Frank Bonanno of Mizuna Denver

Frank Bonanno, the acclaimed chef behind Denver's Mizuna and a half-dozen other restaurants. Courtesy photo.

In the world where chefs are celebrities, Frank Bonanno holds his own — in Denver and the U.S. His lobster mac ‘n cheese won a Food Network challenge a few years back, and he’s seemingly always on the radar for an esteemed James Beard Foundation nomination for his work as both a culinary guru and restaurateur extraordinaire.

Not to mention his Bonanno Concepts consists of six of the more popular restaurants in Denver — with a seventh offering, Russell Smokehouse, slated to open this fall. The cuisine he pushes out ranges dramatically in style and price point.

There’s the tony Italian eatery Luca d’Italia, the small plates happy hour gem Osteria Marco, the Japanese fusion noodle house Bones, the swank cocktail speakeasy Green Russell, the paté house Lou’s Food Bar and Wednesday’s Pie that cares about one thing — pie.

But it’s a little obvious where his heart truly lies, with Mizuna. This Governor’s Park staple has been serving some of the best French-inspired foie gras, veal, lobster, lamb and aforementioned lobster mac ‘n cheese for the last decade.

“Mizuna is the food that I absolutely love,” he says. “To me, maybe because it’s the first one, but I love what we have been able to accomplish in the last 10 years.”

Always Evolving

Bonanno and his marquee restaurant haven’t become complacent with its early successes. The menu continues to stay fresh, and the last four years have brought an increased attention to what is now one of Denver’s premier wine programs.

“Wine is the soul of the food; it enhances it,” Bonanno says. “It can bring you to a different feeling while you are eating.”

But only if the right wines are on the list, which is why Mizuna is one of just a handful of Denver restaurants that employs a full-time sommelier.

“One of the biggest changes for us was the way we looked at our wine,” Bonanno says. “We brought in a sommelier. With that, you have the ability to do more boutiquey, better wines because you have someone who can explain them.”

And find them. (The Mesa Park 2006 Cabernet Franc, for example, an estate wine that landed an exclusive spot on the wine list earlier this summer).

Adding cases of often hard-to-find selections showcases Mizuna evolving on the beverage front, which helps the ever-evolving menu and the restaurant itself stay atop the city’s culinary mindset.

It also highlights the savviness of Bonanno, who continues to churn out acclaimed restaurants that fill seats nightly. Ten years ago, he won diners with his culinary prowess. Now he’s banking his success on his other attributes while letting trusted employees make major decisions regarding food, spirits and wine.

“I’ve changed,” he says. “I don’t cook as much as I would like to. I still cook quite a bit, but I have had to take a real role as father and confidant. I mean there’s 300 people in the company.”

A Tough List to Crack

Hence the wine program being left, almost solely, in the hands of wine director Lynn Whittum. Bonanno needs a world-class wine list and understands the importance of having a dedicated cork dork to do the heavy lifting.

From a winery’s perspective, this is a blessing in many ways, but that extra attention to detail means an experienced and dedicated palate paying a lot more attention to what goes on the menu — and what doesn’t. To put it simply, getting a bottle on the Mizuna wine list is about as easy as finding a restaurant that serves more than an obligatory Colorado wine on its menu. It’s a competitive process.

Whittum identifies a need — a sauvignon blanc wholesaling for about $25, for example — and lets upward of 18 wine reps know about it. Then, it’s a taste off. Whittum, Bonanno and several staff members will often take part, sipping on more than 60 selections to figure out which one makes the cut.

“It’s not an easy thing to get a placement here,” Bonanno says. “Bring (Whittum) something thoughtful, bring her something good. You could taste 64 wines just to get one.”

Mesa Park’s 2006 Cabernet Franc did just that. Mizuna needed a Bordeaux-style red that could sell on the list for under $40 (the Franc is on the list for $38). Sixty some-odd came through the door, and the Cab Franc was the last standing.

“It beat out 60 other wines in the category; she likes it,” Bonanno says. “We truly do it because she thinks it’s the best wine for the spot.”

Not bad for a small, 500-case operation from Palisade.

“Being a vineyard owner is a dream come true for me,”  says Chuck Price, proprietor and winemaker at Mesa Park Vineyards. “I was a student in San Luis Obispo in the late 70s and did a senior project in college about owning and operating a vineyard and winery — it didn’t happen at that time.  Now, I have retired from a career in aerospace and find myself in the wine business with my family 30-plus years later. Getting one of my wines on such an exclusive wine list tells me maybe I should have made the jump much earlier.”

Mizuna Nosh with Mesa Park’s Franc

Try the Mesa Park 2006 Cabernet Franc with the Boneless Quail Pastilla appetizer (a delectable starter with marcona almonds and a Tempranillo demi glace) or any beef, pork or lamb entrée on the menu. Bonanno points to the braised lamb shoulder with white beans. “It’s a good hearty wine it has some of those characteristics of a Bordeaux. It holds up to all those same flavors.”