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GARDEN OF EATIN'

Good things come in small packages. And truly exceptional things are coming out of a tiny, nine-table restaurant in northwest Denver.

Reservations have been a must almost from the moment the clumsily titled Today's Gourmet Highland's Garden Cafe opened seven months ago. Its modest size was only part of the reason; many diners were familiar with the work of owners Patricia and Chuck Perry and were eager to follow them anywhere. The couple first gained fans with the original Today's Gourmet, which they opened at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Marion in 1990. Two years later they sold the place to Ranelle's--but not before they'd established a reputation for original cuisine that bordered on the eclectic and relied on the freshest of ingredients. Those are trademarks at the Perrys' new location, too.

"We decided to sell the other one because, as you know, that space is very small," Patricia says. "But I don't know if I would have sold had I known it would take three years to find a new space." After unsuccessful bids for spots on South Pearl Street and in Parker, Patricia--who was determined to fulfill her dream of an outdoor patio surrounded by a garden--ventured onto 32nd Avenue in the Highland neighborhood to look at a house. "Once we let it be known that we were interested in doing this kind of place, houses for sale along that street popped out of the woodwork," she says. "Some of them were so run-down we never could have made them work. But this one was charming."

So it is. And made all the more so by the artwork of two women from Boulder, Barb Fisher and Laura Chappell, whose trompe l'oeil window boxes create the illusion of looking out onto a garden that doesn't yet exist. (Patricia expects the outdoor area to be set up sometime in the spring.) Add a few antiques and dim lighting, stellar service and Purcell's Trumpet Voluntary, and all that's left for the perfect dining experience is flavorful, colorful food--which Highland's Garden shovels out in spades.

Patricia obviously put her years in limbo to good use: Stints at Cafe Paradiso, Philippe's and the Brown Palace have laid a strong foundation beneath her breezy cooking style. At Highland's Garden, she shares cutting-board space with chef Brett Tucker and jane-of-all-trades Corliss Phelps, who's responsible for desserts.

From this crowded kitchen emerges some of Denver's best dining. Rarely do you get the same marvelous meal, though; the menus are created each day and differ from lunch to dinner. They may feature some of the previous day's principle players--pasta, catfish, lamb chops--but in different lineups. The herbs are switched, the sauces altered slightly, the vegetables rotated--all according to what grabs Patricia and crew during their daily discussions with local fish, meat and produce purveyors. This is as close as Denver gets to little old French women wandering up and down the stalls of the market in Montmartre, sniffing lemons and inspecting just-picked parsley.

The result of Highland's insistence on quality is nothing short of ecstasy: The food's nuances and textures stay in the mind for days, like images from Citizen Kane or the sounds of Paul Gonsalves's famous twenty-minute sax solo with Duke Ellington's band. But then, of course, you have to remind yourself that this is just food, for chrissakes.

Or is it? The appetizer of veal sweetbreads ($7.50) was as sensual as any symphony: From the soft, yielding thymus glands to the earthy sliced mushrooms to the cognac-laced cream sauce, the transitions between flavors were so rich and decadent that our throats almost refused the last morsels. A lighter starter of steamed mussels ($6.50) standing upright looked like little soldiers guarding the broth, an austere liquid--white wine, chopped tomatoes and basil--made enticing by the shellfish's own juices. And while the marriage of goat cheese and prosciutto ($7) was the only unsound union we found at Highland's Garden (two such strong components cancel each other out), we still relished them separately, augmented by a lemony vinaigrette and mixed greens.

A regular salad ($4) of the greens was topped with a mustardy balsamic vinaigrette and pepper-coated carrot slices--an altogether ordinary sort of digestive aid. But the soups ($3.50 a cup) were positively stunning: one a creamy, brandy-sweetened lobster bisque containing quite a few pieces of the crustacean, the other a healthy pork posole brimming with hominy, chiles, onions and garlic.

We upped our fat intake with the grilled veal chop ($18) in a cream sauce of leeks, mushrooms and dry vermouth. To make matters worse, the entree was sprinkled with roasted macadamia nuts, which taste like butter and are about as good for you. But who could think of such trivialities as fat grams when the individual ingredients came together like colors in a painting: Each had been chosen not just for its own tone, but for what it added to the final piece. The entree was a visual masterpiece as well, with fresh sauteed vegetables tucked around the edges and herbs purposefully sprinkled about. Vegetables moved to a starring role in the charred yellowfin tuna nicoise ($14), a California-style update on the classic French salad. The customary black olives, green beans, tomatoes and garlic, embellished with capers and roasted new potatoes, sparked up the typically mellow fish.

Although both land and sea are well-represented on each day's handwritten menu, on our two visits we've found the fish preparations more interesting. With the salmon ($13.50), a fillet had been pan-seared until the exterior formed a thin, crunchy crust that kept a sweet syrup of honey and bourbon from saturating the flesh of the fish and drowning out its flavor. Instead, the sweetness, with the honey picking up the bourbon's corny tones, carried over into a smattering of diced mango. (Patricia says she's since changed the fruit to blueberries because she thought the mango made the glaze too sugary; I disagree.) Seafood even appeared with the beef tenderloin ($17.50); grilled scallops somehow held their own under an enormous hunk of beef lathered in a ragout of meat juices and herbs pumped up by portabello mushrooms.

All this impassioned cooking had us primed to hear an inspired dessert list, so we were taken aback by two of the regular choices: the requisite flourless chocolate cake and the creme caramel (all desserts are $4). On our first visit we went with the least-boring offering, an apple dumpling that turned out not to be boring at all. The apple had been spiced with lots of cinnamon and gently swathed in puff pastry before being bathed in a thick caramel sauce; the bundle was warm and inviting--but would have been even better with vanilla-bean ice cream. After our second dinner, we surrendered and wound up scarfing down the smoothest of creme caramels and the lightest of flourless chocolate cakes. If Highland's Garden is going to go the conventional dessert route, at least it takes the high road.

And in the restaurant world, that's certainly the road less traveled.

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