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Community Garden Spot

Warning: If you are under thirty, unbelievably gorgeous, hip and charming, a wine taster and wearer of a 100 percent cotton T-shirt in basic white or black--or if you desperately want to be any of the above--the following food-related opinions will mean nothing to you. What you want is a beautiful meal, in a beautiful setting, surrounded by beautiful people. The beautiful food should come accompanied by artistic garnishes and cool words, like "pan-seared" and "minted" and "sushi grade," and should taste...reasonably okay. More than that you cannot ask, and why should you? Anyone who says he didn't feel the same way at your stage of life is lying. So just throw on some baggy jeans--yeah, with the hint of navel showing--arrange your hair into perfect imperfection and stroll down to Potager for your next meal. You'll love it.

In fact, it is hard to imagine a more perfect neighborhood gathering spot than Potager. Stripped down to the bare husk of whatever old warehouse the space was before, the restaurant's walls are pocked with old drywall scabs, exposed brick and lovely yellow lights. The bar and ductwork are brushed aluminum, the tables spare blond wood. All the linens and plates are simple white. The only other adornment is the atmosphere, a cross between neighborhood funk and neighborhood hip--a few mismatched chairs, an old couch, dried flowers, magazines hung from the rungs of a ladder, and lots and lots of cool-looking people, including tables full of duplicates of the entire cast of Friends. Although the main dining room is spare and high-ceilinged, it is not one of those noisy spaces where diners have to begin screaming as soon as they sit down. Somehow, it stays quite refined, with jazz playing in the background.

From the front entrance, at night, Potager glows. From a bar stool on the inside, there is an incredible view of Capitol Hill loonbags, old and young, all of whom seem to be walking to or from Alfalfa's or the corner liquor store. From Potager's garden in back, you see (and smell) nothing but flowers, vegetables and fresh herbs.

With its intense, enveloping, community feel, Potager is reminiscent of one of the old Mercury Cafes--if the Merc had just spent a month at a health spa and hired a closet organizer.

Potager even shares the Merc's healthy interest in fresh, seasonal offerings. The menu changes with the seasons, in line with the philosophy espoused by the restaurant's name--Potager translates to "kitchen garden." In a kitchen garden, August is supposed to be a month of burgeoning ripe tomatoes, peppers, squash and melon--and more of just about everything but lettuce than any gardener can use. But last week, when I visited, Denver had weathered not just a hailstorm, but three weeks of Seattle. If there were any ripe tomatoes in a hundred-mile radius, they had to have come from a Limon greenhouse or an obscure farmer's market I wish I could find. Potager's garden was shredded and ravaged, just like everyone else's. But the fact that the fresh herbs had sustained a major hit didn't explain the strange, pervasive lack of flavor in many of the dishes we tried at Potager. Nothing tasted as good as it looked--although it always looked like something Monet would paint.

Potager's menu is small and selective, which meant our foursome could order nearly half the dishes on the dinner menu. While waiting for the appetizers, we snacked on excellent French bread from the Full Measure bakery and sipped wine by the half-glass--a wonderful concept that caters to people who like to try new wines almost as much as they dislike driving home schnockered. The first starter to arrive was a skewer of lemongrass-and-coconut marinated shrimp ($7.95) artfully arranged on a slick of "spicy peanut vinaigrette." The six shrimp were grilled and yummy. They did not, however, taste even faintly of lemongrass, coconut or peanuts. The same unadorned fate befell the steamed mussels ($9.25), which were allegedly influenced by garlic, ginger, red bell peppers, fresh tomatoes and cilantro, but recalled nothing so much as nice, fresh mussels in plain sea water. But the sushi-grade tuna and rice cake ($8.50) hit the mark, since high-quality tuna should never be a big tastebud-assaulter.

More complex flavors finally arrived in the roast bell pepper and fresh mozzarella terrine ($7.50): succulent layers of peppery pepper and creamy cheese spiked by a balsamic vinaigrette and loaded down with fresh basil leaves. And the hits continued with two entrees that arrived out of left field, islands of down-home meat dishes in a sea of arugula. An order of oven roasted chicken ($12.95) brought a half-bird piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives, and full of great surprises--like a layer of goat cheese next to the crisply roasted skin and a lump of perfectly soggy bread stuffing. The BBQ roast pork tenderloin ($14.95) looked like it had been clawed from the grill by a grizzly, and the tender meat was intensely flavored with caramelized onions and chile. But what was up with the "sweet corn souffle" served on the side? Although it looked rather grand--it had the shape of a Yoplait container--it tasted like the Jolly Green Giant's creamed corn, which ain't bad, but isn't exactly a souffle. Still, we had to applaud the rib-stickingness of the meat dishes.

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