Owner Steve Horwitz "medicates" the food by cooking with butter… (Cyrus McCrimmon / Denver…)
Reporting from Denver — At the Ganja Gourmet, the chef's first order of business on a recent weekday morning was to whip up a meat lasagna.
Her next was to entice customers to try it.
"Dinner Buzz Special," Jenny Fowler wrote on a dry-erase board. "Start with our ganjanade [ganja tapenade], bread and a fat dank joint! Then choose from a slice of pizza or LaGanja [lasagna]. Then top it off with a Ganja Gourmet dessert, your choice, $30."
This, pronounced owner Steve Horwitz as he watched over her shoulder, was a dinner special no other restaurant in America could claim.
Technically, the Ganja Gourmet, in a modest brick building on a worn boulevard among gas stations, hookah shops and antique stores, is not a restaurant -- it is a medical marijuana dispensary, one of many that have sprung up this year throughout Colorado.
Nine years after voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, state health officials decided in July to end a five-patient limit for marijuana suppliers. The numbers of both registered patients and dispensaries have exploded.
At least 15,000 people have applied to join the 15,800 already on the state registry of patients. Although no official tally exists of the number of new dispensaries, dozens have opened -- so many that Westword, a Denver newspaper, hired two critics to review them.
Horwitz decided to join the rush. He had an idea for standing out: emphasizing "edibles."
"I already knew I loved to eat pot," said Horwitz, a 51-year-old Long Island, N.Y., native who said he has used marijuana since his teens to cope with attention-deficit disorder.
The self-described food connoisseur quickly drew up a menu that would go beyond the requisite brownies found in other dispensaries. He hired two cooks, ending up with a menu that includes balsamic-vinaigrette-dressed greens, white-sauce pizzas, tapenade, hummus, lemon meringue tartlets, cheesecakes and muffins (low fat), all prepared at an off-site commercial kitchen.
A gleeful Horwitz soon found himself the subject of news articles and Jay Leno jokes ("I understand they make a terrific pot pie!").
But despite orders rolling in for the tie-dyed staff T-shirts -- "Our food is so great, you need a license to eat it!" -- at least half of the customers still come for the "bud bar" where they buy marijuana to consume the old-fashioned way.
Some patients find eating pot more helpful for maladies such as arthritis or muscle problems, said Georgina Livermore of the Oregon-based American Alliance for Medical Cannabis, which promotes the use of medical marijuana. Others simply don't like to smoke, she said.
When eating marijuana, it's harder to control the dosage, she said. It also takes longer to feel the effect -- an issue Horwitz said he addresses by not permitting customers to eat more than one item every 45 minutes.
"It's a different buzz," Horwitz said. "A much more awake, alert, hyper buzz."
His chefs "medicate" the dishes by cooking them with butter or olive oil infused with marijuana. The infusion process can take several days of simmering an ounce of marijuana in one pound of butter or one cup of oil.
The use of butter or oil makes it tricky to develop low-fat recipes, said Fowler, who's also tinkering with recipes for the chocolate mousse cake, paella and jambalaya Horwitz is determined to offer.
"I'm experimenting with the jambalaya," Fowler said. Part of the challenge, she said, is finding the right blend of herbs and spices to mask the pot flavor. She's skeptical about the plan for paella: A whole pot pizza is $89. A seafood paella would be even more expensive, she notes. "Who's going to buy that?"
Last week, Fowler rolled out a new menu item -- baba ghannouj, served with pita bread -- to the approval of its first customers. "They loved it," she reported.
On a recent morning, business was slow, with only a handful of customers. Jason Cisneros, 32, a construction worker, arrived with his medical marijuana registry card in hand to purchase some goodies to help relieve back pain from a work injury. He bought brownies in three flavors -- coconut, Heath bar and German chocolate.
Sometimes, it's just easier to chow down than to light up a bong, he said. "It's more relaxing at the end of the night. You just eat the brownie."
Next came Jamie Currey, 30, who studied the menu while her companion smoked some marijuana. "I might try the pizza or the salad," she mused as an employee brought out a free order of tapenade, made of tomatoes, olives and olive oil. Her doctor had suggested edibles to help with her chronic nausea and difficulty gaining weight, she said, spooning tapenade onto a triangle of pita bread.
"It's pretty good. It doesn't taste like marijuana," she said, declining entrees: "It's kind of expensive, and it's close to Christmastime."
Such dining in could become illegal in Denver, where city officials are considering an ordinance to regulate dispensaries, including a rule banning the on-site consumption of marijuana.
If the ordinance passes, Horwitz said, he'll just make his restaurant 100% takeout. Most customers take their food home anyway, he added.
Horwitz remains convinced of a bright future; his pipe dream is to eventually ship his creations all over the country.
"I'll be the Omaha Steaks of medical marijuana," he said.
Correll writes for The Times.