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Motif Jazz Cafe reopens in stunning new space, short only of fine-tuning

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Chef Skip Curtis' miso soup lacks the dish-defining umami. - RILEY BRATZLER
  • Riley Bratzler
  • Chef Skip Curtis' miso soup lacks the dish-defining umami.

After a year's downtime, Motif is back, bigger and, in many respects, better.

The jazz club went on hiatus after six years at 2432 W. Cucharras St. in Old Colorado City, parting ways with the former co-ownership that's now behind the Venue32 special event facility in that spot.

Motif owner and former music teacher Steve Draper, who'll occasionally join guest musicians onstage for a song or two, has designed this new space at 182 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd. (just west of Nevada Avenue) with the finest international jazz clubs in mind. Having played many, he's borrowed from what's worked and avoided pitfalls. For example, at New York's legendary Blue Note — setting for a notable 1990 gathering of Oscar Peterson, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, culminating in a live album I repeat-played through high school — Draper says audience members will shush and stink-eye one another for talking and disrupting the music.

"Here, I don't want that," Draper says. "People can have conversations without disturbing the musicians, and it's not so loud like in the old Motif."

The folks from Stargazers lent a hand, as did an acoustical engineer who works on performance centers globally, adding elements like heavy curtains, carpet and booth material that absorb sound. Immediately, guests will notice dramatic curvy walls, particularly behind the bar, with few sharp corners and a low, black ceiling. Pendant lights hang stylishly above curve-backed burgundy booths and a flexible assembly of two-top tables for solitary couples or group gatherings. The stage commands attention from all angles — it's a bar and eatery too, but Motif's a show club first and foremost.

"We crammed everyone in a corner before. It was terrible, and you couldn't fit more than a trio." Today, a full piano occupies its own portion of the stage, with ample room for a full drum kit and multiple players. "Now, the sky's the limit," Draper says.

First and foremost, Motif Jazz Cafe is a spot to catch live jazz, and for that it's a treat. - RILEY BRATZLER
  • Riley Bratzler
  • First and foremost, Motif Jazz Cafe is a spot to catch live jazz, and for that it's a treat.

Indeed, during the two evening shows we catch, the musicians put on energetic performances. Colin Trusedell, Stefan Flores, Kim Stone, Wayne Wilkinson, Brad Bietry and another half-dozen or so locals will rotate through with various set-mates and groups they either lead or play pickup gigs with. Draper says that patrons can thank the Air Force Academy for the plentiful list of current and retired "A-players" who stock our city.

There's no cover charge to catch a show, only that you know where to find the somewhat-hidden club, tucked out of street- and mostly parking-lot-view behind Walter's Bistro. Non-jazz enthusiasts should still hit Motif if simply seeking a meal or drink, but know that the food menu's fairly limited. Before 9 p.m., a single prix fixe menu, $55 a person, easily sharable if you're not too hungry, delivers five courses (each available a la carte too) plus a bonus bowl of rosemary-cayenne cashews, ambitiously dusted with coarse dark sea salt but nicely herbaceous and scantly spicy.

After 9, a few more items come on: fried potatoes, sliders and "po-boy bites." Only four wedges, basically half a big russet spud, arrive for $6 (ouch), but garlic-Parmesan seasoning at least sings alongside a piquant dip. Music Meadows Ranch (i.e. Westcliffe's Sangres Best Natural Beef) partly composes the sliders, otherwise listed with pork belly, but the percentage of that in the grind can't be much given how generally dry and un-fatty the two basic mini burgers chewed.

The po-boy, in full form, will later lead the charge at the Motif Sandwich Shop, a daytime function of the club from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays (set to launch in a month or so). But here, a "sampling" of thin baguette segments hosts a layer of "premium" cold cuts, Provolone, mayo and a "secret relish," which Draper later discloses by phone as a chow-chow Southern pickle relish variant. The tangy pop on the pleasantly simple sandwich briefly reminds me of a muffaletta's olive tapenade influence.

