scented broth.
Summery squash blossoms from Opus’ own organic garden, stuffed with Haystack Mountain goat cheese, deep-fried and served with a saffron-lemon sauce and balsamic vinegar that had aged 30 years. A supple deconstructed raviolo of Colorado beef and MouCo camembert.
The pace was unrelenting; just as a breather presented itself, the next dish would materialize.
Woodsy scotch-poached salmon fillets cloaked in locally grown dill. Bitter Colorado eggplant with sultry smoked fontina. Comfy Colorado chicken with earthy morels. Sun- soaked Colorado corn chowder gilded with saffron.
Two and a half hours in, we were still eating: Creamy liquefied Caprese salad. Zippy Colorado broccoli and cheddar tart. Petite Colorado beef burgers with crunchy Greeley pickles. Gamey Colorado moose under sharp- sweet mole. Refreshing Colorado mead sorbet.
It went on: Meaty chicken-fried Colorado lamb. Local wheat pasta with savory Western Slope garlic and peppery arugula. Soulful high-plains antelope braised in Colorado wine. Buttery hazelnut-crusted striped bass.
And on: Golden Colorado egg yolk, sunny-side-up. Sticky-sweet Colorado honeycomb. Tangy-spritzy Western Slope apricot, stuffed with languorous foie gras. Meaty Colorado yak carpaccio with lilting Tunisian spices and opulent pomegranate molasses. Grounding borscht of Colorado beets.
And on: Delicate Colorado rhubarb tart under a crumble of pistachios. Soft baked Palisade peach. High-country corn pudding dotted with house-made caramel popcorn.
Oh, and wine. Sommelier David Jackson plucked juice from the cellar to match each course, mirroring chef Michael’s whimsical precision with his choices: A subtly vegetal Domaine Wachau Grüner Veltleiner from Austria with the fried green tomatoes. A soft Emeritus pinot noir from Oregon with the chicken and mushrooms. A bracing Alsatian Gunderloch Riesling with the foie-gras stuffed apricot.
And of course, plenty of Colorado wine: Sutcliffe pinot gris. Creekside Cellars cabernet sauvignon. Creekside moscato port.
I knew I’d be asked to pick a favorite from the riot of bites that swept past my palate, and I knew it would be impossible. It would also be beside the point. Even if each dish were its own gem of a different color, the exercise wasn’t about the parts, it was about the whole.
(OK, fine. My favorite was a tie between the hazelnut-dusted striped bass and that chicken-fried lamb. And while we’re on the subject, that liquid Caprese salad, a valiant creative reach, was gooey and gross.)
Regarded from a distance, or at least from the semi-reclining position I found myself in as I slumped my way through the last bites of corn pudding, I had no doubt that Chef Michael had succeeded in his dual missions.
He’d cleared his own high bar, producing an astonishingly daring dinner, and he’d proven beyond question the possibilities that burst from the wealth of ingredients we Coloradans have under our own noses.
When I stumbled out the door six or so hours after sitting down, spent and sated and semi-conscious, I knew I’d just participated in a never-before, never-again, crazy- wonderful piece of art.