A few months ago, I went to a local restaurant’s funeral. Today, I attended a birth.
Ace, whose motto is “Eat • Serve,” is a new, highly-anticipated restaurant from three very successful local now-officially-restauranteurs. It’s got a delightfully tacky, yet refined aura and it’s primarily in the business of cooking and serving inexpensive Asian and Asian-inspired food. By square foot, though, one could argue it’s equally as invested in its table tennis backroom; a dozen-ish tables are available by the hour and will make waiting for a dinner table on a busy night much more tolerable.
Today, they opened for the whole wide world at 11 a.m., and at 11:02 a.m., I walked in and became Ace’s first real customer. They were as delighted to tell me of this distinction as I was to receive it. I love Ace’s sister and next-door neighbor restaurant, Steuben’s Food Service, and was intrigued by the new concept.
The space is in an old, truly massive garage (isn’t every new restaurant nowadays?) and sits on a busy Uptown corner. The cavernous space has been smartly divided into an outside area (with Phoenix-style misters), a drinking bar, a foodservice bar, a dining room, and, of course, the ping-pong hall in the back. The whole place is expertly designed and instantly attractive. You don’t feel like you’re in an airplane hangar, but it could have easily felt that way.
I asked the hostess for a seat with a good view of the action. At 11:04 a.m., I ordered a highball cocktail with some gin, grapefruit juice, and mint. It was a great morning drink, and it was strong, Steuben’s-style. At around 11:20 a.m., the slightly later early-adopters started to pour in. I’m sure the place will be swamped when the weekend arrives.
I ordered a char siu pork bun ($4), shrimp dumplings ($5), kimchi ($2), and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce ($5). Each was from a different section of the menu. I knew they’d be concerned with a million things on opening day, so I just told the server to bring things when they were ready.
About halfway through my meal, and after I’d had a chance to try all the items, a man stopped by my table to say hello and ask how things were. “Great!” I chirped, not wanting to be that guy who’s an obnoxious giver of advice to professionals. But this gentleman, who turned out to be Jeff, the GM, specifically asked for feedback. What a guy! The necessity for and value of immediate feedback from customers is crucial, I think, with a new place, and it was obvious he wanted actual feedback, not congratulatory platitudes. As an excited and experienced diner who’s proud of Denver’s foodscape, I appreciate that more than almost anything. So here’s what I told him, combined with what I should have told him if I’d thought of it at the time.
- Pork bun: beautiful presentation and colors; significant dryness issues with meat; please tell me that was not a wheat bun
- Shrimp dumplings: limited flavor; no textural/structural contrast; love the dim-sum-style delivery container; mealy wonton
- Kimchi: refreshing and pleasantly spiced; bolder move would include more ferment-y funk
- Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce: enjoyable deep, rich flavor; loved contrast of textures; tiny serving size for such a low-cost greens dish
The food will no doubt improve—probably swiftly. The servers will remember to tell people what the two mystery condiments are and the menu typos will disappear.
I think the problem of the shrimp dumplings—which Jeff admitted were one of the most difficult items—can be solved creatively with a little roaming dim-sum cart. It would be manned by one person and would serve the menu’s four dim-sum dishes seconds after they’re prepared. The roaming cart could easily fit through the dining room’s wide alleyways and its driver could leave a little token or sign or slip at the table, indicating to the waiter that another item should be billed. For people with no dim-sum experience, that would be an exciting treat, and it would help inch the average check up, too.
Ace will be a winner. In table tennis, that’s definitional, actually: an ace is always a winner.
I think seriously and often about my own future restaurant, so it was fascinating to attend this opening, just as it was to attend the last day of service at Encore. The pride was evident at both places, but the sadness about Encore’s unrealized potential was mirrored today by the green ambition at Ace.