But back to the main menu, titled "Journey From East to West" this month (it'll rotate), it arrives upon a small bowl seemingly used as a charger plate on the place setting, but used for nothing whatsoever and left down during the whole meal. A cup of miso soup follows the cashews, a bit bland and lacking umami. Then comes a peanut-topped mango-beef salad, I'm guessing Thai larb-inspired, fresh with cabbage crunch and mild chili heat. It's fine, but also falls shy of full flavor with a not-very-gingery, ginger-lime vinaigrette, needing punch from something like fish sauce, more citrus and mint; even the mango lacks sweetness somehow.

Next up, braised bacon rice heads in another New Orleans direction as close to a dirty rice, but with bacon joining elements of the holy trinity (instead of chicken liver or gizzards). It only needs a little salt, we surmise, to shine. But then another off-key dish: a beautifully cooked and flavorful salmon segment (a steep $15 considering the portion) confused by the clashing flavors of a beurre rouge-like sweet blackberry sauce and underlying Lebonese [sic] tabbouleh, exuding citrus and parsley. Either alone would have worked great, but together they clashed.

Motif Jazz Cafe's prix fixe menu will rotate on a regular basis. - RILEY BRATZLER
  • Riley Bratzler
  • Motif Jazz Cafe's prix fixe menu will rotate on a regular basis.

Finally, a Motif S'more bills itself as "roasted, smoked chocolate mousse" but what's best described as a basic brownie shows up, not light and airy like a whipped "mousse" nor bearing any detectable hint of smoke. I'm wondering if it's a misprint (it's not, I realize upon ordering it a second time), but don't entirely care because it's a hell of a brownie, a little softer-centered on the second visit, deeply rich with a marshmallow creme and salty, hardtack-channeling house graham cracker garnish.

I would, however, advise chef Skip Curtis, whose resumé includes work at The Martini Hut and Trinity Brewing Co., to pen the menu more carefully for those who are sticklers for accurate description. I'll also say to stick with it, because the dishes overall felt a couple touches away from dialed in, understandable out of the gate in a new space.

Which leads us to the bar, and another menu I'd re-write, on account of descriptions like "this citrus and herb margarita is both timely and delicious." Yeah, well, it's called the lemon basil margarita so I'd hope it's got citrus and herb and I'm not sure what makes it "timely." My vote: Employ words to tell me what's actually in the thing, starting with what tequila's used.

Charismatic and charming bartender/manager Jean-Paul Devarenne — who, awkwardly, misidentifies himself as a partner in Motif, as well as a couple other local businesses, and claims to have consulted for the TV show Bar Rescue — says through a thick French accent that some of that menu mystery is intentional. But when we move from our table over to the bar to chat with him, he's happy to talk all about the drinks and make a show of constructing them, even if it's paused a couple times to handle other tasks.

On our first visit, we found our drinks decent, but all out of balance in the finishes. That margarita needed more simple syrup or agave or whatever and wasn't basil-y or worth $12. A Hendrick's gin Bee's Knees led with strong honey up front and a boozy back. A Prohibition-era Scofflaw rendition with Chartreuse shows best, usually using Bulleit Rye, but we test Breckenridge Bourbon in it for a local option (and surprisingly don't suffer an up-charge for it).

Visit two, it's almost a totally different story and the drinks fare roundly well. Instead of the common, lazy olive juice for a dirty martini, we receive a Tito's vodka spiked with Madagascar sea salt and a touch of St-Germain in the smooth Motif Jazz Martini. A Hemingway Daiquiri made with Havana Club white rum, fresh grapefruit and lime, and Luxardo Cherry Liqueur, similarly drinks light, easy and enjoyable. One of Devarenne's barmates then makes us a fantastic Alipus mezcal drink, less smoky than most mezcals, mixed with reposado, agave syrup and bitters with a Hawaiian salt rim.

Lastly, Davarenne completes what he calls a Boulevardier, relating a history of the drink counter to what I later read online, plus it usually only has three ingredients. What we get is an absinthe-rinsed glass with French Bastille whisky, barrel-aged Peychaud's bitters, Fee Brothers Orange Bitters, egg white, and touches of St-Germain and Maraschino cherry juice, garnished with a burnt blood orange peel. For as complicated as it is, it's quite good, whatever you opt to call it.

For whatever confusions and missteps we've encountered, at no cheap price, we depart at the very least impressed by Motif as a fine music venue. When the food and drink undergo fine-tuning for consistency, it should jell into a memorable performance.

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