#24 - Mizuna
I don’t know about you but the boyfriend and I have what we like to call date night, in which we go out to dinner at a special place and pay a lot of attention to the fact that we’re going out to dinner at a special place. This is funny to me because actually we eat pretty well pretty often. It doesn’t take much for us to decide, for example, right after we’ve picked up groceries at Marczyk’s in Uptown, that we’re hungry, and that we should just grab a little something before heading home, and then we’re sitting at an outdoor table at Beast & Bottle ordering charred octopus crostini and pappardelle with braised lamb shoulder ragú on a Wednesday night. It happens.
Date night is a little different because typically we pick places we’ve never been. The most recent was Mizuna, where we ate last Friday night, and it turns out Mizuna is a perfect spot for date night. It’s one of those wonderful little restaurants where everything is perfect, on purpose, and you get the feeling that it’s been that way always and will continue to be that way forever.
Frank Bonanno opened Mizuna in 2001 and now he’s got one million restaurants in Denver (or, like, ten). If you’re interested in the food scene in Denver, you have to pay at least a little bit of attention to Mr. Bonanno. I heard him speak a couple of weeks ago at F**k-Up Nights Denver at Globe Hall, in which local movers and shakers tell a brief story about failure. He talked about opening a restaurant in the suburbs that flopped, largely, it seems, because he cooked great food without paying attention to what that audience wanted, which had a lot to do with ranch dressing and Diet Coke. I especially admired a comment Frank made during the Q&A session, when he explained that he strives to be a business owner who helps the people who work for him succeed. Later I read that eleven Bonanno Concepts employees have gone on to open their own restaurants since working for Frank. It’s hard to imagine a better measure of a restaurateur’s success, in my book.
We experienced impeccable service at Mizuna. We like to talk about big topics during date night, and at one particularly intense part of our conversation, I noticed our server approach the table, see in a second that we were in the middle of a moment, and walk right by, giving us the privacy that moment merited and returning just two minutes later, when it was clear we’d moved on to a lighter topic. I mention this because a couple of months ago, at a restaurant much higher on this year’s 5280 Best Restaurants list, our server approached our table and started talking when Jay was mid-sentence, and not just mid-ordinary-sentence but mid-heated-sentence during an obvious almost-argument. I’ve only eaten at Mizuna once, but I get this impression this would never happen there.
Our meal was top-notch, too. We began with the famed lobster mac-and-cheese, which Jay was shocked I wanted to order because generally I dislike macaroni and cheese. (Sorry, America.) This one, though, was my kind of comfort food—decadent in flavor but restrained in size, with perfect pieces of tender lobster swimming in a rich and creamy sauce, not too thick, in a delicate bowl. I saved a piece of my dinner roll to sup up the remaining sauce, because I grew up in Alabama and my momma taught me well. We liked but did not love our second appetizer, the beet lasagna, which was more creative but less spectacular than the mac-and-cheese. The beets were worthy of admiration but overshadowed by the stronger flavors of our other choices. (Not everything can be the favorite, after all.)
The dish we’ve talked about the most since this meal is the venison, photographed here, which was served rare, in tender medallions, bathing in a black currant sauce with these delightful little Gruyere ravioli. This is the dish I studied carefully to make sure Jay wasn’t eating more than his share. Each bite was an examination of flavors—this one just a piece of meat, this one the Gruyere, this one those combined, with a tiny morsel of currant on top. My uncles used to hunt deer in the woods near my grandma’s house, and I tried some of their venison a few times. It was always served well done, like a thinner steak burned black on the edges, or as dried strips of jerky, never something I asked to try again. This was nothing like that. We sighed after most bites. I’d eat that dish again right now and also tomorrow and probably the next day. (We had the pan fried arctic char, too, photographed below, which was served with squash and kale and huckleberries. Delicious.)
Mizuna is the 24th restaurant on this year’s 5280 Best Restaurants list. I find this fascinating, because last year it was #13, but for the five years before that it was ranked in the top 6. The top six! (Check that nifty little box for the specifics.) That is a notable run near the top of one this city’s most distinguished guides to quality dining. I am guessing Mizuna’s lower ranking on the 5280 list has more to do with the rabid growth of the Denver dining scene in the past couple of years than any change in the restaurant’s quality. Perhaps it’s a victim, too, of being so good for so long at a time when other fine dining and even casual restaurants are focusing on splashier cooking. (Side note: Mizuna is #13 on the latest 50 Best Restaurants list from Zagat Denver, which you may scope here. Bonanno's Luca is at #10 on that list.)
Regardless, Mizuna wears its prestige well. We felt from the moment we entered that we were in an exceptional restaurant. I think a lot about how a place creates and maintains that energy, that ambience. The easy answer is by being excellent, but this kind of feeling requires more than just quality: it requires an attention to detail Mr. Bonanno and his team have clearly perfected.
I wonder what degree of digital marketing is necessary for a restaurant that’s been one of a city’s best for more than a decade. (We made a day-of reservation for our 8:30 p.m. table, but that’s not terribly unusual for fine dining in Denver right now.) I also wonder how the Bonanno Concepts team juggles marketing for all ten of its distinct businesses. Four days ago, the Mizuna Instagram posted info about a cocktail-paired pop-up dinner tomorrow night at Mizuna, $135 per person, but that dinner’s not listed on the Mizuna Facebook page and I couldn’t find it via a quick Google search. That doesn’t matter much, really: two days ago, Mizuna cocktail mastermind Austin Carson Instagrammed that just one seat for that dinner was left. I don’t know this for sure, but I’d venture that the Mizuna and/or Bonanno Concepts e-mail lists are robust enough to fill most seats at just about any pop-up or special dinner.
This brings me to a piece of advice. As I’ve worked with small businesses here in Denver and in New York City, I’ve been shocked and dismayed by how many of them pay almost zero attention to building an email list of friends and fans and customers. A carefully managed email list is one of the most powerful marketing tools out there, much more important and effective than garnering a bunch of Facebook likes. If you’re ignoring this tool, you’re making a mistake.
The Bonanno team does a great job of keeping Frank and their restaurants in the local news. I come across the Bonanno Concepts name often, and it seems like Frank’s always being featured in a new event or interview. Here’s a recent Q&A with him that’s insightful and fascinating. (Also, call us if you want to talk about that market idea, Mr. Bonanno.) He’s even got a blog that’s updated with some regularity, an admirable feat for any business owner, much less one with an empire of neighborhood gems.
It’s too early in this little eat-at-all-25-restaurants-on-the-5280-Best-Restaurants-list adventure for me to say with certainty whether I’d rank Mizuna higher than #24, but I’ve got a feeling the answer will be yes. It’s only right that I eat there again sometime soon to be sure.
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Summary: Top quality fine dining with perfect service, great spot for date night, flagship of the Bonanno Concepts family